Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future

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This is the first book focused on how to do and use scenario planning - which is one of the most widely used tools in the world for strategic planning, change management, innovation, problem solving, and similar purposes - for social change at the community, national, and global levels. Adam Kahane is one of the world's pioneers and leaders on this topic and he is the author of two bestselling books.

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1: An Invention Born of Necessity

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ON A LOVELY FRIDAY AFTERNOON in September 1991, I arrived at the Mont Fleur conference center in the mountains of the wine country outside of Cape Town. I was excited to be there and curious about what was going to happen. I didn’t yet realize what a significant weekend it would turn out to be.

The year before, in February 1990, South African president F. W. de Klerk had unexpectedly announced that he would release Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison, legalize Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the other opposition parties, and begin talks on a political transition. Back in 1948, a white minority government had imposed the apartheid system of racial segregation and oppression on the black majority, and the 1970s and 1980s had seen waves of bloody confrontation between the government and its opponents. The apartheid system, labeled by the United Nations a “crime against humanity,” was the object of worldwide condemnation, protests, and sanctions.

Now de Klerk’s announcement had launched an unprecedented and unpredictable process of national transformation. Every month saw breakthroughs and breakdowns: declarations and demands from politicians, community activists, church leaders, and businesspeople; mass demonstrations by popular movements and attempts by the police and military to reassert control; and all manner of negotiating meetings, large and small, formal and informal, open and secret.

 

2: A New Way to Work With the Future

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WHEN THE MONT FLEUR SCENARIO EXERCISE ended in 1992, I was left inspired and also uncertain. It was clear to me that the exercise had contributed to creating change in South Africa, but it was not clear to me whether or how this way of working could be used in other contexts. In which type of situation could transformative scenario planning be useful? To be useful, which outputs did it have to produce and which inputs did it require? And to produce these outputs, which steps were essential?

These questions set me off on an exploration that I have now been on for 20 years. After I moved to South Africa in 1993, I sought out opportunities there and elsewhere to work with people who were trying to address tough challenges. I found colleagues, and together we worked on many different projects, on different challenges, of different scales, in different countries, with different actors, using different methodologies. These experiences gave me many opportunities for trial and many opportunities for error, and so many opportunities for learning. Gradually I found answers to my questions.

 

3: First Step: Convene a Team From Across the Whole System

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THE FIRST STEP of a transformative scenario planning project is to enroll a team of people from across a whole system who want to—and together are able to—influence the future of that system. This system can be a community, a sector, or a country: any social-political-economic whole that is too complex to be grasped or shifted by any one of its parts.

The political, economic, and social situation in Zimbabwe has been extremely problematic. Different domestic and foreign actors have seen the situation (what is going on and why and with what consequences) entirely differently. The result has been years of polarization, violence, and stagnation.

In 2010, six Zimbabwean leaders—two businesspeople, two university vice chancellors, a labor researcher, and a church leader—decided to convene a transformative scenario process to help get their country onto a better path.1 Each of these leaders was broadly respected, and they had a range of political histories and sympathies among them.

They thought through which sectors of Zimbabwean society—which political parties, government entities, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations—they needed to include in their process, and which individuals within each sector they would invite to form the scenario team. They talked with key leaders whose political and financial support they needed to initiate the process, including those who could stop the process if they opposed it. They named their initiative the Great Zimbabwe Scenarios Project, a reference to the remarkable 1,000-year-old monument at the site of the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Zimbabwe. They hired a project director, a facilitator, an administrator, and me.

 

4: Second Step: Observe What Is Happening

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THE SECOND STEP of a transformative scenario planning project is for the scenario team to build up a rough shared understanding of what is happening in the system of which they are part and which they want to influence. They come to this work with differing positions in and perspectives on the system, and so this process requires them to go beyond their established views and to see with fresh eyes. It requires them to see not just their part of the system but more of the whole system. It requires them to open up and inquire and learn.

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala suffered from a genocidal civil war that tore the country’s social fabric to pieces. Out of a total population of 7 million, more than 200,000 people were “disappeared” (killed) and more than 1 million were forcibly displaced. The Guatemalan state was responsible for almost all of this violence and directed almost all of it against the country’s indigenous people.1

In 1996, the government and the insurgents signed peace accords. In 1998, a diverse group of national leaders—a university rector, an indigenous leader, a human rights activist, an ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet minister, two businessmen—initiated the Visión Guatemala project to help the country’s people to think ahead together and so to contribute to repairing the social fabric and to implementing the accords.2 The project was organized in cooperation with the government, funded by the United Nations Development Programme, and administered by the Association of Guatemalan Managers. The initiators chose Elena Díez Pinto to be the project director, because of her professional and personal qualifications and also because she was seen as nonpartisan (one of the initiators said that she had “neither scent nor stench”) and so was credible to all sectors.

 

5: Third Step: Construct Stories About What Could Happen

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THE THIRD STEP of a transformative scenario planning project is for the team to construct a useful set of scenarios about what could happen in and around their system. To be useful, the scenarios must be relevant, challenging, plausible, and clear. Useful scenarios open up and enable movement in the thinking and acting of actors across the system.

The Great Zimbabwe Scenarios team deepened their shared understanding of certainties and uncertainties about the future by talking through their country’s history, the perspectives of invited resource persons, and their own experiences. By their third workshop, held at a hotel next to the Great Zimbabwe monument, they were focusing on two key uncertainties that they thought were essential to understanding the future.

