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Changing The Winds

Each of us has a choice to make about how we look at the future. Will we be most effective by trying to adapt to what is happening in the world around us? Or by choosing to participate in shaping the future?

Looking back on my career, I can see that I have been working on these questions for the past fifteen years, in large companies around the world and in public projects in Canada, South Africa, Colombia, and elsewhere. This work reminds me of Joseph Campbell's circular "hero's journey," the stages that all of us—not just great mythic characters—meet on the way to finding our life's work: the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, the road of trials, the supreme ordeal, and the return and gift.

So far, four lessons about strategy have stayed with me from my experiences in the cauldron of public conflict.

1. The Man with the Answers

I grew up in Montreal in a family which believed in working to make the world a better place (the emphasis was more on thinking and doing than on feeling and being). I studied physics at McGill University. In 1981 I went to a conference in Calgary organized by Pugwash, an organization of scientists striving to prevent nuclear war. I found it very inspiring, particularly a woman from Sri Lanka who spoke of energy as a more pressing challenge to developing countries than nuclear weapons. I met John Holdren, who invited me to pursue a graduate degree in energy economics. I arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982, eager to learn how to use policy to help the world. Professor Holdren taught a course, "Tricks of the Trade," about influencing the world. What I took away from this course was that the main thing was to produce the right answer quickly, so that when testifying before a Senate committee (which we all aspired to do), we could say, "Well, Senator, that's a good question, and I think that the right answer would be exactly 3.2 terajoules, and that's why you should support this legislation."

After graduating, I joined Pacific Gas and Electric. I learned more of the same. You became a star by having quick answers to your boss's questions: "Well, boss, I think the rate of return on this project would be 15.2 percent and that we should go for it." Then I was recruited to work at Royal Dutch/Shell in Group Planning Coordination in London, eventually to head up the social-political-economic-technological scenario team. For somebody interested in strategy work, this was the pinnacle. By this time, I was very analytical in my approach, with a lot of knowledge about the energy industry; that's why I was hired. But I had lost most of my interest in changing the world. I was dispassionate, even cynical. At the same time, I loved the Shell environment. I found the people incredibly smart and knowledgeable. If they were arrogant it was because they were the best. I admired them and was proud to be one of them.

I learned the scenario method there. My teacher was Group Planner Kees van der Heijden, who taught me that the purpose of scenario planning was to observe the world and help the organization adapt to it. Talking from idealism, about outcomes we wanted, was not only improper, but dangerous. It led people into trouble; thinking about their desired futures, they might act outside their proper domain or miss important signals that didn't fit with their desires. It was critical to differentiate clearly what you could and could not influence. As Kees says, "If you're in a hang glider, then you have options as to how you lean and distribute your weight. But you only have scenarios for the direction of the wind. If you start talking about options for wind direction, as if your wishes about wind direction could influence it, you will get terribly hurt."

I was not completely happy with this approach. It implied that Shell, one of the largest corporations in the world, didn't and shouldn't have much influence on the world. Shell's leaders and planners thought that it would be improper and irresponsible—not our job—to exert influence outside a closely-circumscribed domain. Except in matters that directly affected the business, our task was to observe and adapt.

This realistic, adaptive paradigm dominates thinking about corporations and corporate strategy. Philosophically, it corresponds to objectivism and representationalism, where we assume that there is a given world out there that we can study. The danger I saw was that it could end up being reactive and

irresponsible. But I also saw problems with its opposite, the idealistic pole, where we assume that we can create the world we want. Philosophically this is subjectivism and solipsism—everything is possible, only my interior life exists—and the dangers are myopia and hubris. So I found myself stuck on the horns of a true dilemma.

I wouldn't have said it then, but in retrospect this period corresponds to Joseph Campbell's "the wasteland," a time of living inauthentically. I learned a lot; looking back, though, I see that I did not fit.

When Kees retired from Shell, he was replaced by an outsider, a visionary lawyer and businessman named Joseph Jaworski, who had founded the American Leadership Forum and is now my partner in the Centre for Generative Leadership. Joe caused a ruckus at Group Planning; he wanted the scenario work to be activist, to contribute to shaping a better world. He also believed in the importance and power of a leader's and a company's higher purpose, beyond simply observing, adapting, making money, and surviving. This stance sparked deep disagreements in Group Planning, but it struck a deep chord within me. I found my energy, which had been sapped, coming back. Campbell calls this "the call to adventure." You hear a call, you don't know what it is, and you don't even recognize it as a call.

In 1991, Shell was invited to send a staff member to South Africa to facilitate a series of workshops being organized by Professor Pieter le Roux at a conference center near Cape Town called Mont Fleur. The project (see box, p. 85) was an attempt to use the Shell scenario method to improve strategic thinking and conversation among South African leaders about the future of their country.

