New Stories Can Generate New Realities


There is no easy or straightforward or guaranteed way to transform complex social systems. My own experience of 20 years of working with transformative scenario planning processes has been of producing both failure and success—or, more accurately, of not really knowing whether the processes have produced failure or success. Transformative scenario planning contributes to transforming systems through contributing to transforming actors and their actions. I can now see that this process is not as direct or immediate as I thought it was right after Mont Fleur (see “The Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise”). Poet Gil Scott-Heron said: “The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things. The revolution—that change that takes place—will not be televised.” Transformative scenario planning generates tangible and visible change in the world via subtle, invisible, and nonlinear changes within and among us.


Review your organization’s stories. What new stories might you tell to change the status quo and create a different future?

My most instructive experience of these ambiguities in making out the impacts of this work has been in Colombia. The Destino Colombia scenario project was conceived in 1995 but was almost stillborn; in 1996 it suddenly came to life; in 1997 the scenario team held three energetic workshops; in 1998 and 1999 they disseminated their results to the whole country; in 2004 the project was pronounced dormant or dead; in 2007 I heard stories about the project’s continued influence; and in 2012 the president of Colombia announced that it had always been alive and was now the leitmotif of the policies of his new government. What I have learned from this experience and others is that you must try to do this work as best you can, but that its failure or success—like most things about the future—cannot be controlled or predicted or even known. The Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita puts it succinctly: “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof.”

Colombia has a long history of violent conflict. It has a home-grown academic discipline called violentology. In the first half of the 1900s, it had two bloody civil wars, the second one simply called “The Violence.”


In the early 1990s, a team of 22 South African leaders from across the social and political spectrum came together to use a scenario process to help the country make a successful transition to democracy. Facilitated by Adam Kahane, then the head of Royal Dutch Shell’s global social/political/economic/ environmental scenario team, the group identified four potential pathways a post-Apartheid South Africa might take. Based on the different scenarios, the African National Congress government pursued a policy of fiscal discipline and likely averted financial disaster.

Beginning in the 1960s, it suffered continuing clashes among the military, drug traffickers, criminal gangs, left-wing guerrilla forces, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes, which were characterized by kidnappings, executions, massacres, and no-go areas. At the same time, the country maintained democratic governments, a dynamic business sector, and an active civil society. It has faced enormous challenges and also has demonstrated enormous capacities to address these challenges.

In 1995, businessman Manuel José Carvajal read about Mont Fleur and thought that a transformative scenario planning project might help Colombians to discover new ways out of their conflict. He discussed this idea with people he knew and to whom he was introduced, but he was not getting enough support to get the project off the ground. He was about to give up on the effort when he talked with Juan Manuel Santos, a journalist turned politician who had independently been pursuing the same idea. Within a few weeks, the two of them organized a large meeting of national actors to see what interest there might be in such a process.

The meeting included top leaders from politics, business, the military, the church, and academia, plus guerrillas participating by telephone from a secret location. The participants were both excited and nervous to find themselves in such an unusually heterogeneous group. One Communist Party city councilor, spotting a paramilitary warlord across the room, asked Santos: “Do you really expect me to sit down with this man, who has tried to have me killed five times?” Santos replied: “It is precisely so that he does not do so a sixth time that I am inviting you to take your seat.”

I was also excited to be at the meeting and bewildered by the extraordinary questions such a proposed exercise raised. After I had given a presentation about the Mont Fleur experience, a question from one of the guerrillas was relayed to me by phone: “Do we have to agree to a ceasefire to participate in the scenario workshops?” I gave an answer that I hoped was correct: “A scenario process is not a negotiation. There are no preconditions to participating except a willingness to talk and to listen.”

Santos understood that he was too partisan a figure to be able to convene such a transpartisan process, and at the end of the meeting he stepped back, and a broader and more neutral organizing committee stepped forward. The committee’s objective was to put together a scenario team that would be representative of the whole conflicted society and in particular would enable the combatants to talk with one another directly. To do this, the committee had to decide whom they considered to be legitimate players with plausible commitments to the future of the country, and who was too criminal or corrupt. They ended up including in the team guerrillas and paramilitaries, as well as academics, activists, businesspeople, journalists, military officers, peasants, politicians, trade unionists, and young people. They excluded drug traffickers and people from the administration of then president Ernesto Samper, whose election campaign was thought to have been partly financed by traffickers. (Later, Carvajal said that he thought this attempt to be “aseptic” had been counterproductive because it resulted in the team’s work being ignored by the government until after the end of Samper’s term.)

