Two books and three methods for facilitating social transformation

This post was written for the IAF newsletter the Global Flipchart, June 2013.

Transformational Strategy   Transformative Scenario Planning

Transformational Strategy: facilitation of ToP Participatory Strategic Planning – Bill Staples, iUniverse 2013
Transformative Scenario Planning: working together to change the future – Adam Kahane, Berrett-Koehler 2012
The Kumi method for Social Transformation in Conflict – Transform e.V. in partnership with ARIA, IICP, ICA & others

An advantage of stepping down recently as Chair of IAF and as Chief Executive of ICA:UK, and now working freelance instead, is that I am finding more time for reading, writing and ideas.  Of the many books that I have enjoyed and found stimulating in recent months, I want to recommend these two in particular to readers of the Global Flipchart – for the inspirational stories and insights that they offer, and for their wealth of concepts, tools and tips with immediate application to our facilitation practice. Both focus on the transformative potential of group process for positive social change, but each takes a somewhat different approach.  In reviewing the two books I found myself led to review the third, hybrid approach to social transformation as well, as will become clear.

I have known Bill Staples of ICA Associates in Canada for many years as a colleague within the ICA (the Institute of Cultural Affairs) and also as an active member of the IAF (International Association of Facilitators).  Bill is publisher of the IAF Journal, and chaired the IAF Toronto conference in 2000 that attracted over 1100 participants.  His book Transformational Strategy details the theory and practice of the Participatory Strategic Planning process of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology, an approach in which I have been a practitioner and a trainer for many years myself.  So this book covers ground that is very familiar to me, although I found it no less insightful for that. Bill previewed the book at the ICA International Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu last October, and elements of the approach were embedded in the design of the conference.

I came across Adam Kahane of Reos Partners through his 2004 book “Solving Tough Problems: an open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities”.  He was head of Scenarios for Royal Dutch Shell in London during the early 1990s, and facilitated the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise in which a diverse group of South Africans worked together to effect that country’s transition to democracy following apartheid.  That exercise, and subsequent attempts at working with leaders to ‘get unstuck’ some of the world’s toughest problems, helped to generate the reflections and refinements to the Transformative Scenario Planning methodology that he describes in his subsequent book “Power and Love: a theory and practice of social change” and now this one as well.  So this is an approach with which I am somewhat familiar in theory, although its insights resonate with my own experience in many respects.  Kahane previewed this book at a lecture I attended at the RSA in London, also last October, ‘How to Change the Future’.

Transformational Strategy is structured in four parts over 270 pages. Part I outlines the global and historical role of participation in transformative social change, and the history and evolution of the ToP approach.  Part II introduces the spiral image as a metaphor for the thought process of planning, and to describe the underlying dynamics of the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning process and the values that underpin it.  It places the spiral planning process in a wider framework that includes the preparation and research that precedes the planning and the implementation that follows it, and introduces a number of particular ToP tools and techniques to support each stage.  Part III has a chapter of in-depth theory and practical tips on the application of each of the four key stages of the spiral process that will be most familiar to ToP facilitation trainees and practitioners – articulating the practical vision, discerning the underlying contradictions, forging breakthrough strategies and action planning for implementation.  Part IV outlines some possible variations in the approach for different groups and groups sizes, and additional follow-on steps to inspire commitment through implementation. The book is richly illustrated throughout by practical examples and longer case studies from ToP practitioners working in a range of different settings around the world, from corporate board rooms and government departments to local communities and voluntary groups.  Example worksheets and planning documentation charts are included in the appendix.

Transformative Scenario Planning takes a more narrative approach, through nine chapters over an altogether lighter 120 pages. First Kahane tells the story of the Mont Fleur Scenario exercise, and how it helped a diverse group of South African leaders from across the many divisions of that society to talk through what was happening, what could happen and what needed to happen in their country – and then to act on what they had learned, so contributing to some peaceful forward progress in a situation that had seemed violently stuck.  Drawing on another 20 years of subsequent practice with scenarios, Kahane goes on to outline his conclusions on when and how such planning works best – namely, in situations seen to be unacceptable or unsustainable, that cannot be transformed directly or by people working only with those close to them, and by means of a five stage process detailed in subsequent chapters. The five stages are framed as a creative application of the U-process described by Peter Senge et al in Presence (2008) and Otto Scharmer in Theory U (2009). This involves firstly convening a team from across the whole system (‘coinitiating’), observing what is happening and constructing stories about what could happen (‘cosensing’), discovering together what can and must be done (‘copresencing’), and finally acting to transform the system (‘cocreating’ and ‘coevolving’).  Through this process actors gradually transform their understandings, relationships and intentions, and thereby their actions and their larger social system.  This book too is richly illustrated with examples and stories, from exercises seeking to transform often profoundly conflicted societies including Zimbabwe, Guatemala, Quebec, Colombia and Sudan.

Kahane adopts a more personal and reflective style than Staples, sharing something of his frustrations and setbacks in his practice of Transformative Scenario Planning and what he has learned along the way.  Staples in contrast provides a brief overview of the evolution of the method, through research and development involving many hundreds of practitioners over 50 years, and focuses more on where and how the method has been successful and (in some detail) on how to apply it.  While Staples provides an entire chapter of case studies and an appendix filled with related materials, Kahane takes a deeper and longer view on the outcome and impact of the examples he offers. He relates a memorable story of a return visit to Colombia in 2012, 16 years after a scenario project began and some eight years after it had appeared to have failed, to hear the then President announce ‘that it had always been alive and was now the leitmotif of the policies of his new government’.  He quotes the Bhagavad Gita, in a wry comment on the uncertainty of outcome inherent in any facilitative leadership:  “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof”.