South Africa had just begun the transition from apartheid to a democratic government. It was only a year since Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and the left-wing opposition legalized; the first all-race elections would not be held for two more years. It was a period of many activities where people who had been in deep conflict were getting together to search collaboratively for a way forward.

Scenarios were already well known in South Africa because during the 1980s a scenario exercise led by Clem Sunter, a senior executive at the Anglo American mining corporation, had played an influential, public role in building discussion, particularly among the white population, about possibilities and options. But the Anglo American scenarios, for all their insights, fell short of their potential because they were developed by a fairly homogeneous team and in effect handed to the country as a set of answers.

The Mont Fleur scenarios were different. The multiracial scenario team included twenty-two members from across the spectrum of South Africa's diverse constituencies: community activists, conservative politicians, African National Congress officials, trade unionists, mainstream economists, and senior corporate executives. Our objective was to develop a set of alternative stories about South Africa's future, to provoke debate and forward movement.

One Mont Fleur scenario ("Lame Duck") envisioned a prolonged transition with a constitutionally weakened transitional government. Because the government "purports to respond to all, but satisfies none," investors hold back, and growth and development languish amidst a mood of long, slow uncertainty. This was an important scenario because a coalition government was being negotiated, and the scenario allowed people to see potential dangers and how to mitigate them. Another scenario ("Icarus") suggested that a black government could come to power on a wave of public support, embark on a huge, unsustainable public spending program, and consequently crash the economy. For the first time, a team including prominent left-wing economists discussed the possibility of a new government trying to do too much.

The Mont Fleur project contributed to the building of a common language for talking across groups about the opportunities and challenges facing the country. This shared understanding—together with the fruits of constant other workshops, meetings, and negotiations—eventually helped lead to the unprecedented "miraculous" transition from minority to majority rule in 1994. One specific Mont Fleur contribution was creating a more realistic assessment of the crucial economic dimension of the transition; previously, most people had focused only on political, military and constitutional aspects.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by this experience. I liked the South Africans. I found them warm and I admired their extraordinary capacity to listen to each other. I respected the sacrifices that the people I was meeting had made to bring their country to this juncture. At the same time, I was struck by my own effectiveness as a facilitator. In fact, I was more effective in the Mont Fleur project than I had ever been before—and than I would be again for many years. I had done something right, but I didn't know what it was.

Eventually I figured it out. At Mont Fleur, I had had almost no time to prepare. With more time, I would have done my normal PG&E or Shell thing. I would have read, formed opinions, and brought a recommendation. I was effective because I arrived in ignorance and respect. One of the participants, Howard Gabriels, said afterwards, "Adam, we couldn't believe anyone could be as ignorant as you. We were sure that you were trying to manipulate us. But when we realized you really didn't know anything and were really there just to support us, we decided to trust you."

This was my first lesson: I was much more effective when I gave up the stance of knowing and arrogance and replaced it with one of wonder and reverence. This allowed me to enter into what philosopher Martin Buber calls an "I–Thou" relationship with the rest of the group. Such relationships are the source of generativity.

2. The Messy Gray Zone

Mont Fleur was the start of a series of love affairs for me. I fell in love with the country, with this new "servant consulting" work, and with Dorothy, the project coordinator, whom I ended up marrying. I resigned from Shell, moved to South Africa, and started to work internationally as a strategy consultant to both private companies and public institutions. In Campbell's terms, this was "crossing the threshold" into another world.

I wondered for a long time whether the Mont Fleur scenarios were actually scenarios in the way I had been taught to use the term. Were they stories responding to outside events, like the Shell scenarios, or were they, in fact, options that people might choose? Kees van der Heijden convinced me that, technically speaking, the Mont Fleur scenarios were Shell-style adaptive scenarios. None of the participants had the option of choosing South Africa's future. They could only choose options for themselves based on an understanding of events around them. On the other hand, in the years that followed I could see influential South Africans using the scenarios, not only as a guide for their own choices, but as a way to talk through and influence their country's destiny.

I also wondered about a comment made by Rob Davies, a member of the team. "The exercise was very good," he said. "But I felt that I had to compromise." Why, I wondered, did he feel dissatisfied? Campbell talks about the hero's "road of trials," in which valuable knowledge may be forgotten. In fact, I forgot the first lesson almost immediately. My old arrogance came back, my learning slowed down, and I began to consider myself the North's gift to South Africa. In 1994, I organized a meeting in Berkeley with Steve Rosell, Don Michael, and Ed Schein—all highly respected theorists on collaborative learning. I wanted them to tell me how to make these projects work. It was a terrible meeting. Eventually, Ed said, "You know, Adam, your approach is foolish. You are living in the world's greatest laboratory of collaborative futures and you're asking us what to do." I had reached the nadir of my "knowing," not able to see what was in front of my nose.

