From Forecasting to Transformation – A Conversation on Working with the Future

One of the great pleasures of programming a conference like Beyond Storytelling is the opportunity to get into conversation with inspiring thinkers and great practitioners. In the preparation to Beyond Storytelling, I had the opportunity to have a longer conversation with Sohail Inayatullah to explore the role of narrative work in moving from forecasting to transformation in working with the future.

Sohail is one of our key note speakers and holds a masterclass on the Causal Layered Analysis on June 10th – right after the conference.

Jacques Chlopczyk: A lot of planning and forecasting in organizations was and probably is based on a classic view of the future of western modernity. This worldview imagined the future as something that can be predicted, planned for and controlled. What today is described in terms of VUCA challenges this view. Now the future seems a place of unpredictability.

Sohail Inayatullah: Regarding the term VUCA, I personally use accelerating rate of change. VUCA  is fine but seems like the latest buzzword. More signifcant is to bring agency back in the equation, not remove it as VUCA tends to do. Change is heterogenous, moreover, some places are slower, other places are quicker. Certainly, we are all impacted. Sarkar calls it galloping time. He asserts that in this type of time, impact and influence are exponential since old systems are falling apart. The ability to change the future increases, not decreases.

JC: How do you see the so called mega-trends in this, i.e. digitalization, resource scarcity?

SI: The trends I focus on include: The rise of women, the rise of Asia, the challenge to the big man theory of politics, the rise of the peer to peer movement, or disintermedation. But more important than trends are emerging issues. These are novel issues that challenge what we consider the normal, while trends can often restate the norm.

Novel issues challenge what we consider the normal, while trends can often restate the norm.

JC: Given these changed assumptions about predictability that go along with that galloping time?. What approaches to working with the future do you observe in your work with clients across the globe?

SI: When I look at my clients, I can observe different approaches to working with the future. Some of my clients work from a stance of command and control. Their basic motivation for doing future work is risk mitigation. These clients like very conservative scenario planning, the Shell model for example. They like the double variable scenario matrix, as this easily lends itself to technical solutions. It is excellent for managerialism but far less interesting for those who wish for a new future.

The work with these clients focuses primarily on the drivers for trends and developments and the development of scenarios for which they can plan and prepare. This is necessary, and we can prepare for different scenarios, but this often evokes a false sense of safety. In fact, these clients often move from one maze to a bigger maze.

Focusing on risk mitigation often creates a foul sense of safety – we move from one maze to a bigger maze.

The second type of client is interested in understanding different approaches to work with the future and build up know-how with the latest tools. This is driven by the motivation to be up-to-date with in terms of capabilities in working with the future.

Capability in this context means moving from technical training to strategy to deep adaptability, i.e. ensuring what ever future will emerge, they and their organizations can thrive. This is as much an inner process of clarity on the personal and shared vision - the world you wish for - as a focus on what resources one needs to create the desired future.

The third type of clients also strives for being prepared, yet they understand the limitations of modernity and the limitations of their own rationality. They thus assess risks, develop their own capability, but focus more on emergence and vulnerability. They know they live in Gaia and creating a desired future requires co-creation with different stakeholders, including Gaia. There is a spiritual dimension here, if you will, a sense that there is the known world and the unknown world.

They are open to the fact that our capacity to act in the future also rests on our ability to redefine who we are and our purpose within the larger systems that we are operating in: global economics, limited resources and a need to integrate in these interwoven systems. It is a more contextual, holistic view on their role in creating the futures they want to live into.

Our capacity to act in the future rests on our ability to redefine who we are and our purpose within the larger systems that we are operating in.

JC: You have been working with futures for a long while. How has your approach evolved over time? How is this accelerating rate of change reflected in your work?

SI: Working with futures has been a lot about quantitative forecasting and then qualitative interpretation. That is the basis we started and – of course – still start from. But my core interest today lies in what are the interests, world views, mythologies and metaphors people bring into the future. That means that we are less concerned about a particular forecast, but more by what meaning our clients make of it and what that means for the image of the future they develop for themselves.

So at the beginning, we were always concerned with going from zero loop learning, which is information about the future, to single loop learning, which is what do you do. The question was: “What do we do on Horizon 1? What do we do differently on Monday morning?”

The next step was double loop learning. We focused more on the unknown and supported clients in building up strategies to deal with situations that are new to them. The guiding question changed to “What don't I know in a new situation? How do I learn about what I don't know?”.

And then the narrative part came into our work, because it became apparent to us that underneath people's knowing or not knowing was a particular story about reality, particularly about the future. So, our work is always concerned with taking what people say as a matter of fact and then going beyond the fact, going to possibility. We developed frameworks that enable us to move from forecasting to transformation.

In a situation of dynamic change, it is not just enough to forecast the future as our forecasts are likely to be incorrect, but rather to have comfort with what we dont know and understand that how we see the world is complicit in the world we see, the world we create. We are part of the uncertainty, not merely watching it with disinterest.

