Meet the original man of scenario planning - Adam Kahane, whose idea made a cut in our plan process
Trithesh Nandan | August 22, 2013
From military to corporate sector, ‘scenario planning’ is the in concept now. More so since the 12th five-year plan incorporated possible scenarios to project and forecast the India story.
Arun Maira, member of the planning commission and the man behind this idea, stressed on three scenarios so far as the Indian economy is concerned. First, he said, is ‘meddling along’, where growth averages around 6.5 percent, the second is ‘falling apart’, if logjam persists and India achieves only a 5-percent growth target. Finally, he theorised, comes the ‘flotilla advances’, where growth hovers around 9 percent. The purpose of creating scenarios was to work on possible situations.
Maira took the idea of scenario planning from master strategist and guru of scenario planning Adam Kahane, whose model of scenario planning was instrumental in South Africa’s transition in the post-apartheid phase in 1991-92. In fact, when Maira had met Kahane four years ago he had asked the latter to author a book on scenario planning.
During his recent New Delhi visit, Kahane tells Governance Now that for a country as diverse as India scenario planning is a much-needed tool to meet challenges of all aspiring groups. Among the three scenarios, Kahane lists ‘flotilla advances’ as the best one.
Edited excerpt of the interview:
In the last two decades, you have worked in countries like South Africa, Colombia, Guatemala, and a few others, on scenario planning. Can you explain the concept of scenario planning?
Scenario planning is a methodology that can be used in different ways. It is very simple – in fact so simple that it surprises many. Scenario is a story of what could happen. The word comes from the world of theatre, film or opera. So the basic of scenario planning is to construct stories we do every day. Let’s think of a personal scenario, like what we can do if it rains today: Do I pick an umbrella? And if there is no rain, do I carry big or a small umbrella? This is scenario planning at a personal level.
Scenario planning has been used for a long time in military and corporate (worlds). But the kind of scenario planning that I have been involved with is different. The basic idea is the same but 20 years ago I discovered that there is another way to do scenario planning and I call it transformative scenario planning.
What is transformative scenario planning?
The fundamental assumption is that we can’t predict what will happen. The basic idea is to prepare and adapt to whatever happens. In military and corporate (world), scenario planning is used with that assumption. Twenty years ago, when I was working with Shell, the best company using scenario planning, I was asked to facilitate a group in South Africa (comprising) politicians, activists, community leaders, trade unionists (and) people from across the whole system – black and white, Left and Right, from the opposition and the establishment….
We constructed stories – what could happen and what was possible in South Africa – as it was going through transition phase. We constructed four scenarios: Ostrich, Lame Duck, Icarus and Flight of the Flamingos. I realised that though the activities were the same, the purpose was fundamentally different. The purpose was not to adapt the future but to influence this group of people who were connected to different kind of people. This was my big discovery.
When did this come about?
That was in 1991. The process of storytelling – of what could happen – was valuable not only to adapt (to the) future but (also) to transform it. This was the basic idea.
Coming to the context of India, how would scenario planning help here?
It is no longer possible for one voice, one party or one sector to dictate things in a democratic, complex and diverse system. For me, the larger picture is how we can learn together in situations which are dynamically complex, (are) new and, most important, socially different.
What planning commission member Arun Maira and his colleagues are trying to build is capacity to shape the future. Transformative scenario planning is a methodology, a tool…. It is not the only tool but it says that if you have a diverse group – multiple stakeholders, perspectives, interest groups – trying to address a situation when there is no agreement, then you must start by saying what's going on here, what is possible in this context. Transformative scenario planning is just a methodology of doing that part of work.
One may think there is problem of social exclusion, another may think of productivity, and still others may (think of) bad infrastructure, or problem of political gridlock. Till we have a picture of what is going on here, what could happen? We would never be able to agree on what to do. Transformative scenario planning is a tool for that part of conversation, especially suitable for situations, as there are radically different understandings of situations.
In that case, can they arrive on consensus?
This is a tool that can be used at all scales. We don’t need to call India as a whole but we can talk about (a) state, city or neighbourhood. In fact, my motivation for writing the book on transformative scenario planning came from Maira, whom I met four years ago. He liked my work and asked me to write on it. A methodology should be used at every level right from the village or panchayat level. That’s why I wrote the book, where I tried to explain the methodologies in a way that everyone could use it.
There could be four scenarios or two. At any panchayat, neighbourhood, city or state, it is possible for actors to sit and say what is going on here, what is possible here, and what we should do about it. It is a simple, most basic and structured process. Yes, we have done in most high-conflict places where we had to make agreement to two parties that nobody would be killed for what they said in the workshop. I am trying to show that is possible.
