In any planning exercise, there is a need to understand the present and how we got here. This applies both to an organisation and to the world around it. Several different techniques can be used to establish this picture.
- Statistical profiles & trends
- Original academic research
- Walk-abouts & learning journeys
- What’s new?
- Systems thinking
A statistical profile of key facts and the long term trends that created them is a key early exercise. This work can reveal important contradictions and point towards driving forces behind the trends. Finding original research into long standing issues – such as rural to urban migration in East Africa or the financial performance of Chinese state-run enterprises – can help interpret the statistical profile and reveal the forces creating the trends.
These are both ‘desktop’ activities. Learning journeys and walk-abouts back up statistics with the evidence of our own eyes and ears. Learning journeys take us to places we have not been before – a new type of business, or a village experimenting with different energy sources. A walk-about can be anywhere, even in neighbourhoods we thought we knew well. On both, it is important to talk with people about their everyday lives. Cameras that capture significant images then help to illustrate larger issues.
In all these exercises – statistics, academic research, stepping outside – we are looking for ways to understand the present, but also for what’s new. We are surrounded by signs of new forces and trends shaping the future, but need to learn how to notice them. What statistics are suggesting new directions? What new activities point to an emerging trend?
As the facts and research accumulate, it is important to understand how the whole system works. What is influencing what? Good systems thinking
should be summarised in a simple diagram that helps us understand the totality of the situation. Sometimes, this systemic understanding is best communicated with a metaphor.
In summarising the state of Kenya, for example, we used the image of a house whose principal foundations were crumbling.
See the paper (1998c) Why Scenario Research Is Different
for more on this subject.