Adam Kahane, former head of Scenarios at Shell, and pioneer in transformative scenario planning, presents his experience and insight in this wonderful book about his approach of working with the future. The book is about changing the future in a cooperative effort.
He gained his experience during the transition from Apartheid in South Africa some twenty years ago. Working together with people who are committed to construct a better future for their country made him realise how a transformative approach to scenario thinking was a great contribution to the process of bringing change. In the years following, Kahane gradually explored how transformative scenario planning works in various groups. He shares the finesses with us in this very nice book.
Transformative scenario planning can help groups of people who see their situation as unstable and are not willing to carry on. They cannot change their situation on their own, or just with the help of their friends and relatives. The larger political and economic system is too complex for that. They cannot transform their situation directly, but only indirectly through building understanding, relationships and intentions. It is a way to work with complex problematic situations that cannot be changed unilaterally or directly. Local, regional, sectoral, national or global, any scale is possible.
How it works
Transformative scenario planning works by transforming understanding first. The collective synthesis of what is happening and what could happen is articulated. Then new shared understanding enables the way forward. The willingness to work together fosters trust and empathy. They start to see what can and must be done to change their system. As a final step, all this transforms their actions and thereby their situation.
The transformational process builds on Theory U, a group work method to build vision and create the future. It uses an indirect approach, diving deeper (down into the bottom of the U) and peeling off layers to get to the core of the matter. Stepping back from the initial problem and seeing the whole fosters integral understanding of the way up the U and forward into a new future. This is the base of the creative process, of co-creating the new system. The group process of building scenarios and talking about their implications can be framed in the process of the U. According to Kahane, the time frame for this process is ideally four to eight months. And in his words the process is emergent, unfolding, but almost never according to plan.
Five stages of transformational scenario planning
The first struggle is how to convene with a team from actors across the system. The success depends upon the people who make up the scenario team. They initiate the process and they bring it further afterwards. They should be insightful, influential and committed. People with a stake in the future system, respected leaders and systemic thinkers. A problematic group are people who represent the old system. They are influential, but probably resistant to change. With clever people skills and the right allies, a balanced group can be recruited.
The second step is to build up a shared understanding with this group. This process requires them to go beyond established views and see with fresh eyes. According to Pierre Wack, co-founder of Shell scenarios, it is the “breathing in” phase of examining current reality. This produces the foundation of the “breathing out” phase of constructing and disseminating scenario stories. The process of observation takes place in the physical and social setting. Careful attention of what is happening in this context is really important to create the right conditions. The will of the scenario team is leading, and an imposed structure of the organizers should be avoided. The phase of observing has a rhythm of diverging, coming up with ideas, emerging, talking things through and converging, drawing conclusions on what matters and how to go next. It is important to keep your focus on what could happen and not on what you want to happen.
The third step is when the team constructs meaningful scenarios: relevant, challenging, plausible and clear scenarios. They should illuminate current circumstances and reveal important dynamics connected to our thinking. Thus, they should raise questions about current thinking. By being built on facts, people can connect to them. Also clear, logical storylines and distinctiveness helps people to understand the scenarios and use them in their dialogues. There are many handbooks for building scenarios, but basically certainties about the future are the same in all scenarios and the uncertainties take different values in different scenarios. In the deductive method, two key uncertainties are chosen. They have the greatest impact on the system and are the most unpredictable. One or both of them have outcomes that can be influenced by people in the system. The inductive method starts by brainstorming about different scenarios and the most relevant are selected. This intuitive logics technique is less straightforward but can be very useful when the key uncertainties do not stand out very clearly. The group chooses names for the scenarios and images to make the story come alive.
Central in the fourth step is that the team starts to see what the scenarios tell them about what they can and must do. Sometimes small adjustments to the system can make the difference and sometimes a transformative leap can be initiated by small actions. By discussing the implications of the scenarios, their pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, people start to discover their role in what can be done.
The final step is about acting to transform this problematic situation of the system. It is about engaging in public action. All of this is emergent, where actions and consequences are created. Sometimes seeds dry up and little happens. The scenarios have helped people to act with broader, deeper and more aligned understanding. This has opened a way for people to get unstucked and move forward with great energy, collaboratively and creatively.
New stories create new realities and new inspiration to change things. This is what happens in transformative scenario planning. Although it is a particular way of using scenario planning, in most scenario projects there is an element of transformation. Indeed, scenarios projects are a straightforward invitation to shape the future. Adam Kahane with his tremendous experience in ‘stuck systems’, provides us in this book great detail about this process of transformation. This book is a great source for scenario projects, whatever their focus may be.