I was working at the time with Kees van der Heijden on a scenario project with Steve Rosell for the Canadian government. Like most state organizations, the Canadian government had never done scenario work. Why do scenarios when you control the fate of the country and can simply choose the future you want? But when Kees and I got there, this assumption of control was being questioned. "We have these levers that as civil servants we've been trained to use," one of them told us, "but the levers don't seem to be connected to anything any more."

Meanwhile, I was working in South Africa with various collaborative "forums" composed of businesses, government, opposition parties, trade unions, and community organizations, trying to find a way to reshape the country's institutions. People in the forums joked that there was both "a practical and a miraculous solution. The practical solution is that we all get out of our chairs, get down on our knees, and pray for a band of angels to come and solve this problem. The miraculous solution is, we stay here, work together, and find the solution ourselves."

I learned my second lesson from contrasting these two experiences. People seemed much more effective when they gave up the illusion of being in control, and tried instead to work through things with others. When, as with the Canadians, they held onto the need to deal only with things under their control, they weren't effective. They operated in an all-or-nothing, black-or-white, win-or-lose world that didn't reflect the way things really work. The South Africans, by contrast, were daring to play in a gray zone between complete control on the one hand and no influence on the other, a generative domain where they had less control than they wished but more influence than they expected.

3. The Dimension of the Heart

I later became involved in a larger scenario project on the future of Canada, in the context of fierce debates over economic and social policy, Québec secession, and other issues. Modeled on Mont Fleur and convened by businessman Michael Adams, these sessions brought together Canadians from across the spectrum: Quebécois and Western leaders, businesspeople and trade unionists, community leaders, and aboriginal peoples. The group took a particularly long time to come to consensus; we had to add an extra session. I felt fogged in, unable to see clearly the picture we were trying to create.

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has said, "Just because English Canadians don't move their faces much, doesn't mean we don't have feelings." As a Canadian I certainly had strong feelings about the subjects we were discussing, but I didn't pay much attention to my feelings and certainly didn't articulate them. Most members of the group behaved in the same way. Although the rational arguments often had an emotional edge, peoples' feelings were rarely put on the table. Somehow this slowed things down.

Around the same time, in South Africa, Dorothy Kahane and I facilitated an uplifting strategy session for the Synod of Bishops. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had retired and Winston Ndungane, his successor, wanted to get his thirty-two bishops together to plan for the future of the Anglican Church in South Africa. We knew this would be a very special workshop within the first fifteen minutes, when we were establishing ground rules. Someone suggested, "We must listen to each other." So far, nothing out of the ordinary; that rule is usually suggested. But then a second bishop said, "No, I think we must listen empathetically." A third bishop said, "No, we must listen to the sacred within each of us."

In corporate strategy sessions, we often downplay the spiritual dimension of our work. That wasn't necessary with the bishops. We started and finished each day in church. Al-though there were many clashes during the workshop, people dealt effectively with difficult and important issues, including some that had been undiscussable for decades.

I learned my third lesson from these experiences. Strategy work is not only work of the mind—the only training I had ever had for it—but work of the heart and spirit as well. Without open acceptance of that heart and spirit, you can have neither true connection nor true passion—the source of commitment and will, and the root of all great strategy.

Now I also had a clue to Rob Davies' concern about compromise. To compromise meant to give in; he had been hoping for a consensus, a true accord. The great social scientist Solomon Asch said that "consensus is valid only to the extent that each adheres to the testimony of his experience and steadfastly maintains his hold on reality." The bishops had the capacity for true consensus because they were able to speak openly about their experiences, invoking more than only their minds.

4. Changing the World

To Joseph Campbell, the "supreme ordeal" refers to the peak experience on life's journey, after which the hero is never the same. If I have experienced such an event, it was the scenario project I facilitated in Colombia in 1997 at the invitation of businessman Manuel José Carvajal. Colombia had been our metaphor at Shell for everything going wrong. We used to refer to "Colombianization" as the drifting of an economy into a downward spiral of criminality and impoverishment. Now I was going to facilitate a scenario exercise in the middle of a guerrilla war with tens of thousands of people under arms, with one of the world's largest drug trafficking operations, under a corrupt political and economic system. One of the jokes at the workshop summarized the country's mindset. "In Colombia, the optimists say, 'The way things are going here, we're all going to end up eating shit.' And the pessimists say, 'Yes, and there won't even be enough to go around.'"

