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Transformative scenarios: Centering the future to enable dialogue across differences

Reos Partners
April, 2024


This article is excerpted from the German publication ZOE OrganisationsEntwicklung: Zeitschrift für Unternehmensentwicklung und Change Management (Jan 2024).

By Mille Bojer and David Winter


Society is increasingly polarised, and the spaces in which people are able to meet across their divides are limited. Our work is to support diverse stakeholders to engage in dialogue and collaboration in situations of high complexity, uncertainty and divergent values, beliefs, needs, and interests. In this work, we have uncovered the profound impact of placing the future squarely at the center of these conversations.

We apply a futures approach called transformative scenarios, which differs from many other scenario planning methodologies in three distinct ways:

  • Aiming at transforming the future. The focus is not only to understand or adapt to the future but also to shape and transform it. The scenarios are a stepping stone to a strategic conversation about what can be done to shape the future.
  • Crafted by a diverse group with agency. The scenarios are crafted not by academics or consultants but by an inclusive multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary group of actors who comprise a “microcosm” of the system. Each participant holds a valuable piece of a wider puzzle, not only in their knowledge but also in their agency and sphere of influence.
  • Generating new alliances. The facilitation approach is co-creative and builds relationships, trust, insight, ownership, and collaborative capability, thus generating results that go beyond the knowledge outputs produced.

This approach was first applied in South Africa by Adam Kahane (author of “Transformative Scenario Planning”, Berrett-Koehler 2012) during the transition from apartheid. Since then, it has been employed in many contexts around the world by diverse multi-stakeholder teams. It can be useful at multiple levels and has been applied at:

  • Organisational level
  • System level (i.e. for a certain issue, like education, justice, or health)
  • Societal level

In this article we offer three case examples of such processes and draw three lessons about why conversation about the future is so effective for enabling dialogue that results in deeper insights. We also explore what some of the limitations are in this approach.



Organisational level: Oxfam International global strategy process 2019

Oxfam International is a global confederation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charitable groups that work together to address global poverty, inequality, and social justice. In October 2018, they set out on an 18-month process to develop a new global strategy. At the time, the Oxfam confederation was still emerging from a very difficult moment in its history, often referred to as a “safeguarding crisis” related to a series of allegations of misconduct, exploitation, and abuse by some Oxfam staff members in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The organisation had been scrutinized in the news and was confronting a challenge that was almost existential.

Amidst these challenging circumstances, Oxfam’s leadership, under the guidance of its CEO Winnie Byanyima, chose to view this fragility as an opportunity to drive forward transformation. While Oxfam found itself at the center of the crisis, the situation catalyzed far-reaching and profound discussions within the humanitarian and development sector about the pressing need for heightened transparency, accountability, and more robust safeguarding measures. For Oxfam, it became imperative to contemplate how to continue evolving and leading within the wider sector, while maintaining a steadfast focus on the future. They sought to demonstrate that, notwithstanding the challenges they had faced, they remained a significant actor with a clear vision for the future and a commitment to their own role and contribution. Oxfam thus emerged from the safeguarding crisis with a collective determination to redefine its trajectory.

While the safeguarding crisis was a significant impetus for change, Oxfam also recognized the broader context of an increasingly unpredictable world, making long-term planning beyond a 2–3 year horizon challenging. The need for greater agility, adaptability, and the capacity to navigate uncertainty was clear. In response, Oxfam sought to establish a confederation-wide framework for long-term strategic direction that would also allow for flexibility in its implementation.

The leadership was determined that this process was not only about creating an inspiring output that would provide direction, but that this required an inclusive, global process that would re-energize staff, and re-connect both different parts of the global Oxfam confederation, and the confederation with its external stakeholders.

To this end, two key principles were adopted for the process:

  • First, an outside-in perspective. While Oxfam is in itself highly diverse and complex, talking to itself was not going to be enough to ensure that its future strategy would be relevant and responsive.
  • Second, a commitment to being locally rooted, not top-down. The process was designed to iterate between the global level conversation and the local level and to be radically transparent and inclusive.

Over 3000 people participated in the process across thematic, functional and geographic perspectives. To facilitate this transformative journey, Oxfam enlisted the support of Reos Partners, who introduced the transformative scenarios approach. The starting point was to constitute, task and empower a cross-regional, cross-functional and cross-hierarchical Global Strategy Development Team, who were not part of global decision-making structures but included senior and mid-level staff with diverse skills and experiences from across the confederation.


