A few weeks ago, I was running late for an important meeting. I was held up by an interview that went on longer than I anticipated as part of a project we’ve been working on about how to address the intractable issue of Violence Against Women in South Africa.
As I rushed to get to my car, I saw I was parked in. My heart sank as I realised that the space to maneuver my car out of was near impossible to navigate. I asked a passer-by to help. He was a young student, brimming with confidence and in no hurry. I tentatively asked him whether it would be possible for him to navigate me out of this tight squeeze. ‘No problem’, he said. After what felt like a hundred-point turn, my car and I made it out of the situation and onto the road, on time for my next meeting. As I drove away in relief, I realised that the young man was never in doubt of a successful outcome of the exercise, despite my anxiety.
As I recounted my morning to a colleague, she reminded me of the number of micro-movements we try in succession, in an approach we describe as “fail often, fail early”, and that these micro-movements can be used in both mundane daily reality and in high-stakes stuck social challenges.
The Land Reform Futures project is an example of a high-stakes issue that utilised the Transformative Scenario Planning process. A team of around 40 people invested in land reform have spent the past 18 months investing significant time together to develop a set of scenarios about the possible futures of land reform. This project culminated in a launch workshop towards the end of March, amidst much energy and anticipation. In the midst of the interest these scenarios generated, there was the inevitable question which accompanies a scenarios exercise: “So what? What do we do with these stories to change the future?”
Despite having facilitated a number of scenario-building exercises, I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. There are useful processes that help groups use scenarios, which is why scenario-planning stands as a credible exercise in futures thinking. And still there is the nagging awareness that we’ll never be 100% sure how to respond to or even to influence the futures that are coming towards us.
When using Transformative Scenario Planning to think about how to respond to the future, the discussions often revolve around what can be done together to change the future. In the Land Reform Futures workshop in March, the group spent most of the day reflecting on this. It was an engaging and energetic conversation. And yet, I was not alone in feeling that we hadn’t quite found the sweet spot of how to transform the situation.
In conversations since, I’ve realised that it’s not about forcing a togetherness, but rather that the scenarios enable many responses, some very small. Different people doing different things. These stories about the future activate different and often uncoordinated responses, none of which we would have predicted. The point of the exercise is to unlock our imagination to respond. And in that response, we transform the future.
The stories present the possibility that maybe it takes a hundred-point turn to make it out of a situation, and never doubting that there will be a better outcome.
This article is part of a series “Moving Through Tough Terrain”.