Transformative Alliance: Interview with Adam Kahane

To resolve complex problems, we must cooperate across conventional boundaries to co-create the future, not just adapt to it, argues the foresight veteran.

What is the difference between transformative scenario planning and conventional scenario planning as commonly practised?

The conventional way in which scenarios are used (which is a subject of 99% of the literature) has a basic assumption that we cannot predict or control what will happen, and therefore what we have to do is try to understand and adapt to what might happen. This is the basic premise for scenario planning as practised at Shell. I always understood that Singapore takes the Shell methodology very seriously because of this. More than any other country in the world, Singapore sees itself as subject to forces that it cannot control or predict.

Futures work in general, and scenario work in particular, such as in Singapore, have mostly been based on this adaptive approach. However, the work I have been doing for the last 20 years takes adaptive scenario planning and turns it on its head. I start with the entirely different assumption that we cannot or are not willing to simply adapt to whatever happens: it is unacceptable and unsustainable. Therefore, we have to find a way not simply to adapt to whatever happens, but to influence what happens. The objective is not to adapt to the future, but also to transform it. This is something we often cannot do alone, only in alliance with others. Conversations move into a realm where there are very subtle or ambiguous grey areas, situations that we cannot control but that we can influence. This is the domain of transformative scenario planning — a different species of futures work, with its own paradoxes and challenges.

The paradox, or the grey zone in this work, is that there are two simple cases and a confusing middle ground. One simple case is when I have no influence on what is happening, and all I can do is think, look, try to see what is coming down and adapt; I cannot predict nor control what is going on. The other is the opposite: not only can I predict what’s going on, I can make it happen as I want it to happen. So these are the two extreme cases.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the reality of life — and particularly with democratic governance in most parts of the world — is that we are in the grey zone where the government is an actor but it cannot control everything. It may not want to or be able to, or citizens won’t accept it. It is a phenomenon very much like what is discussed in Singapore. It is a middle ground full of ambiguity and paradox.

We have to find a way not simply to adapt to whatever happens, but to influence what happens. The objective is not to adapt to the future, but also to transform the future.

How can transformative scenario planning help to address these challenges?

I and Reos Partners,1 the organisation of which I am a member, work in many contexts all over the world with all kinds of subjects (ranging from aboriginal health in Australia, climate change in Canada, judiciary reform in Argentina, sustainable finance in the UK and child malnutrition in India to mining safety in South Africa), but with one very specific approach — we work with teams of leaders from across a given social system (whether a city or a region or country or hemisphere) who are all concerned about what is happening and want to deal with it.

When I say they are concerned about what is happening, that doesn’t mean they agree on what needs to be done, nor do they even necessarily agree on what the problem is. Typically, they agree neither on the solution nor the problem, but they share a strongly held belief that a situation is problematic — perhaps for different reasons.

These are actors from across the system, from all the three sectors: the public sector, the private sector and the social sector. These teams are made up of people who see a problematic situation that they want to address and have already figured out that they can neither do so directly nor do so alone, whether it is by themselves, with their organisations or even within their sector. That is the key assumption. They are obliged — generally with great unhappiness — to work not just with friends and colleagues but with strangers and opponents.

When there is agreement on neither the solution nor on the problem, we have to take an indirect approach: to start with figuring out what is really going on, how we can understand the problematic situation, how it might unfold and what we can do about it. That is the specific work that we do.

Does this suggest a more inclusive approach that is radically different from traditional structures of governance, which tend to be fairly centralised and top-down, with a clearer hierarchy of agency?

If you have authority, whether it is centralised or decentralised, and a capacity to deal with an issue, then you should just do it. The problem is the number of cases where this is possible is diminishing. One of the main reasons for this is that people won’t put up with it. I am reminded of a project in India with the national planning commission, and V. S. Naipaul’s book on political activism, India: A Million Mutinies Now. As a friend there remarked, the situation now is a million bottlenecks — everybody has an opinion, a voice, an interest, so the notion that they will just do whatever the Government or the planning commission tells them ought to be done is no longer feasible.

What my colleagues and I do is to approach these situations with a particular process that involves three essential elements that are rarely used together.

The first is to work with actors from across the whole system — the people whose understanding, agency and commitment is needed to effect change in the area that you are working in, and who conversely, if they don’t agree, can stop change happening and create a million bottlenecks. To work with a whole system team is already pretty unusual.