Illustration of Oxfam International Strategy process

Illustration of Oxfam International Strategy process


This Global Strategy Development Team invited the creation of local “vignettes” i.e. concise stories (of about one paragraph) about the future. The vignettes — which were contributed by individuals or teams around the world — had titles such as “Climate wins”, “the rise of China”, “Living with less”, and “Rural livelihoods in jeopardy”. They were systematically analyzed and clustered against a broader global trends analysis, gradually giving rise to draft global scenarios.

The next step was to go back to the local level: what would these global scenarios mean for Oxfam if it wanted to influence or transform these possible futures? In the “implications phase”, people across Oxfam discussed the scenarios and shared their reflections. Further sensemaking of these reflections by the Global Strategy Team led to a small number of ‘strategic issues’, that were then taken to a global multi-stakeholder strategy forum, composed of almost equal numbers of Oxfam and non-Oxfam participants interacting with each other as partners. While the Forum did not have any formal decision authority, it identified 5 strategic change proposals for the global Executive Board. The strategy process concluded in March 2020, when the Oxfam International Boards approved the new Oxfam Global Strategic Framework (2020–2030). The scenario work and the commitment to engaging a diverse range of stakeholders from across and beyond the organization had yielded a strategic framework that was distinctly unique.

The approval coincided with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the full scale and impact of the pandemic was just beginning to emerge. In this moment of renewed uncertainty, questions were raised about the appropriateness of approving a new strategic framework at this juncture. However, its relevance was underscored when the strategy team shared an extract from the global scenarios which pre-empted the risk of global pandemics triggered by climate change (and their potential impact on civic space, women’s and digital rights). The new Global Strategic Framework — and its focus on fighting inequality through transformative system change — was as pertinent as before, and more important than ever.

Subsequently, Oxfam initiated a ‘horizon planning’ process serving as a mechanism to take stock, within the Global Strategic Framework, of country-level priorities and context-specific changes across the global confederation. This process identified 3 levels of priorities:

  • Core Priorities that all of Oxfam were expected to contribute to to ensure collective impact.
  • Shared Priorities that a significant number of Oxfam affiliates and/ or countries were already working on, or wanted to engage in.
  • Emerging Priorities that only a small part of Oxfam might be engaged in but which allowed room for experimentation and the sowing of seeds for future endeavors.

This strategic flexibility helped Oxfam to effectively navigate the perennial tension between short-term and long-term priorities and to respond dynamically to evolving circumstances while remaining rooted in its core mission and values.

Beyond the ‘technical’ aspects, the scenario process contributed to a sense of renewed optimism and healing. After much introspection and hard inner work following the ‘safeguarding crisis’ the focus shifted on how to shape the future differently. One of the leaders of the process noted:

“The Transformative Scenarios work turned out to be a gamechanger. The participatory approach created a feeling of being seen and heard, and the future orientation contributed to healing after the difficult moments that Oxfam had lived through. It helped us to recognise and appreciate the past while acknowledging that the future is different. It gave an opportunity to refocus, and ask, what are we here for, what do we want to achieve, and how do we want to achieve it — together with others?”

It also gave Oxfam an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment and capacity to change. Oxfam looking firmly to the future also showed others that it was possible:

“To have the courage to go through the scenarios process was one of the best decisions we made. It helped Oxfam move forward with confidence and with a very bold voice in the pandemic, putting the fight against inequality to end poverty and injustice firmly at the centre of our advocacy work.”

System level: Scenarios for the future of the Education system in Brazil

In 2014, Brazil’s national education system was facing significant challenges in catering to its 50 million students. The educational performance of its students on international tests placed them in the range of 54th to 60th out of 65 countries, and issues like grade repetition and drop-out rates were widespread. Additionally, many of the systemic problems in the country, such as having one of the world’s highest youth incarceration rates, could be traced back to the shortcomings of the education system.

The education system was characterized by fragmentation, and discussions were deeply entrenched in ideological divides, with various perspectives and priorities competing to shape the future of education in Brazil. Although a new national education plan had been recently approved, the negotiation process had been exceptionally prolonged, spanning three years. This extended negotiation period not only reflected but also exacerbated longstanding conflicts and disagreements among the diverse stakeholders involved. In this context, Reos Partners used transformative scenarios to bring together a team of education leaders in Brazil to engage in dialogue about the different and often conflicting perspectives on what would be required to transform the future of basic education in the country.