In a situation of dynamic change, it is key to have comfort with what we dont know and understand that how we see the world is complicit in the world we see, the world we create.

JC: How does that look in practice?

SI: In terms of methodology we use the Causal Layered Analysis framework. The approach distinguishes four levels of analysis. Level 1 is understanding the official description of the situation. It is about the data. We also call this level “Litany”, as the problem statements often seem like newspaper headlines. They are stated as singular, externalized facts.

Level 2 is the systemic causes that can explain the data that we see. What are the factors that can explain the data? What patterns are constituting the “facts”? What function does this description of the problem have for various stakeholders and interests?

Within the 3rd level of analysis, we look at the discourses and the worldviews that sustain these systemic causes. We try to get a multifaceted view on the situation and explore the assumptions and theories that lie behind the decisions and actions that make up the systemic causation of the situation.

On the 4th level, we look at the guiding metaphors, images and stories that epitomize and inform these worldviews. This level refers to the unconscious, hidden interpretation of reality, which can be an asset, or it can be a hindrance. Here, our guiding questions are: “What is actually my metaphor? Is your story serving you?”. And it is important to me that this doesn´t become an ontological debate.

My interest is if there is a story helping that organization and takes them into a desired direction. If it's not, then they need a better story. Of course people are attached to their worldview, but through the creation of alternative futures, the agency or capacity to influence comes back.

JC: This approach combines the quantitative element of forecasting with qualitative work that aims at transforming the underlying assumptions about the future. So how is the relationship between forecasting, quantitative elements and transformation in this process?

SI: Recently, I worked with the head of an international police force in south-east asia to develop a strategy and set-up for the future. The quantitative part is that by 2020/2030 there will be new crime types. There will be new crime types around 3D-printing. We will see crime types around genomic data theft which will go up by 30 %. We start off with the quantitative.

But if we want a different police force or a different police organization then we'll have to ask, what will it look like? Traditional organizations are hierarchical, vertical, command controlled. They don't handle complexity well. So, what will a new one look like? The organization itself needs to be complex, adaptive and continuously learning. Now how do we link that? That is where the metaphor comes in. We need a new image that carries ourselves forward.

The core metaphor of the police force was the toothless tiger. Merely telling them that the world was more uncertain is not only useless but a disservice from our side. Giving them more information about the future given their core metaphor would also not be useful. Commanders would turn off since the future now was challenging but not actionable.

Using CLA, they changed the metaphor to the guard dog. The guard dog was embedded with citizens thus it favoured community engagement and community policing. The guard dog had real bite, thus could ensure that dangerous elements were met head on. Finally, the guard dog anticipated crime, i.e. foresight. The data now had a context in which it was sensible.

Once we find a new guiding image and a new story, we need to ensure that culture links to data. When we change metaphors, it is important to have the right measures that indicate if we are heading the rights way. It is important to ground the new stories, the new metaphors in new measures as well. If we do not develop those as well, we are just adopting the measures of others. So in a sense, quantitative data is both the start and the end of this process.

JC: Could you give an additional example that shows this process at work?

SI: We ran a project with a big bank recently. And they have been funding large infrastructure projects. And eventually it came up that their measurement was number of roads, kilometers that were paved. And underneath that was a world view that was car centric. The inner metaphor was 'I love my car'.

That works until you get horrible pollutions and climate change. Through the process, their metaphor shifted from 'I love my car' to 'I love my neighborhood'. What that means strategically is that the bank will now fund projects that create community, that enable peer-to-peer networks, that are carbon-neutral, that are green. And that also means that the KPI will change, to track and ensure that the bank is going from car-centric to community-centric strategy. This is a kind of a CLA strategy and action. By changing the story, we can change the possible future.

Dive deeper with the Causal Layered Analysis Masterclass: More information.

Picture on top: Cédric Servay via Unsplash.

From Moments to Stories – Chené Swart's Moments Portal

A constant in my work as consultant and change facilitator in the past months is a concern about „moments“. It was brought into my focus by Chené Swart talking about her work in the Masterclass at BEYOND STORYTELLING 2017 and in the many conversations that followed afterwards.

I believe that as facilitators, we want to create „moments that matter“, in which we can support the people we work with in their search for new meaning, sensemaking or transformation. In creating these moments I used an approach from Chené Swart to invite the remembrance of significant moments to create relevance.

Generating new meaning and making sense of a situation is a key ingredient for transformation. Often it is about discarding old assumptions and creating new meaning. Not only in cognitive terms but also emotionally. Working with stories is a powerful way to connect the emotional and cognitive aspects of transformation.

Sensemaking is one of the key uses of working with stories. Stories speak to our head, hearts and minds. The question is how we get to the stories that map the field in a way that is useful and relevant for the people we are working with.