What is your take on the 12th five-year plan?
They have used the scenario method while preparing the 12th five-year plan. One of the good things India learnt is that good scenario requires much greater participation and consensus building from confusion to coordination. There needs to be an effort at the mass level, and not just at the elite level, to support such work. That is why you see different stakeholders from ground level worked together in preparing the 12th plan.
Will India be successful if it adopts the scenario planning method?
I want to make a basic distinction between the larger practice of multi-stakeholder problem solving and the tool of transformative scenario planning. I have been coming to India for the last several years and worked in a programme called Bhavisya – or the future – on child malnutrition in Maharashtra. The project brought together the state government, NGOs, corporate (entities) and the UNICEF. This was my major experience on multi-stakeholder problem solving.
The programme went on for eight years till 2012. When I came here in 2004 and talked about the multiple stakeholders addressing the complex problem, it was a very new idea. For the first time, all the stakeholders worked together in (fighting) child malnutrition. It is not a problem but different actors found problems from different perspective. Had it been a problem, it would have been solved. For a complex situation, we need to work with all the actors. Now it is a well-understood idea. I have noticed a big change in these nine years.
What positives do you see in the 12th five-year plan?
India can produce sustainable growth through the scenario that the planning commission calls ‘flotilla advances’. The country can advance in not just a participative way but (also) in coordinated way.
What does flotilla advances mean?
It is the best of three scenarios identified by the planning commission. It has an official name – sustainable and inclusive growth – and the more politic name is ‘flotilla advances’. It is the same as the ‘flight of the flamingoes’ in South Africa or ‘fire flight’. It says we have vessels, boats, different groups and individuals. The latter have their own power, ideas and ways of doing things but are moving not in dictatorship but forward in flotilla. They are not one big boat – there are multiple boats advancing more or less in the same direction, more or less together.
Is it similar to the ‘flight of the flamingoes’?
Scenario planning was discovered in South Africa in 1991-1992. There were four scenarios (at the time), of which three were warnings. It was basically to avoid mistakes. The warning was more influential – if there was no negotiated solution, the constitutional settlement hinders the capacity of a new government to act. There was warning about unhindered government that ignored economic and financial constraints. The fourth scenario was where three scenarios were avoided and the country could develop and grow, move forward together.
The ‘flight of flamingoes’ grew slowly but together.
The ‘flotilla advances’ is the same as ‘flight of the flamingoes. This is not imposed but has risen spontaneously in every place, including India. In every country there is one scenario of participative, bottom up, and cooperative development.
Many Indian states grapple with the problem of Maoist terror. Having worked in Colombia and many other strife-torn places how do you think scenario planning will be helpful in such areas?
Separate tools are required in different situations. If a team knows that it has agreed on a solution to implement, then tools of implementation are required. But there is also a situation where we have to go further back; where there is no agreement on solution, not on problem. This situation works in cases where a fundamental, severe and violent disagreement exists. So the most extreme setting is when people are firing at each other. We have worked in Colombia, Sudan, Guatemala after the civil war, and in Zimbabwe.
My experience says even in cases of extreme and violent conflicts it is possible to create a space where the actors can sit and talk. The tool of transformative scenario planning does not start by saying what are we going to agree to do; it is much more basic and easier to ask what is happening here and is possible here. And the fact that it is merely stories is what makes it easier. Take the Colombian case for example: we had invited guerillas, FARC and rightwing military, government, NGOs, business, defence forces to meetings to agree on a solution that would have been difficult, probably impossible. But when we said ‘why don’t we meet and just talk on what is happening?’, or what could happen, they agreed for talks.
So you think the Kashmir problem can be solved with this method?
Again, Kashmir is not a problem that can be solved but the situation could be addressed, or progressed, through this kind of work.
There have been many protests in India in the last six years. How could scenario planning solve problems for, say, landless labourers evicted from their land, or how can it solve social tension?
These are not problems that can be solved but the situation could be addressed. This could happen when more and more people have their own voice. Earlier, people would be afraid to show their unhappiness. But safe protests are signs of progress in real sense, a sign of vitality of Indian democracy. Transformative scenario planning is a tool for such situations. When a situation is dynamic complex, it needs a systematic approach. When the situation is generative complex, we need a creative approach.
When it turns socially complex, we need a participative approach. In case of India, there is need for all three – systematic, creative and participative approach – to deal with the issues.
A last question: Nelson Mandela had praised you for your work in South Africa. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
I never met him in person but I am a great admirer of Nelson Mandela. It is a great honour that he knows about my work and scenario planning. It is a great privilege.
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