The most remarkable feature of the project was the participation of both of the illegal, armed, left-wing guerrilla groups.

The scenario team met three times over four months, in total for ten days, at a lovely old farm called Recinto Quirama, in the rolling green hills outside of Medellin. We had the whole spread-out property to ourselves: a high-ceilinged barn for a meeting room; an open-air, cobbled-floor dining room and bar; a swimming pool; and simple sleeping rooms surrounded by flower gardens. I arrived a day before the start of the first workshop and was amazed to find such tranquility in the midst of such conflict. Then I went for a swim in the pool and emerged to find it surrounded by soldiers with machine guns, protecting the meeting from attack.

The most remarkable feature of the project was the participation of both of the illegal, armed, leftwing guerrilla groups: the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). Although the government had offered them safe passage to the workshops, the guerrillas thought that this would be too risky, and so we arranged, extraordinarily, for them to participate in the team’s meetings by telephone. Three men called in from the political prisoners’ wing of a maximumsecurity prison and one from exile in Costa Rica. This arrangement produced some surreal moments, such as when one of the guerrillas called in from a prison pay phone, saying that he had enough coins for only a few minutes but wanted to offer his input on the draft scenarios.

Many of the team members were terrified because they were talking with the guerrillas for the first time. We communicated using two speakerphones in the meeting room. When people walked by the speakerphones, they gave the phones a wide berth, afraid to get too close. Some of the participants were frightened of retribution for what they might say to the guerrillas. When I mentioned this fear, one of the guerrillas observed that our microcosm was reflecting the macrocosm: “Mr. Kahane, why are you surprised that people in the room are frightened? The whole country is frightened.” Then the guerrillas promised they would not kill anyone for anything said in the meetings.

The team came up with a set of ground rules for their work together. They agreed to speak frankly; to express their differences without irony; to assume the good faith of others; to be tolerant, disciplined, and punctual; to be concrete and concise; and to keep confidences. They were proud of these ground rules, which in the midst of so much lawlessness and violence helped them to construct a strong and safe container. Within this container, the team members were gradually able to open up and deepen their relationships. After a while, during breaks in the meetings, participants huddled around the speakerphones, continuing to talk with the guerrillas. One team member later said:

Never have such diverse people in Colombia done so much together. It is very difficult to bring into the same process the extremes that are tearing apart the country and who beforehand had made it clear that they would not have any dealings with one another. For each of the extremes, the other does not exist or should cease to exist. We succeeded in this process of dialogue, of respecting the rules of the game, and of improving the way we treat one another, our manner of conversing, and the quality of our long-term thinking.

Another said:

War produces something that is quite complicated to understand: the absence of tolerance. War as such is a drastic solution to all problems. It is the maximum solution, and in this situation it is hard to be tolerant of the ideas of others. This scenario methodology compels you to accept that the solution may be different from what you have thought.

Jaime Caicedo was the secretary general of the far-left Communist Party of Colombia, and Iván Duque was a commander of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). One evening, Caicedo and Duque stayed up late talking and drinking and playing the guitar with Juan Salcedo, a retired army general. The next morning, Caicedo wasn’t there in the meeting room when we were due to start, and I asked the group where he was. There were lots of jokes about what might have happened to him. One person said: “The general made him sing.” Then Duque said, menacingly, “I saw him last.” I was terrified that Caicedo had been murdered and was relieved when a few minutes later he walked into the room.

As the work progressed, the team members became less afraid and more willing to speak frankly.