Entering the moments portal – Relevance

In any setting that has the stated goal of stimulating transformation of some kind, one of the key questions is how a topic becomes relevant to the people we work with. I don´t mean relevant only in the sense that people say „Yes, this topic is relevant or important for me.“ Relevance, for me, in the settings I work in, is an emotional stance towards the topic. A concern with the topic and an engagement and commitment to find out what the topic at hand really means for the people and the community involved. In some cases we do have a sense of urgency in the room but this isn´t always the case. So how do we invite engagement and honour people´s presence and time?

If you are used to working in participatory settings a lot of different methods might spring to your mind that enable you to set in motion ways for people to engage with a topic and with each other. But even with some years of experience with different approaches to the design and facilitation of such settings, Chenés work with moment is a constant eye opener – both for it´s simplicity and the impact it creates. The key to this approach is asking people to tell about moments in which a topic or theme was / is / became relevant and important to them. And this works magic.

Working with the moments Portal on Trust During the Berlin Change Days 2017. Pictures by @miriaminchange

Abstraction and experience

As human beings we are bound to our bodies. In each given situation we perceive with all our senses. Going up the ladder of abstraction, we create meaning out of the different impulses we get from our senses. With each step up the ladder, our experience is enriched, filtered and transformed by our mental models and interpretation routines. We move from experience to abstraction.

By doing this, we don´t perceive the particulars of the situation but the commonalities it has with our pre-established modes of thinking and seeing the world. Both as a means to make sense of what is happening and in an effort to reduce cognitive load. This enables us to react swiftly and orient ourselves. Albeit this „fast thinking“ works in a lot of situations, it also carries the risk of missing important pieces of information and makes us prone to oversimplifying things.

In a situation in which we want to invite people to really re-think a certain topic, fast thinking often leads to a situation in which we either see a new topic through our well established frames of reference (meaning: there is nothing new) or that we engage but without linking it an emotional element that is necessary for true transformation. Our attitudes and belief systems are shaped by the experiences we make and systems of symbols (culture) we use to make sense of them. All this adds layers of abstraction and generalizations. The magic of asking for moments is that people are recalling specific situations or moments in which a topic has or had relevance to them. With this simple question, we invite people to strip away their interpretations and simply recall. Indeed, if we ask people to take us to the moments that mattered for them, it becomes even more than recalling, it becomes reexperiencing. 

The power of this way of working lies for me in the fact that there is also no abstraction needed to talk about moments. The cognitive effort is not focused on making interpretations or finding deeper meanings or patterns. The cognitive effort is low in that it entails „simple recalling“. Letting people talk about moments is – in a sense – making people listening to themselves anew. This also invites the emotions and feelings that made up the experience of this moment. Working with moments, the invitation is to step down the ladder of abstraction and get close to the „raw data“ of our experiences.

Emotional and cognitive effects of working with moments

On an emotional level, this work invites being a true witness and builds relationships and community. As listeners to the moments of others we move from interpretation to perception, as we see a situation metaphorically through the eyes of the other. This often creates a sense of belonging and intimacy. Not only towards others, but also towards ourselves. We are not only witnessing others but we are also listening to ourselves. We experiencing the moments anew through our recalling and retelling.

On a cognitive level, I believe that this work – revealing the „raw data“ – cracks open our interpretations of situations, moments and the experiences we made. By stripping away our interpretations and mental models, we are able to re-interprete these moments anew. This creates the possibility for new ways of looking at things and the opportunity to tell a story in a new and different way.

From moments to stories

I experimented a while with asking the participants to my workshops to tell a story in which the topic at hand was relevant. From my experiences with the moments portal, I believe that this creates a hurdle that is not necessary. On the one hand people ask themselves what constitutes a story worth telling in the specific setting we are in. It concerns people with what to tell and how to tell it. Instead of focusing on relating themselves to the topic and the other, they are concerned with style and form. That is not necessary. If you ask people about moments, they will tell a story anyway.

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

From a narrative standpoint, this also enables to re-write the stories that shape the actions, decisions and interactions within an organization. Stories are made up by moments connected by a plot outlining the landscape of action and the landscape of consciousness. These stories, once established, are easily triggered for the interpretation of a given situation.

„While some community narratives are quite direct, many well-known narratives are coded as visual images, as symbols, as stereotypes, and as performances of behavior so ritualized that we may be unaware of the narratives we implicitly accept and enact, [...].Underlying much of what we know, and can recall, are encoded stories indexed by certain cognitive handles. […]. They are cues to the underlying story.“ (Rappaport, 2000, S.5)*

By going back to the moments in which the themes and narratives emerged, these moments become free of these assumptions and pre-established storylines. They become building blocks that can be re-interpreted and re-storied in a different way. A story that is more in line with what is now required from the organization or community.

Constructing a story out of these moments is again a step up the ladder of abstraction. But this abstraction is not as abstract as a model or theory. It is still a story with all the elements that go along with that. More importantly, every step that follows in this meaning making process is fueled with the experiences and emotions of the people involved.

Because they became relevant through the personal engagement and through community in passing through the moments portal.

*Rappaport, J. (2000) Community Narratives: Tales of Terror and Joy. In American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1.

More on Chené's work: