ETHOS Issue 13, May 2014
Reading Adam Kahane is like listening to the movements of a symphony. All his books explore common themes: how to tackle tough, thorny, complex challenges — what some might call “wicked problems” — in ever-increasing analytic spirals, each echoing its predecessors, but also incorporating new ground and new insight.
To understand Transformative Scenario Planning, therefore, we also have to understand Kahane’s previous work. His first book, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities,1 explores how to navigate the nuances of multifaceted, adaptive problems with no simple optimising solutions. The sequel, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change,2 argues for a dynamic and oscillating balance between power (“the drive towards self-realisation”) and love (“the drive to unite the separated”) in tackling intractable issues. The focus is still on how to solve tough problems, but Kahane now proposes a wider methodological toolkit.
The toolkit expands again with
Transformative Scenario Planning,
where Kahane identifies five steps
that allow participants in a scenarios
exercise not just to understand the
future, but to influence it:
- Convene a Team From Across the Whole System
- Observe What Is Happening
- Construct Stories About What Could Happen
- Discover What Can and Must Be Done
- Act to Transform the System
The first three steps will be familiar to anyone who has undertaken a scenarios exercise, like the growing community of futures thinking practitioners in the Singapore public sector, which has used scenarios as a tool for strategic planning since the late 1980s. Convening a system-wide team is analogous to the concept of whole-of-government thinking in Singapore, where system-level insights are sought to tackle challenges that transcend the jurisdiction of any single agency. “Observ[ing] what is happening” is similar to the horizon scanning and emerging issue analysis currently undertaken by the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) and the Strategic Policy Office in the Public Service Division (PSD). This involves discerning and detecting today’s weak signals of tomorrow’s game-changers.
“Construct[ing] stories” is the step from which the art of scenarios originally took its name. The plural “stories” is critical here, since crafting several narratives with both complementary and competing elements allows decision-makers to question the possible truths in each of them, and thereby examine their own deeply-held mental models and assumptions. Stories and narratives, as opposed to more dispassionate analysis, are also more memorable for decision-makers and help foster a common language for planning. Many civil servants and, indeed, Singaporeans more broadly, will recall the catchy names of the first National Scenarios from 1997: “Hotel Singapore” and “A Home Divided”. Kahane quotes a similar sentiment from Trevor Manuel, a participant in the famous Mont Fleur scenarios3 that envisioned post-apartheid futures for South Africa. Manuel, who was head of the African National Congress’ Department of Economic Policy at the time, and is currently Head of South Africa’s National Planning Commission, said of the Mont Fleur scenarios: “I’ve internalized them, and if you have internalized something, then you probably carry it for life”.
More than any other step, this requires “small-p” political imagination, will, discipline and stamina. At times, without participants even realising it, discussions at this stage can degenerate into blame ping-pong and other commitment avoidance techniques. This doesn’t make participants in the process nefarious or even ignorant; it is simply easier to hide behind excuses than squarely face the prospect of having to change established ways of working in a team or in an entire institution. That Kahane does not offer simple steps to solve this problem is not a failing on his part; the challenges of political buy-in at this stage are probably not amenable to simple solutions, and instead need leadership willing to invest in patient, deliberate efforts with an eye on the long-run dividends.
In step five — Act to Transform the System — Kahane breaks into new territory for many scenario planners. He draws a distinction between two approaches to the future: an adaptive one, which takes the future as an exogenously determined “given” to which we can only react, and an activist approach that starts from the belief that we have some level of agency in determining the future we want (or not), and can work towards (or away from) it. There are parallels here to the psychological concept of the “locus of control”. People with internal loci tend to see their destinies as primarily the result of choices they make; they exercise agency and are often described by others as acting in “empowered” ways. In contrast, people with external loci tend to ascribe responsibility for their fates to factors outside themselves — “the system”, “my environment”, “my boss”. Activist approaches, because they require risky normative judgements about what future might be desirable, call for a strong internal locus, whereas adaptive approaches tend to coincide with an external locus of control.
Activist futuring involves not just intellectual persuasion but also the generation of emotive resonance.
The reality is that we need both adaptive and activist approaches. Activist, internal-locus approaches alone can lead to recklessness and arrogance. In Singapore’s case, awareness of our status as a small, price-taking economy on the global arena has — mostly rightly — meant a primarily humble and adaptive approach in our futures thinking.
On their own, however, adaptive approaches can be disempowering and lack galvanising force. One might argue, for instance, that the powerful vision of Singapore’s founding fathers came out of a deeply activist approach to the future: we had to create our fate, not just be satisfied with the future we seemed to have been dealt with as we separated from Malaysia.
Singapore has seen more recent examples of activist futuring too. At the 2013 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong quoted almost directly from a scenario planner’s handbook when he observed: “Very few countries or cities can think or plan over such a long-term. But Singapore has been able to do it. In a deeper sense, these are not merely plans; these are acts of faith in Singapore and in ourselves”.4 Tellingly, one of the most frequent pieces of feedback that other facilitators and I received at citizen dialogues during the recent Our Singapore Conversation5 was how much people appreciated being asked about the kind of future they wanted to see in Singapore. Activist approaches to the future are clearly more than just a planning technique; they speak to a deep and latent human need to feel some measure of control over our destinies, and not just be victims of a whimsical fate.
Needless to say, activist futuring is not easy. Kahane acknowledges this in the many examples he cites of how difficult, protracted and non-linear such work can be. Progress happens in fits and starts, often without much pattern or predictability. Such work involves not just intellectual persuasion, but also the generation of emotive resonance. It asks both the creators and consumers of scenarios to acknowledge that creating the future is deeply terrifying. Questions like “What if we get it wrong?” are legitimate sources of anxiety, and there are no solutions to them, only risk management approaches that allow for some level of decision to be taken, even if current information is imperfect and incomplete. The book would probably have been more complete with an even more detailed exploration of how these difficulties can be overcome. The change management literature, for instance, could have been a useful source of ideas on how to address the inevitable fears and other emotions in transformative scenario processes. One such idea may have included building up the personal resilience of scenario teams’ leaders.
This is a minor cavil in the context of a book that successfully elaborates, extends and enhances a familiar idea. In a world where citizens are increasingly empowered and keen to have active roles in governance, Kahane’s ideas could provide interesting fodder on how activist energy can be harnessed for a more inclusive and participatory public policy process. Anyone who cares about governance, social change and how we run organisations of any size should look forward to the next movement in Kahane’s emerging symphony.
- Adam Kahane, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).
- Adam Kahane, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010).
- Pieter le Roux et al., “The Mont Fleur Scenarios,” The Weekly Mail & The Guardian Weekly, July 1992, http://reospartners.com/publication-view/46
- Lee Hsien Loong, “National Day Rally 2013 Speech” (speech, Singapore, August 21, 2013), Prime Minister’s Office, http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/speechesninterviews/primeminister/2013/August/prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong-s-national-day-rally-2013--speech.html
- “Our Singapore Conversation,” http://www.oursgconversation.sg