(Many years later, I heard a revealing coda to this story. Duque had gone into the jungle to meet his boss, Carlos Castaño, the notorious head of AUC. Castaño excitedly told Duque that AUC fighters had discovered the location of their arch-enemy Caicedo and were on their way to assassinate him. Duque pleaded for Caicedo’s life, telling Castaño the story of that evening together at the scenario workshop and saying: “You can’t kill him: we were on the Destino Colombia team together.” After much arguing, Castaño called off the assassination. This story exemplifies the transformative potential of these processes: to be willing to defy Castaño on this matter of life and death, Duque must have transformed his sense of his relationship with Caicedo and of what he himself needed to stand for and do.)

As the work progressed, the team members became less afraid and more willing to speak frankly. At one point, a landowner said that he had had a lot of firsthand experience of the conflict with the guerrillas, that he did not trust them at all, and that he believed the country’s best hope for peace would be to intensify the military campaign against them. It took courage for him to say this because he was directly challenging not only the guerrillas but also the rest of the team and their hopeful belief that a negotiated solution was possible. He was willing to be open and confrontational. But by now, the team’s relationships and the project’s container were strong enough to hear such a statement without rupturing. Furthermore, when he said exactly what he was thinking and feeling, the fog of conceptual and emotional confusion that had filled the room lifted, and we could all see an important dynamic in the team and in the country.

By the end of their third workshop, the team had agreed on four scenarios. The first, “When the Sun Rises We’ll See,” was a warning of the chaos that would result if Colombians just let things be and failed to address their tough challenges. The second, “A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush,” was a story of a negotiated compromise between the government and the guerrillas. The third, “Forward March!,” was a story of the government, supported by a population frustrated with the continuing violence and operating from the principle that “a hard problem requires a hard solution,” implementing a policy of crushing the guerrillas militarily and pacifying the country (this was the possible future revealed by the landowner’s statement). The fourth, “In Unity Lies Strength,” was a story of a bottom-up transformation of the country’s mentality toward greater mutual respect and cooperation.

The team disseminated their scenarios on a massive scale. They published a summary of their work as an insert in all the country’s major newspapers, created a video that was shown on national television, and held large public meetings in all the regional capitals. The stories were taken up in the strategic conversation of many governmental, business, and community organizations, but I never heard of any signs of these seeds germinating and taking root. My inference was that although transformation had occurred in some of the team members and in some of the relationships among them, this transformation had not had a systemic impact. In a 2006 report, political scientist Angelika Rettberg reached a similar conclusion: “The greatest impact was on those who participated, changing their perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes, and generating a mutually enriching human approach to the construction of peace. But the impact seems to be diminished when we look at the participants in their professional lives and at broader public policy decisions and social processes.” And a 2004 report by Alfredo de León and Elena Díez Pinto for the United Nations Development Programme labeled Destino Colombia “a treasure still to be revealed.”

I was therefore taken aback when in 2007 I talked with Antanas Mockus, a leading intellectual, two-term mayor of Bogotá, and presidential candidate. His view was that Colombia had been systematically working through the four scenarios. In 1998, Ernesto Samper’s successor, President Andrés Pastrana, had tried and failed to achieve a negotiated settlement like the one described in “A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush.” In 2002, this failure produced the wave of popular frustration that brought President Álvaro Uribe to power, and he was now implementing a military pacification of the country like the one described in “Forward March!” Mockus’s hypothesis was that some businesspeople and landowners, having concluded that “Forward March!” was the best option for themselves and for the country, had proposed it as a blueprint to the Uribe government. He told me: “We must not fix our attention only on the conviviality of such dialogue processes. We must not forget the harsher external world, where scenarios can be chosen to guide action.” Now he wanted to understand how the fourth scenario, “In Unity Lies Strength,” could be implemented.

In 2012, I returned to Colombia to launch the Spanish edition of my book Power and Love. The country was doing well: economic investment and output were up; poverty and violence were down. A series of high-level multistakeholder dialogues, inspired in part by “In Unity Lies Strength,” had produced an “Agenda for Colombia” that included important policy reforms on land rights, fair economic growth, and compensation for the victims of armed conflict. Time magazine had just published a cover story titled “The Colombian Comeback.” Juan Manuel Santos, who 16 years before had put together the organizing meeting for Destino Colombia and who two years before had beaten Mockus to be elected president of the country, gave a speech at the book launch. He said:

When we held the organizing meeting for Destino Colombia in 1996, the country was talking of nothing except the drug case against President Samper, and there were no new proposals for progress on other important issues such as the armed conflict and political polarization of the country. . . . Never before this meeting had such a broad group been convened, with such diverse and important sectors of Colombian society—many of them absolute opponents or enemies, who had killed and were continuing to kill each other— to find an approach to end the conflict. . . .

