Adam Kahane’s whole system transformation

It goes without saying that societies are not like firms. The dynamics are different, and expertise in business does not necessarily translate to social systems.

For facilitators or activists or designers, context shifting from one domain to the other can be tricky. Here’s one point to keep in mind. When working on social issues and using tools and techniques that were developed for a business context, it’s best to examine their embedded assumptions.

This insight forms the core of Adam Kahane’s 2012 book, Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future.

Kahane, a veteran of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell and facilitator of the famous 1991-92 Mont Fleur Scenario exercises in South Africa, is co-founder of social innovation consulting firm Reos Partners.

In the new book, he describes distinctions between adaptive planning in a business context at Shell and the transformative planning that’s more suitable in complex social situations:

The transformative scenario planning process that was invented at Mont Fleur originated in the adaptive scenario planning process that had been invented at Shell two decades earlier — but it turns this adaptive process on its head. In an adaptive scenario planning process, the leaders of an organization construct and employ stories about what could happen in the world outside their organization in order to formulate strategies and plans to enable their organization to fit into and survive and thrive in a range of possible futures. They use adaptive scenario planning to anticipate and adapt to futures that they think they cannot predict and cannot or should not or need not influence.

But adaptive scenario planning is useful only up to a point. Sometimes people find themselves in situations that are too unacceptable or unstable or unsustainable for them to be willing or able to go along with and adapt to. In such situations, they need an approach not simply for anticipating and adapting to the future but also for influencing or transforming it. For example, an adaptive approach to living in a crime-ridden community could involve employing locks or alarms or guards, whereas a transformative approach could involve working with others to reduce the levels of criminality. An adaptive response to climate change could involve building dikes to protect against higher sea levels, whereas a transformative approach could involve working with others to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Both approaches are rational, feasible, and legitimate, but they are different and require different kinds of alliances and actions.

The key difference between adaptive and transformative scenario planning is, then, one of purpose. Adaptive scenario planning uses stories about possible futures to study what could happen, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that studying the future is insufficient, and so it also uses stories about possible futures to influence what could happen. To achieve these two different purposes, adaptive scenario planning focuses on producing new systemic understandings, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that new understandings alone are insufficient and so also focuses on producing new cross-system relationships and new system- transforming intentions. And to produce these two different sets of outputs, adaptive scenario planning requires a rigorous process, whereas transformative scenario planning assumes that process alone is insufficient, and so it also requires a whole-system team and a strong container.

This whole-system approach represents the first step of Kahane’s five-step transformational process:

  • 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.

One aspect of the Kahane/Reos process that I find exciting — as I understand it from the book and from videos like this — is the way they have combined scenario planning with other types of group process techniques, including Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

The idea of getting the whole system in the room, for example, is familiar to group process folks working with a variety of methods. It’s one of the Future Search principles, and here’s how it’s depicted on the Group Works Pattern Language deck of cards:

groupworks whole system

Another aspect of Kahane’s work and writing that I have a lot of respect for is his emphasis on what he calls in the new book “the inner game of social transformation.” I’ve used his 2000 Global Business Network publication, “How to Change The World: Lessons for Entrepreneurs From Activists” (pdf) in my systems thinking class, and it’s often a favorite with students, especially the conclusion:

This brings me to the end of my remarks and to my final point, which is about where you have to start if you want to change the world. …

Let me end and summarize with a story about a rabbi who, like me, set out to change the world. He found that he wasn’t making much progress, so he tried to change his country. This was also too difficult so he tried to change his neighborhood. When he didn’t have success there, he tried to change his family. Even that was easier said than done, so he tried to change himself. Then an interesting thing happened. When he had changed himself, his family changed. And when his family changed, his neighborhood changed. When his neighborhood changed, his country changed. And when his country changed, the world changed.

So now you know where to start. Thank you.

See also: “What do design labs look like up close?

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