In the last couple of days, I have been working with a core team in our institution on a strategic planning process to structure and organize a major upcoming event – a Congress of 10,000 people which will be held at the end of next year. We spent a good deal of our 14.5 hours together building a wall-sized work plan that detailed every aspect of the Congress that we could think of – and tried to understand how these all fit together in terms of sequencing and responsibilities, as well as the kinds of knowledge gaps or risks that we could identify now. The final, enormous visual result was less overwhelming than expected because we knew that everyone understood each other’s individual pieces, and were there to help.

We did not start this exercise with extrapolating what needed to happen from today (that started after lunch). Instead we started with what kind of a Congress we wanted. We talked about what we wanted to achieve in terms of strategic objectives, and our most energised discussions were around how to have a healthy and happy Congress for everyone involved. These Congresses happen every four years, and are increasingly marathon events, with thousands of participants, hundreds of staff, hundreds of different activities happening concurrently, and – because they happen in a different place and with a different team each time- a steep learning curve. Our conversation about a healthy Congress (which is actually one of the sub-themes, although it is meant more in a global sustainable development sense) tapped people in to what they wanted their Congress to look like and be, not only for participants, but for them as the people who devote their lives to it for the two years preceding it.

During those 14 days of the Congress they wanted features both simple and complex. They wanted regular break times and meals, for sustenance and reflection; they wanted fresh air and some exercise (besides running around an enormous conference centre). They wanted clear responsibilities and lines of communication; and they wanted recognition for great work (and not just those emergency calls when things fall apart). They wanted the ability to participate in the substantive discussions to be built into their terms of engagement, so that they also could contribute to the debate. All of these things would help create the Congress they wanted to see, and would give them something to aim for. This is a more normative approach, describing desired future (I read an interesting definition of normative as being “one step beyond normal”). Normal, is what you might get if you use an extrapolative approach – one that infers or estimates the future by extending or projecting known information.

These two choices for developing future pathways, whether using extrapolative or normative approaches, are equally valid whether you are planning a major event, reorganizing an entire institution, developing a new programme, or trying to figure out what you want to do with your life – all four types of conversations I have had with people over the last week. The tendency seems to be to use extrapolation. How far can we get if we tweak this or that? What kind of different outcomes might we get if we experiment with normative forecasting? This might be a better way if your goal is big change.

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