Secondly, we are very deliberate about the container within which that team works. The term container refers to the physical, political and psychosocial space in which the work is done. It is not obvious to most people that the container matters; it matters enormously and these days, a good bit of our work is actually in building the container. The word container has two aspects that are both important. On the one hand, it means a space that is protected and safe, but its other contrary meaning is equally important — it needs to also be sufficiently confined to create the pressure that allows the work to happen.

So you have the whole system team, a strong container and lastly a rigorous process, which means that there is a sequence of things to be done, with more or less effective ways of carrying them out. There is pressure to produce results, and it is not just a matter of everyone getting together to just chat and figure it out.

We call this combination of the three key elements a social lab — the social equivalent of a scientific laboratory.2 A laboratory is a space with the equipment you need and staff you need to be able to try things out and try to create something new; what is crucial is these are not only spaces to chat and to talk, although that is important, but spaces to experiment together, to act together to address the problematic situation and to learn, through doing, what works and what doesn’t work.

Does your lab process face pressure to generate a solid, useable outcome at the end?

Yes. Practically, this is only interesting to do if there is a situation that many people view as problematic and they are willing to enter the lab space because they think it is possible to find a workable way forward. There absolutely is pressure to succeed, but one of the many paradoxes is that we don’t know at the beginning what will come out at the end.

This is obvious in a creative process, but it is very challenging for most organisations, especially control-oriented institutions, who want to know in advance what the result is going to be, how they are going to measure it, what the deliverables are, what the budget is and so on. We say: well, we want to work on this, we are all committed to it and we will take this amount of time, but it is a creative process and therefore, by definition, I cannot tell you at the beginning what the end is.

Half of our work is in putting together — convening, building and organising — these labs; not that it is the hardest part, but it is the first step and therefore the one that by definition is not yet formed. The ones who initiate this process with us can be different people: government, businesses or civil society actors. In most cases it is an alliance. But it is always somebody or, more usefully, some coalition that is concerned about a problematic situation and has not succeeded through established methods, who leads us to think that the lab or transformative scenario planning approach can be useful.

If you have been successful, it is very easy to fall on your face, because you cannot see that what you are doing won’t work anymore. It may take a crisis to realise that it is not going to work.

Are there conditions that suggest that a particular group or society is in a good position to benefit from such a process?

I used to think that there was no way to assess a priori what is possible, and that the fact that the conditions don’t yet exist doesn’t mean they cannot be created. I now think that there are objective conditions in which it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to proceed. The main flashing red light is where one or several key actors are unwilling to participate.

So then you have the choice to go ahead without those actors, since it is possible they may come in later. However, if they are key actors, then by definition you cannot get very far without them, or it could even be dangerous to proceed in opposition, and you have to wait until they are ready. It can mean waiting for a long time. We have been working with a group in Venezuela to undertake an effort of this sort for the last 12 years and the conditions have not been right. The political actors have been absolutely unwilling to come together; they have a rigidly polarised system and nothing can be achieved.

But it is not necessary to start with an agreement on the solution, nor even on the problem, and it is not necessary to start with trusting each other. All of those things are built through the work. All that is necessary is that we all agree, even though perhaps from very different perspectives, that a situation is not good enough the way it is and we cannot fix it separately, so let’s hold our noses and work together.

Working with strangers and opponents is nobody’s preferred way of working. So why do it? Because I have no choice, because I cannot get where I am trying to go just with friends and colleagues. This requires me, in a certain sense, to have given up — and very specifically to have given up on the belief that I can do this on my own, that I can control the situation. For people who are used to being in control, either individuals or institutions, this is very painful. Somebody said to me once: nothing fails like success. If you have been successful, it is very easy to fall on your face, because you cannot see that what you are doing won’t work anymore. It may take a crisis to realise that it is not going to work.

I think it is a hard transition to make, and it is easy to try to go partway and say, “Well, I am still going to be in control but I am going to ask them for their opinion, and I take their opinion into account but I will still make the decisions.” There is a big difference between “I am in control, I will ask your opinion” and “Actually we have to do this together”.

It is important to be pretty clear about whether you are consulting or co-creating. These are two entirely different modes. It is not that one is right and one is wrong, but that they require entirely different conditions. Transformative scenario planning, employing social labs, is co-creative work.



  1. See
  2. Zaid Hassan, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2014).

Back to Ethos homepage