It is truly breathtaking to read the Destino Colombia scenarios now, because they seem more prophetic than academic. . . . The first scenario, “When the Sun Rises We’ll See,” invited us to think about what would happen if, instead of making a timely intervention, Colombians left the country’s problems to resolve themselves, which led to a loss of state authority, an upsurge of violence, territorial fragmentation, and a dramatic increase in poverty and social inequality. The second scenario, “A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush,” alluded to concessions being offered to the armed groups to start to rebuild democracy and to stop—at all costs—the increasing cycle of death and violence. Today, as we mark 10 years since the end of the major negotiations with the guerrillas, we know that this scenario was attempted but failed, and not because of an unwillingness of the government or of the Colombian people, but because of the obstinacy of the guerrillas’ violence and terrorist acts. This resulted in some of the characteristics of the third scenario, “Forward March!,” in which the political leadership acts on the popular demand to restore security and assumes a mandate that is characterized by firmness against the violent. . . . Faced with such clear evidence, who can deny the prophetic gifts of those who met at Recinto Quirama!

In Colombia, we have now embarked on an irreversible evolutionary process that we hope will culminate in the peaceful transition and the final reconsolidation of the fourth scenario, “In Unity Lies Strength.” That scenario is the way forward that we want to realize today with the National Unity proposal that my government has launched. . . . It is good to know that the best scenario that we imagined 16 years ago is now beginning to be realized.

With this speech, Santos was placing Destino Colombia—both the methodology it had used for working across differences and the stories it had told about Colombia’s choices—at the center of his narrative about what was unfolding in Colombia. He was also placing it at the center of his narrative about his own lifetime political project, which he characterized—with respect to the way he worked with other actors: other politicians, civil society, international allies, the guerrillas—as combining “the positive drive of power, which invites us to growth and self-realization, with that of love, which invites us to unite that which is separated.” He understood that “this combination is essential for countries who have suffered deep wounds, like ours, to be able to overcome their conflict and to build together a better future.” He differentiated his approach from those of his predecessors Pastrana (more love than power) and Uribe (more power than love). The stories that the Destino Colombia team had told about their country had become interwoven with the stories of its leaders.

Betty Sue Flowers is a poet and a student of myth who started writing scenario stories with me at Shell in 1991. I told her about Santos’s remarkable speech, and she reminded me of how skeptical I had been back then of our colleague Joseph Jaworski’s effort to use scenarios not only to study the future but to shift it. (Shell had rejected this effort at the time but embraced it in 2008 when the company advocated for “Blueprints,” a scenario of global actors working together to address the challenges of global warming.) “Scenarios can mutate into empowering myths,” Betty Sue told me. “Myths give us courage. If it is already true in the story, then, paradoxically, we can make it happen.” As we tell and live new stories, we change what can happen in the world around us.

On the same day in 2012 that Santos made this speech, I met with Francisco Galán, one of the ELN guerrillas who had participated in all of the Destino Colombia meetings by telephone from prison. In 2008, he had been released from prison, and he was now working on both high-level and grassroots peace efforts. He struck me as a man who, from much hard-won experience, had achieved a measure of wisdom and peacefulness. “I have learned,” he said, “that it is more difficult to make peace than to make war.” He went on: “If we keep repeating the same stories about our country, then we will keep doing the same things, which do not work. But we are addicted to this repetition! We need to get fed up with these same stories. We need new stories.”

Adam Kahane has pioneered the development and use of transformative scenario planning throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia. He is a partner in the Cambridge, Massachusetts office of Reos Partners and an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School of the University of Oxford. Adam is the author of Solving Tough Problems, Power and Love, and Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future (Berrett-Koehler, 2012).


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