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.

Some months back, Dennis Meadows – a renowned Systems Dynamist and author of ‘Limits to Growth’ (1972), visited our organization and spoke with us about the future of oil. Recently I’ve been referring back to his presentation, and especially to the series of three graphs shown here and illustrating easy problems, hard problems and how hard problems become easy with greater time horizon. These graphs make great sense to me. My question is: How can we most effectively influence decision-makers in expanding time horizons – often beyond their term of office? This is a hard sell, particularly because we often see things get worse before they get better.

I come back to an earlier post in which I wrote about theories of change and concluded that the knowledge → behaviour change theory is not a universal truth (as many smokers, people working on climate change and many others will know only too well). How do we help prepare people to go ‘cold turkey’ for the sake of better longer term health – whether of us as individuals, as institutions or societies, or for the sake of the health of the planet?

“The paradox is that if you really want to change how people act, don’t ask them to come to a meeting on action,” said Adam Kahane during the presentation of a proposed scenarios dialogue process aiming to develop answers to the question: Who would have to do what by when, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate?

At first glance, inviting people to develop answers to the question – Who would have to do what by when, in order to stabilize the earth’s climate? – might appear to be inviting people to a meeting on action. But what Adam and colleague Earl Saxon are proposing is not a space in which people commit to action. They propose an exploration. They propose exploring a number of “possible concrete courses of actions by different sectors and countries that would, in aggregate, achieve climate stabilization, together with an analysis of the costs, benefits, tradeoffs and challenges for different actors in each scenario.”

Since the early 1990’s, Adam Kahane has been using scenarios for open and in-depth dialogue among diverse, influential and committed leaders. He has learned that “it is possible for all the people who are part of a mess to sit together and find a peaceful way forward.” And he has learned that this is facilitated by the creation of spaces for off-the-record exchanges away from formal decision-making processes, in which people can try to put political agendas aside and talk, listen and think differently with one-another. For Adam, this is an incredibly powerful part of generating the “will to act” – the challenge of achieving which is so often massively underestimated.

Whilst formal channels (such as the IPCC and UNFCCC) have their role in generating the will to act to address climate change, how powerfully might they be complemented by parallel, generative dialogue processes which ask leaders to explore future scenarios which stretch imaginations, challenge ideas of what is possible and develop shared understanding of options? How might other processes in which we are involved benefit from a similar approach? And how should we invite participants for greatest success?

In the next few days no doubt we will be writing a lot about a recent meeting we held on “Exploring Deep Change Processes: Learning from Around the World”. As I work through my reflections, I thought I would start with the discussion about how much choice we really have about how we see our own past, present and future.

One of our speakers was Ulrich Goluke, from blue-way, who is a scenarios and systems practitioner. He urged us to think about the future in a deliberate way and to have the courage to choose and develop for ourselves a set of possible scenarios for our futures. He prefaced his contribution with a short game, described below:

In pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though it was a heroic one.

In the same pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though you were a victim.

For many of the participants, this exercise was a “Wow” (we collected “wows” at the end of the workshop.) Why did this short exercise mean so much to people? It was incredible that with the one data set (our lives) we could frame the same sequence of life experiences so convincingly and so truthfully as both a heroic endeavour, and as a victim. Where one moment we were proud of where we were and our future, and four minutes later, we lamented the fact that we had only come this far due to events that kept us from living to our full potential.

This really showed how much choice we have in how we project ourselves into the world in the present and in the future; how we tell ourselves stories that can either celebrate a life, or despair it. Ultimately, we can choose the story we want to tell, and it can lift us up, or bring us down. It’s our choice…