The first key uncertainty was whether the people of Zimbabwe would experience poverty or well-being. The second was whether leaders at different levels in Zimbabwe would connect, engage, and resonate with the people and create cohesion among different groups, and thereby generate collective energy toward attaining societal goals. The team connected this second uncertainty to their most painful, contentious, and crucial questions about political and social diversity and inclusion. The team also thought that they could, if they worked with others, influence the outcome of this second uncertainty and therefore help determine which scenario would be more likely to occur.

 

6: Fourth Step: Discover What Can and Must Be Done

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THE FOURTH STEP of a transformative scenario planning project is for the team to see what their scenarios tell them about what they can and must do. These conclusions may be about actions that they need to take to adapt to things they cannot influence, or about actions to influence things they can. These conclusions may be about actions that they need to take jointly or separately. In this step, the team crystallizes their intentions.

In 2008, Old Mutual, the financial services group that had sponsored one of the South African scenario projects that preceded Mont Fleur, initiated a new project: the Dinokeng Scenarios.1 (Dinokeng is a Sepedi word meaning “place of rivers” and was the name of the location of the project’s workshops.) Many South Africans were confused and concerned about what was going on in their country: the African National Congress, which had been in power since the 1994 democratic election, was roiled by factional battles; the economy was weak, in part because of chronic power shortages; and the public education, health, and safety systems were in crisis. People were keen to talk with one another to understand what was going on and to find ways to contribute to getting the national transformation back on track. Almost all the leaders who were invited to join the scenario team accepted immediately.

 

7: Fifth Step: Act to Transform the System

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IN THE FIFTH AND FINAL STEP of a transformative scenario planning project, the members of the team act, with one another and with others from across the system, to transform their problematic situation. These actions can take any number of forms: campaigns, meetings, movements, publications, projects, policies, initiatives, institutions, or legislation; private or public; short-term or long-term. The activities of this step, more than those of the previous steps, will therefore generally not be able to be foreseen or planned in advance. These activities will furthermore not necessarily be organized by or seen as part of the scenario project as such.

The understandings, relationships, intentions, and actions that the scenario process produced are seeds. Sometimes they fail to germinate, and sometimes they fall on hard or barren soil. Even when they do sprout, they don’t necessarily grow in ways that can be predicted or controlled. So this fifth step, even more than the previous ones, is emergent. The team needs to pay attention to where and how its work is taking root and to cultivate these new possibilities.

 

8: New Stories Can Generate New Realities

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THERE IS NO EASY OR STRAIGHTFORWARD or guaranteed way to transform complex social systems. My own experience of 20 years of working with transformative scenario planning processes has been of producing both failure and success—or, more accurately, of not really knowing whether the processes have produced failure or success. Transformative scenario planning contributes to transforming systems through contributing to transforming actors and their actions. I can now see that this process is not as direct or immediate as I thought it was right after Mont Fleur. Poet Gil Scott-Heron said: “The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things. The revolution—that change that takes place—will not be televised.”1 Transformative scenario planning generates tangible and visible change in the world via subtle, invisible, and nonlinear changes within and among us.

My most instructive experience of these ambiguities in making out the impacts of this work has been in Colombia. The Destino Colombia scenario project was conceived in 1995 but was almost stillborn; in 1996 it suddenly came to life; in 1997 the scenario team held three energetic workshops; in 1998 and 1999 they disseminated their results to the whole country; in 2004 the project was pronounced dormant or dead; in 2007 I heard stories about the project’s continued influence; and in 2012 the president of Colombia announced that it had always been alive and was now the leitmotif of the policies of his new government.2 What I have learned from this experience and others is that you must try to do this work as best you can, but that its failure or success—like most things about the future—cannot be controlled or predicted or even known. The Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita puts it succinctly: “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof.”3

 

9: The Inner Game of Social Transformation

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WE OFTEN TELL OURSELVES that we can succeed in transforming the future through forceful action. Increasingly often, however, we cannot. As the world becomes more complex, with more interdependency and more unpredictability and more actors with power and voice, it becomes more difficult to effect transformation unilaterally. We need new stories.

The story of transformative scenario planning is one of collaboration instead of unilateralism. Most of the projects described in this book were motivated by a need for collaboration. Many of these projects produced hopeful scenarios of increasing collaboration, including “In Unity Lies Strength” in Colombia, “Flight of the Fireflies” in Guatemala, “Portage” in Canada, “Final Dawning” in Sudan, and “Flight of the Flamingos” and “Walk Together” in South Africa. And all the projects employed a process characterized by collaboration that enabled (rather than forced) actors to choose to transform themselves. The example of the Destino Colombia process enabling Iván Duque’s transformation of himself and his situation is only the most dramatic of many.

 

Resources: Transformative Scenario Planning Processes

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THOSE UNDERTAKING transformative scenario planning projects have available to them many options for processes to use in each of the five steps. This page lists the processes referred to in chapters 3 through 7. Other resources are available at www.reospartners.com/scenarios.

• Seek out potential allies

• Identify and enroll a convening team and then a scenario team

• Conduct dialogue interviews of scenario team members and other actors

• Make a project plan and mobilize necessary resources

• Build the project container

• Share and reflect in the scenario team

• Go on learning journeys

• Commission research papers

• Interact with resource people

• Search for structural driving forces

• List certainties and uncertainties

• Choose key certainties and uncertainties

• Construct scenarios deductively

• Construct scenarios inductively

• Write logical narratives of hypothetical future events

• Find metaphors, images, and names for each scenario

• Create pictures that compare and contrast the scenarios

• Document the scenarios in different media

 

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