The process began with 71 “dialogue interviews” with leaders in the system. Dialogue interviews allow for a reflective conversation to uncover participants’ hopes, concerns, ideas and expectations in anticipation of a scenario-building exercise. The interview questions are intentionally crafted to enable the interviewee to step into a mindset of inquiry and imagination. The interviews also ensure that everyone in the group feels genuinely heard and understood by the facilitators before entering into the workshop phase. This has a remarkable impact on the subsequent quality of dialogue once people actually meet face-to-face. Not only have they each individually already had an experience of feeling heard and warming up in a conducive space for future-oriented conversation, but they also arrive with curiosity about the perspective and insights shared by other participants during their individual interviews.

Of these 71 diverse stakeholders, 41 participated in the scenario construction process, meeting four times over 12 months in a series of 2–3 day residential workshops in a retreat setting. They worked through steps of sharing their core concerns, uncertainties and certainties about the future, and the drivers that would influence the future of education in Brazil. They spent reflective time in nature thinking about what stories Brazilian society needed to hear about the future of education, and out of this process gradually came to alignment around four scenarios.

The Brazil Education Scenarios became a meeting point for deep listening and learning to collaborate and explore conflicts and differences. There was a clear shift in the relationships between key stakeholders, most of whom had previously met only in adversarial contexts. By creating a different type of space and working on a different kind of task, they were able to engage with each other in new ways. The workshops also included an element of regular embodiment exercises to enhance co-creative engagement among the participants. This creative way of working was unfamiliar to some participants, but embraced as the process continued over time.


Brazil education scenarios team preparing for nature retreat


By focusing on the future, the scenario work allowed for a more open conversation about what could happen rather than the traditional debates about what should happen. This enabled and challenged the different camps to also recognise and incorporate into their scenarios the possible risks, downsides, and costs to the strategies that they were advocating for. There were many conflictual moments, but by staying in the process, the participants managed to change the quality of their interactions and engagement with each other. Even as they maintained disagreements about their preferred policies and strategies, they shifted their points of view and adjusted their approaches as a result of being exposed to diverse needs and perspectives and hence less embedded in silo’d thinking.

The resulting National Scenarios for the Future of Education in Brazil were disseminated nationally. They provided new language, an invaluable rhetoric-free focal point, an improved understanding of the challenges beyond ideologies, and a new configuration of relationships in the education system. The scenarios were presented and discussed in many fora and events and the communication was facilitated by the creation of a cartoon video and the use of metaphors related to the behavior patterns of different Brazilian birds. The accessible communication materials allowed for inclusive dialogue involving young students, people with disabilities, local communities and other stakeholders who are otherwise often marginalised from political and strategic national level conversation. The dialogue experience was thus not only among the participants who constructed the scenarios but also among those who engaged with them subsequently and employed them to reflect on the implications for the system.

In bringing together this group, Reos Partners “did the impossible”, said one member of the convening alliance. There was a clear shift in the relationships among key stakeholders, as this process of dialogue and collective construction was quite different from the usual forums of debate. One scenario team member said, “We created partnerships and friendships, relationships. It was a profound learning process. The experience we had together, a group of diverse actors, was very rich.

Societal level: Scenarios for the future of Cyprus

For nearly 50 years, Cyprus has been a divided island. Social, economic, geo-political, religious and ethnic tensions rooted in its complex history remain unresolved and recent decades have seen a number of unsuccessful attempts for addressing the situation despite UN facilitated negotiations. In early 2022, many Cypriots felt the situation was stuck. With elections upcoming in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey in 2023, there was appetite (though little political space) for a new kind of conversation. In this context, Reos Partners, in collaboration with the PRIO Cyprus Centre and the Result Mediation Foundation supported a Cypriot-led, Cypriot-owned transformative scenarios process to get underway.

The transformative scenarios process successfully brought together the “unlike-minded” and the “unusual suspects”. The participants included a wide diversity of perspectives across sectors, professions, and generations: doctors, teachers, lawyers, business entrepreneurs, artists, clergy, academics, and civil society actors. The group was gender balanced and included half Greek Cypriots and half Turkish Cypriots. Religious and other minorities were included. Ages ranged from mid 20’s to 70’s. While the group was broadly representative of Cypriot society, each participant joined the process as an individual rather than as a representative of a specific institution or constituency. As a whole person, they each brought their full knowledge, perspective, and experience to the process.

As with the Brazil Education scenarios, careful attention was given to setting up the “container” for the Cyprus Scenario Team to do their work. Workshops were held in a retreat setting close to nature. To enable open dialogue, it was necessary to meet off the island, so the workshops were held in Austria. The group oscillated between two key workspaces: A circle set up with no tables in between, and a workspace with six small tables where creative work could take place in different group formations. A storytelling space was set up in a separate room with comfortable light and cushions. The venue was exclusive to the Scenario Team in the days that they were there, and ample informal space was available in the bar, restaurant, and garden of the hotel.

