Adam Kahane: Using Narratives for Social Change

When it comes to strategies for changing the world, storytelling isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. Things like conviction, advocacy, mobilizing and building networks of supporters seem like more obvious candidates. Adam Kahane isn’t saying that the conventional repertoire doesn’t work. But in his experience, the stories we tell about ourselves, our opponents and the kind of world we want to live in can have transformative effects.  

Kahane is a specialist in “transformative scenario planning,” a kind of dialogue technique that aims to bring together allies and enemies alike to map out new ways of resolving seemingly intractable problems. Although the name sounds like a bit of business school esoterica, the method is actually quite straightforward. Instead of coming to the table with a collection of demands, a transformative scenario planning process invites the parties involved to put their demands aside in order to focus on figuring out what’s actually possible in the first place. 

 “The method in its simplest terms involves bringing together actors from across a given system, whether that’s a community or a sector or a country, or a larger system, and working together to understand what’s possible in this system,” explains Kahane. “That turns out to be the surprising key, that to talk about what’s possible rather than what we want (or what we don’t want) opens up a whole different kind of conversation.”

Kahane first tried his hand at scenario planning while working at Royal Dutch Shell in the late 1980s. Shell had begun using scenarios in the 1970s in an attempt to maintain a competitive edge over the other major oil companies. Still the corporate world’s leading practitioner of scenario planning, Shell claims that scenarios allowed them to anticipate the oil price shock of October 1973 and “recover more quickly than [their] competitors.”

“The key point about scenario planning in the Shell context is that it’s a tool for being able to adapt to a future that you can’t predict and can’t control,” says Kahane. Planners at Shell map out different variables such as political instability and resource constraints and flesh them out into plausible descriptions of the future. Rather than seek to change the world, scenario planning at Shell is an adaptive method for ensuring future corporate profits in the face of instability.

The transformative component of scenario planning first came into play in 1991, when Kahane was invited to South Africa to participate in a process known as the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise. Bringing together politicians, ANC activists, trade unionists, economists and business executives, the aim was to foster dialogue about possible futures for a country in the midst of a tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy.

The exercises in South Africa were distinct from previous uses of scenario planning for two reasons. “[Mont Fleur] was the first time, at least the first major time, that scenario work was done not as an expert activity, or as a staff activity, but as what we now call a multi-stakeholder activity,” he explains. Whereas corporate or military strategists had previously used scenarios to plan for the survival and success of their respective organizations, Mont Fleur brought together a diverse range of people, each with a stake in the future development of South Africa. The discussions that took place there were not negotiations, but rather a kind of imaginative exercise that worked to find common ground between groups from opposing ends of the social spectrum.

“The second and even more fundamental difference, which has really been the motivating or the key point I’ve been working on for these 20 years since, is that they were telling stories about what could happen, not in order to adapt, but in order to influence what would happen.” By creating multiple possible narratives from a diversity of perspectives, Kahane argues that the process helped to open up new pathways into the future.

Kahane’s work has evolved in the two decades since the South African experience, and he now works as a partner at Reos Partners, a global consulting firm using techniques such as transformative scenario planning to address tough social problems. When he comes to Vancouver on October 21 to deliver a public lecture at the Stonehouse Institute, one of the themes he’ll be discussing is the application of transformative scenario planning to the daunting task of confronting climate change.  

There may be more than just a passing irony in the fact that Kahane hopes to use a technique developed by a major oil company in an effort to address climate change, a process driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. While Shell publishes the results of its scenario planning exercises in glossy reports on climate change and the stressing of planetary systems, it continues to invest heavily in extreme energy like fracking and Arctic drilling. Despite the inspiring language in their reports, Shell remains a major multinational oil company whose sole reason for being is to extract oil, stay ahead of the competition and deliver higher profits to its shareholders.

The case of Shell points to a limitation of the transformative scenario planning model: there are some problems for which narrative and dialogue are not up to the task. We know that the majority of remaining global fossil fuel deposits need to stay in the ground if we are to stay below a 2°C temperature increase. For that to happen, Shell would need to write off untold billions and likely cease to exist as a corporation—a fate it would no doubt resist. With stakes that high, it seems unlikely that Shell or any fossil fuel company could meaningfully participate in a scenario planning exercise together with anyone serious about stopping climate change.

Kahane recognizes the fact that some issues simply can’t be resolved through discussion and forging shared narratives. When political conflict rests not on a lack of mutual understanding but rather a genuine, unresolvable antagonism between conflicting interests, then the more traditional tools in the activist’s toolkit come into play. “If you think that your opponent’s interests are such that they will never do what you think they need to do, what you think they ought to do, then you’re back to the other strategy, which is advocating and mobilizing and pushing,” says Kahane. “You always have that as an option.”

For more information on Kahane's talk in Vancouver on Monday, October 21, visit the Stonehouse Institute.

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