Tuesday, October 28, 2008

[Long Range Thinking] Negotiating through a complex problem (Part 1)

In 'Solving Tough Problems', Adam Kahane talks about his involvement in a negotiation about what post-apartheid South Africa would look like. Could they achieve the seemingly-impossible, and negotiate a peaceful transition in power that would lead to a prosperous country? The negotiations were held at the Mont Fleur Conference Center. What follows are direct quotes from the book:


The teams at Mont Fleur started off in mixed small groups, brainstorming possible scenarios for South Africa over the decade ahead. I asked them to talk not about what they or their party wanted to happen - their usual way of talking about the future - but simply about what might happen, regardless of what they wanted.

Each small group could present back to the whole group any story that day they wanted, as long as they could argue that it was logical and plausible. The listeners in the plenary were not permitted to shout down the story with "That couldn't happen" for "I don't want that to happen." They could only ask "Why would that happen?" or " What would happen next?"

The team found this scenario came to be fabulously liberating. They told stories of left-wing revolution, right-wing revolts, and free-market utopias. They told some politically incorrect stories, and also rejected as implausible some politically correct stories.

These scenario exercise also encouraged openness and reflectiveness. The scenarios were what if stories to play with, not predictions or proposals to sell. They emphasised multiple views about what might happen, rather than a single story about what would or should happen. They dealt with dynamic complexity because they addressed the whole situation in terms of causes and effects; with generative complexity because they addressed ways the future might be different from the past; and with social complexity because they created space not just for one "official future" but for many perspectives. Above all, they articulated links between the choices that the team members and their fellow citizens would make and the way in which the future would unfold.

(SJH: It appears that this exercise took place over a few days)

The first brainstorming exercise produced 30 stories. The team combined these and narrowed them down to nine for further work, and set up for some teams to flesh out the scenarios along social, political, economic, and international dimensions. The subteams worked from September through December, when the whole team reconvened at Montt Fleur for a second workshop.


I've broken this description of the Mont Fleur process into a series of posts. The next one will be up tomorrow.
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