Both books emphasise that collaboration and a comprehensive approach are key to achieving social transformation, and that an inner transformation of those involved is both an outcome of and a pre-requisite for social transformation.  Both books also emphasise the role and power of stories, metaphors and images, in achieving both internal and external transformation.

Where the two approaches appear to differ most substantially is perhaps in the type of (en)visioning that is employed, and its role relative to reflection on and analysis of current reality. In ToP Participatory Strategic Planning it is a compelling and practical vision of a desired future, held in creative tension with a searching and in-depth analysis of present blocks or ‘contradictions’ to that vision, that drives transformation through implementation.  In Transformative Scenario Planning it is not one desired future but several possible futures that are envisioned, and these future scenarios emerge from a deep and broad reflection on current reality rather than themselves focusing the analysis of that current reality from which strategies and tactics are developed.  Where the two approaches appear to be in agreement, however, is in the transformative power of that creative tension between clearly articulated future(s) and honestly and profoundly explored present. Also they concur in the paradox, as Kahane describes it, that “we move forward by stepping back: we get unstuck not by pushing but instead by pausing”.  As Staples writes, “naming the contradiction bursts illusions about the current situation and blows the door to the future wide open”.

Both approaches are described as fractal processes, in that each stage contains within it a micro version of the whole process and each process can itself be expanded to serve as a stage in a larger whole.  From this point of view it matters less, in theory, whether articulation of the future should precede exploration of the present or vice versa.  What matters more, in practice, is what particular (micro or macro) process will help a particular group achieve a particular goal in a particular context – the key question at the heart of any facilitation process design, and any in-the-moment facilitation intervention.  It is at this point that the skilled and experienced facilitator will draw from her extensive toolkit to adapt and apply what methods and tools she has available, to tailor a process for the particular needs of the occasion.

I wonder whether the apparent difference in the two approaches in fact to some extent simply reflects a difference in emphasis in how they are described, and a difference in the contexts in which they are illustrated.  As the book titles suggest, Kahane focuses primarily on the role of scenarios in transformation, and Staples primarily on the role of strategy. From this broader perspective, Participatory Strategic Planning could be seen as a tool to apply in order to move from stages 4 to 5 of the Transformative Scenario Planning process (from ‘discover what can and must be done’ to ‘act to transform the system’), and stages 1 to 4 of Transformative Scenario Planning could be seen as elements of the preparation and research that is required to precede a particular Participatory Strategic Planning process.  Kahane draws his examples largely from situations of conflict, and frames his approach as a means to ‘get unstuck’ in the face of tough economic, social and environmental problems.  In contrast, Staples’ examples are largely not drawn from conflict situations, and he frames the ToP approach not as a means of problem-solving but as a means to empower people ‘to see fresh opportunities, to step onto the stage of history, and take an active part in directing it the way they want their world to go’.

I am not clear to what extent Transformative Scenario Planning has been applied in situations other than conflict, but Jonathan Dudding of ICA:UK has written about the application and the limitations of ToP in situations of conflict in the 2012 ICA Nepal book ‘Changing Lives Changing Societies: ICA’s experience in Nepal and the World’.  Dudding has been a key contributor also to the multi-disciplinary, collaborative research process that has developed the new Kumi method for social transformation in conflict.

The Kumi project was initiated in 2003 by conflict analysts Ahmed Badawi and Ofer Zalzberg. Badawi is an experienced ToP practitioner (he & I worked together with ICA Egypt in the early 1990s) and Zalzberg worked with Kahane on his Jewish-Israeli Journey scenario project of 2008. The project brought together ToP practitioners and experts in identity-based conflict and conflict analysis to develop a hybrid approach drawing on the three traditions, informed by a series of pilot events involving Israelis, Palestinians and Europeans seeking to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  An international network of around 35 Kumi practitioners is now experimenting with broader applications of the method.  An early learning of ToP practitioners in this process was that conflicted parties in such a context may need to do considerable work to address the conflict, and their relationships to it and each other, before they are able to embark on a participatory planning process that requires the group to speak and plan as ‘we’.  The resulting method is a five stage process that moves from (1) initial contact, exploration and design through (2) stage setting, group building and articulating the issue and conflicts to (3) deep conflict engagement and analysis, (4) ToP participatory strategic planning and (5) supporting implementation.

Like Transformative Scenario Planning the Kumi method may be understood as an application of Senge and Scharmer’s U-process, it uses story-telling as a key tool for exploration and discovery and it is designed to help a group to ‘get unstuck’ in order to find a creative way forward together.   Kumi does not make use of multiple scenarios, but does make use of the contradictional analysis that lies at the heart of ToP Participatory Strategic Planning.  I hope that one day we might see a book on the Kumi method, to help us better understand how it’s evolution and applications relate to those of Transformational Scenario Planning and ToP Participatory Strategic Planning – to help facilitators learn from the experience of all three approaches, to better design and lead processes that empower people in all contexts to transform their situations together for the better.

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