At the same time, the forty-four members of the scenario team were wonderfully intelligent, sensitive, and humane. We divided our evenings between earnest debate and loud singing. The team members were far more diverse than the Mont Fleur participants had been. Team members included academics, business people, and trade unionists; rebels and members of the militia who were fighting them; retired army generals and members of environmental groups; peasant community leaders and newspaper owners; representatives of black people, indigenous people, and youth. I think that about a third of the participants had lost immediate members of their families to the conflict that they were discussing: somebody's father had been assassinated, somebody's sister had been kidnapped, somebody's son had been killed. They weren't just observing, they were as intensely engaged as you can imagine.

Technically, it was an almost surrealistically challenging project. One right-wing paramilitary leader had just been released from prison, but all the top leaders of the left-wing guerrillas were in hiding, in prison, or in exile. For the ten days of the workshops, four guerrilla leaders participated via speakerphone. One of them, in exile in Costa Rica, called in from a different phone every workshop. Another one called from a prison pay phone, saying, "I only have a few coins, but I really need to give my input on Scenario 'B.'"

Those people who had suffered most in the war were, in many cases, the most humble, open, and respectful of the others. They were able to listen and suspend judgment, even of their enemies. This reminded me of my first lesson, the importance of wonder and reverence. I had seen the same phenomenon in South Africa. In these terrible, terrible situations, people who are not destroyed by the conflict are purified by it—touched by grace. These Colombians realized that they were in a war that nobody could win, that they had to struggle together to resolve. Every day they lived with the second lesson, the need to move from the illusion of control to the gray zone of influence.

The third lesson was also often with us. These participants had the capacity to speak from the heart, to express their fear, anger, hope, and faith. When they did, the fog in the room lifted and the stark dynamics we were trying to study became clear. One of the most powerful sessions was an evening where participants all told stories from their own lives. During another workshop I said that I was concerned about some of the participants being mortally afraid of each other. One of the guerrillas responded over the speakerphone: "Why are you surprised at this fear, Mr. Kahane? Of course the fear that pervades Colombia is also in the workshop room."

At the end of 1997, the team meetings ended. Since then the stories have been told and debated throughout the country. One story, "When the Sun Rises We'll See," paints a downward spiral that could ensue if status quo attitudes and strategies continue; the moral of the story, drawing on a well-known Colombian saying, is "the worst thing people can do is do nothing." Another story, "A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush," explores how a compromise could be negotiated between the government and the guerrillas; the moral for this one is "any settlement is better than continuing a bad lawsuit." As of this writing in early 1999, the work has been published as an insert in every Colombian newspaper (one million copies), televised in a one-hour special carried on every Colombian TV station and watched by eight million people, and presented in speeches to over 17,000 people. After many years of paralysis, things are starting to move in the country, with hopeful negotiations beginning between the government and guerrillas. Somehow the scenario process has exemplified—and perhaps contributed to bringing forward—a shift toward a better future.

I came back in my mind to my argument with Kees. Were these scenarios, in the ways he and others had defined the term, or were they options? If they were just efforts to develop better ways to cope with outside events, why had there been such a special energy in the workshops? Why had the participants been so passionately engaged? Why had they come at all?

Then the light went on for me. I realized that this project was not really about understanding and adapting. People participated because they wanted to influence and improve the world. They dared to reject cynicism in favor of hope. My colleague Otto Scharmer points out that the team's capacity to sense and influence turns on their being able to tap into their collective passion and will, including by really listening to each other's stories. The fourth lesson from my journey, then, is this: We must give up the assumption that we are powerless, that we can only react to the world, and that we must be passive in its face. If we have the courage to step forward, we can help the future be born.

This fourth lesson also provides the clue to getting off the horns of the realism–idealism dilemma I found at Shell. It is neither true that we must simply react to a world that pre-exists nor that we can create it from within ourselves. The cognitive scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela argue that "every act of knowing brings forth the world." More than simply describing the world, scenario stories actually help shape it. The key to evoking this generativity is the deep collaboration, even communion, that arises from being with others in the ways I discovered in the first three lessons. As Maturana and Varela say, "We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps bring it forth."

Completing Campbell's circular journey, I see these four lessons as a gift from the activists, bishops, guerrillas, and scientists to corporate leaders and other strategists. To be more effective we must first let go of the arrogance of knowing and move towards wonder and reverence. Second, we must move away from the black-and-white, secretive approach of trying to try to keep things "under control," towards the gray zone of greater openness and influence. Third, we must move away from treating strategy and learning as purely affairs of the mind, towards engaging other parts of ourselves, including our hearts and spirits. Finally, we must move away from pure adaptation and reactivity, towards intentionality and generativity. Of course, all of these lessons are easier to articulate than to practice. But I think they offer a prize worth struggling for: the opportunity and the capacity to make the world a better place.