This Scenario Team collectively developed a set of scenarios with the support of impartial facilitators and a scenario editor. Each of them volunteered about 15 days of their time, some far more than this, to engage in this exercise through residential workshops, online gatherings, and follow-up dialogues. They were determined to go beyond the predictable scenarios, which are familiar to the political elite in Cyprus and shape the mantras of the diplomatic community and the fixed negotiating positions of the parties to the conflict. They deeply challenged each other around the criterion of plausibility, confronting each other’s notions and beliefs about what could actually happen, while appealing to each other’s imaginations.

The Cyprus Futures scenarios were fully completed in the beginning of 2023. While the “Cyprus Problem” (the frozen conflict related to the ongoing dispute between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots) is an important dimension of the scenarios, it is not the sole focus. The scenarios also consider other concerns of Cypriots today including social and economic development, energy, trade, security, climate, youth prospects, and education. At the same time, much as the real everyday concerns of Cypriots go far beyond the division of the island, it was clear that all these concerns are impacted by that political reality and that it’s impossible to trace scenarios of the future without centering the unsustainable and abnormal situation the island has found itself in over 50 years.

After they were launched, the scenarios were widely covered in the local media and discussed in various meetings and fora in Cyprus as well as in international launch events in Geneva, London, and Brussels. Scenario Team members also held confidential briefings with a range of political stakeholders and other relevant actors. They continue to create and seize opportunities to engage with a wide range of stakeholders on the scenarios and the future of Cyprus through formal and informal interactions in both parts of the island and beyond Nicosia. Team members pursue opportunities both individually and collectively, while also, in the worlds of one member, “most importantly, weaving scenario thinking into everyday conversations with fellow Cypriots.

One of the scenario team members, Alexandros Lordos reflected on the exercise as follows:

…what this scenario process has helped me with is to make sense of my frustration. And how does it make sense? I was hitting against people that were pursuing other futures and we never spoke about what that other future was… And because these underlying assumptions that we had were never discussed, we were all just arguing at each other and getting angry at each other and starting to dislike each other. I really think this scenarios approach can help us to start listening, to understand that we have collectively failed to work out where we are going and maybe by listening and understanding each other’s perspectives, we can see how we can proceed.


While these three cases are significantly different from one another in terms of context and level, they all demonstrate the value and relevance of future-orientation for promoting and elevating dialogue. In this section, we highlight three key lessons about why this works.

1. The power of future-orientation for shifting from debate mode to dialogue mode

It is not the case that all conversations about the future automatically generate dialogue. Frequently, when we talk about the future, we are in two types of conversations:

  • The conversation about what we think will happen, in which we are competing to be right in our predictions and to be superior to others in our knowledge and expertise.
  • The conversation about what we think should happen, in which we are advocating for our beliefs, values, agendas, and interests, over those of others.

Both of these conversations lead us into a “debate” mode, where we are trying to win and convince, and where we are stuck in a right/wrong stance. Or they bring us into what we call “downloading” mode where we are in a habitual conversation, downloading and regurgitating our existing knowledge and points of view.

A focus on the future is a powerful enabler for bringing people together in dialogue across differences when the conversation is framed not about what should happen or what will happen but rather about what could happen. The task to imagine possible futures in itself requires people to dialogue rather than debate.

This conversation invites dialogue because:

  • Every individual can see a multiplicity of right answers to the question about what could happen, not only one.
  • No single person can see the full realm of possibilities — engaging with and listening to diverse others who spend their time in a different part of the system is a key enabler of being able to engage with this question.
  • No one knows the future. In the conversation about what could happen, uncertainty is welcome, a prerequisite and a resource. This gives us permission to step out of our expert mind.

Even in a scenarios process, participants often will slide into the conversation about what they want. As facilitators, we make it an explicit ground rule that this is not a space for advocacy, but rather a space for exploration. We repeatedly call it out when participants go into advocacy mode. Scenario dialogue doesn’t necessarily come naturally, because it is not incentivised and so it is not a “muscle” that we have all trained. Over the course of a transformative scenarios process, people are supported to build this muscle and capability.

A task such as this one, which invites and requires people to engage in dialogue rather than debate has an important effect of leveling the playing field and overcoming power asymmetry. Often the ones who win in a debate about what will and should happen do so because they have high rank (either of position, resources, or persuasion). Those with less power, rank and privilege tend to consistently be more comfortable and able to contribute if invited into a dialogue mode rather than a debate mode. Those with more power sometimes feel they are losing something in dialogue mode because hierarchy is serving them less. This is one of the core and subtle ways in which scenarios work is transformative.

