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Developing Scenarios for Big Change

Posted by Steve Waddell in Change, Net Dev on February 17, 2010

Scenario development is a leading tool for moving large, seemingly intractable issues…and particularly useful for large change networks. I have revisited the progress of the methodology over the last couple of months with the guidance of Rafael Ramirez at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Rafael is lead editor of a new version of the business bible on scenario development – Business Planning for Turbulent Times. The concept of “turbulence” is one highly relevant to Global Action Networks…indeed, it may be said that they are structures to manage turbulence: when “the shared ‘common good’ is in motion.” That is to say when there are profound shifts in organizations’ operating environments that are associated with changing technologies and power relationships as are occurring with globalization and unprecedented pressures upon the natural environment.

Shell’s 1970’s scenario planning for the companies’ business planning is usually cited as the first large-scale use of scenario development. The process produces plausible futures – stories about futures how they can be realized. Ramirez emphasizes the importance of futures that are both possible and uncomfortable, in order for people to move past stuck positions and think creatively.

If you have marveled at the peaceful transition to post-apartheid South Africa, you should know that scenario development had an important role. Over 1991-92 Adam Kahane, at the time with Shell, led development of the Mont Fleur scenarios with a group of 22 diverse South Africans at the Mount Fleur conference center outside of Cape Town. The four scenarios developed were named with bird themes to give them life:

  1. Ostrich — in which a negotiated settlement to the crisis in South Africa is not achieved, and the government continues to be non-representative.
  2. Lame Duck — in which a settlement is achieved but the transition to a new dispensation is slow and indecisive.
  3. Icarus — in which transition is rapid but the new government unwisely pursues unsustainable, populist economic policies.
  4. Flight of the Flamingos — in which the government’s policies are sustainable and country takes a path of inclusive growth and democracy."

The scenarios were distributed through national newspapers and presented to 50 groups. This produced conversations that contributed to building a common vocabulary and mutual understanding about choices and how to realize the Flight of the Flamingos.

This success also contributed to founding in 1996 The Millennium Project, a think tank that applies scenario development and other tools to produce its annual State of the Future reports.

And after leaving Shell, Kahane led numerous large system applications of scenario development-inspired approaches to “stuck” problems as he wrote in Solving Tough Problems. That includes development of the Global Action Network called The Sustainable Food Lab. Recently Kahane helped found Reos Partners, which is working with WWF-UK in The Finance Lab on an innovative project to transform finance that also engaged ISIS.

Scenarios focus upon a question that can be exploratory – "What do you think the future might be?" or normative – "What kind of future would you like to see?" In a recent article Wilkinson and Edinow (also at InSIS) define three types of approaches to scenarios that are related to three types of change challenges. From simplest to most complex, these are:

The RIMA approach is the cutting edge to ‘wicked problems that involve sustaining collaborative action in the public interest/common good.

What are your views on, and experience with, scenario development?

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