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social justice – Adam Kahane

“I believe that we have a much greater capacity to shape the future than we allow ourselves to think.”

Title: Partner
Company: Centre for Generative Leadership LLC
Location: Cape Town, South Africa and Hamilton, Massachusetts
Age: 38

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For an expert in strategy, Adam Kahane made a career move seven years ago that looked like a giant strategic blunder. Kahane accepted a new assignment from Royal Dutch/Shell, where he had led the company’s scenario-planning team. The company sent him to South Africa, so that he could lend his expertise to the national drama then unfolding in that deeply divided country. Today, operating from his adopted home in Cape Town and from his office at the Centre for Generative Leadership LLC, in Hamilton, Massachusetts, Kahane sees scenario planning as an instrument of social change. “I believe that we have a much greater capacity to shape the future than we allow ourselves to think,” he says.

Kahane flew to South Africa in 1991, one year after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. Kahane’s task: to facilitate a scenario-planning workshop that would help guide the nation through its turbulent transition. The workshop generated four stories — alternative versions of what South Africa might become. Printed in a South African newspaper, these scenarios helped frame the country’s conversation about the choices faced by its citizens. One of the stories, called “The Flight of the Flamingos,” imagined that South Africa would undergo gradual change — like a flamingo, whose takeoff is characteristically slow. Likewise, just as flamingos fly together, so democracy and economic growth would take flight in unison. “Sure, it was just a story,” Kahane says. “But once you have a story, it starts to create reality.”

Having taken his scenario-planning skills from Royal Dutch/Shell into the public arena, Kahane is carrying his experiences in the public sector back into the business world. Today he works with such companies as DuPont and Lucent Technologies. “From my experiences with a wide range of people — bishops in South Africa, guerrillas in Colombia, indigent people in Guatemala — I’ve been able to look at the world in a different way,” Kahane says. “Creating stories gets people who have never talked to each other to think about alternative pathways to their future.”

Anna Muoio (amuoio@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. You can reach Adam Kahane by email (kahane@cgl-leadership.com).