2. The relief of shifting the gaze from the past to the future

In all three of our cases, the organisation, the system, and the society were to some extent stuck in the past, and found relief in shifting the gaze to the future.

In the words of Cyprus Futures team member, Alexandros Lordos:

When we look at the past, we see a lot of complexity, a lot of frustrating and traumatizing events. There are good ways to look into history, like to learn from mistakes, to affirm values, to honor our ancestors, to forgive, to heal, to let go. But there are also important reasons to look towards the future to reflect on our possibilities and choices, to identify threats, to develop shared visions, to mobilize for collective action. The problem is that the future is unknown because it depends on choices that people haven’t made yet. It’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen. It’s so difficult and maybe even scary that sometimes we just tune out from even trying to think about it. But what scenarios do is that they make that unknown future into something more manageable.

This shifting of the gaze helps people to step into a more co-creative and less conflictual conversation for the following reasons:

  • It offers a structured way to have a conversation that is otherwise unfamiliar and easily derailed.
  • It uses story-telling and narrative in a detached kind of tone to enable making invisible dynamics visible and surfacing issues that are otherwise too conflictual or taboo.
  • It engages the imagination and hence allows for thinking together in a freer, more exploratory manner.


3. Diversity of views as a requirement, not an obstacle

In transformative scenarios work, diversity is by design an asset rather than a liability. Within the diverse Scenario Team, people see different parts of the system and they must listen and be curious about each other to succeed at this task. We have had numerous experiences where one participant says “This is not plausible” and someone from a different part of the system responds, “Come to my community and you will see it is already happening.” When people collaborate in a diverse team to generate such scenarios, the output is a rich interwoven tapestry, where the contributions of all perspectives shine through. Every team member is like a sensory organ or an antenna for the Scenario Team as a whole. All their viewpoints can fit in because the story form has an incredible potential to contain a high amount of complexity, multiple dimensions and interdependencies.

The scenario exercise is quite a unique space and assignment in that it does not require any level of agreement on basic principles or values in order to join. This is uncommon — most spaces aim for some level of agreement on shared declarations or action plans. The absence of any requirement to come to agreement on what is right and wrong, on what should happen, and what we will do, allows for the inclusion of a radical level of diversity. This is a great opportunity for people to be able to engage in dialogue with their opponents without feeling the imperative to change and persuade one another.

Of course, spaces that work towards agreement are also needed. Transformative scenarios work is a complementary effort that fills a gap: By lowering the barriers to meeting with one’s opponents, it offers a space in which mutual trust and understanding can be built that can lower tensions and polarisation. Participants may not come to agreement, but they often realise that their opponent’s dream is not their nightmare.


Transformative scenarios processes do not change the world on their own. They must build on prior experiences and feed into parallel and subsequent processes for change. But they complement other processes by offering a space where relationships are built across divides and where imagination can be activated for healing, trust-building, and expansion of insight.

A major challenge in transformative scenarios work is the question of “what’s next?” How do you translate a set of multiple imaginations of the future into agency and action? This is especially the case if there are multiple desirable futures, and if different stakeholders continue to disagree on which future is desirable. These processes must be followed up with implications workshops, where people with agency can translate them into leverage areas and actionable strategies. In our experience, such implications workshops are most effective if they are undertaken in more focused groups where there is a more immediate affinity or interdependence, rather than in radically diverse stakeholder teams. The Oxfam International case demonstrates the value of having a structured strategic process and a specific organisational context for scenarios to feed into.

A second challenge is the time investment required to develop co-owned scenarios in a diverse group of stakeholders. In all three cases used in this article, the people involved invested a great amount of time and energy in producing the scenarios. They consistently found this time well spent, but if these resources are not available, there is a high probability and risk of coming up with scenarios that are superficial and reinforce existing assumptions and worldviews.


Transformative scenarios result from dialogue but are also in themselves a tool for further dialogue. The approach has led to important impacts in the many places and situations where it has been applied, generating insights that have informed new strategies and policies and given birth to new alliances and institutions.

However, the success of this work lies perhaps more profoundly in the capabilities and relationships that it builds. In an increasingly complex and constantly changing context, where people operate in separate echo chambers of information and the ability to be in generative dialogue across differences seems to be shrinking, we need powerful spaces that build bridges between diverse minds across silos, and which strengthen capabilities for navigating uncertainty and complexity. In the current context, dialogue is not only a means to an end but a valuable objective in and of itself.    

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