A decision-making process is more likely to be successful if it is carefully designed upfront to ensure the process matches the context and needs. The steps below represent some of the most critical elements to consider in the design.
While some processes are pre-defined, allowing a group to design their process may help in building buy-in and increase the likelihood of success. At Spark, we often work with a “core team” of stakeholders to design the process, including identifying the other participants needed.
In this design process, the first step is to clarify the overall structure and approach. Some processes have a legally mandated structure, such as statutorily mandated task force or a court ordered mediation process. Other processes are more flexible and often default to a facilitated process or a non-facilitated process.
The next set of decisions include:
- Who the needed participants are;
- Whether outside facilitation is needed and how to select a facilitator;
- What are the core principles/group norms to orient participants to the dialogue; and
- What are the decision-rules to use?
In the next section, we will explore a major element of any decision-making process that is worth its own in-depth review: how to bring outside information into a decision-making process and help participants vet it as well as use it to inform their decisions.
Participants in a dialogue are called “stakeholders” and can be anyone who has an interest in the outcome of the process. These stakeholders can be selected in a variety of ways, each with benefits and weaknesses:
- Representative participation: Reflects the range of interests with representation for each interest. Someone, often the convener or the mandate that led to the creation of the process, has to determine the interests of who should have a voice at the table. The representatives for each interest also have to be selected, often by the interest groups themselves, but potentially by the convening agency.
- Democratic participation: Allows anyone who is interested to become involved in the process either at the beginning or at any point during the process. This open approach to involvement also gives decision-making authority to all participants.
- Restricted participation: Controls the open membership approach by setting criteria for participants to meet.
|Representative||Used to ensure fairness, balance, and to allow major constituencies a voice.||Selection of representatives may be challenging for less organized interest groups. As participants turnover, it can be challenging to identify a strong replacement for someone who both matches the interest and does not change the dynamics of the group.|
|Democratic||All interested parties can participate in the dialogue, leaving no groups unrepresented unless they choose to not participate.||The collaborative group may become unwieldy and large. Participation may also be inconsistent, with different attendees at each meeting resulting in inconsistent decisions. Requires careful consideration of the decision-making process, as an overabundance of one interest can lead to imbalanced decisions.|
|Restricted||Any interest can participate that meets the criteria, not only those selected by the convener.||Interested groups that fail to meet membership criteria may create problems for the process or their absence may result in important interests not being represented. While the participant is unlikely to be as inconsistent as a democratic process, it also tends to be less stable than a representative process. Requires careful consideration of decision-making process, as an overabundance of one interest can lead to imbalanced decisions.|
Participation can remain an issue even after members are selected. To continue to be actively involved, participants must believe there is greater value in remaining part of the process than abandoning it. Research on the willingness to engage in collaborative problem solving has found that when participants’ interests cannot be better met through litigation or other means and when their levels of trust are high, they are more likely to be engaged. With mediation and consensus processes more interested in building relationships and trust, they may be more likely to maintain participation levels than negotiation processes that tend to focus on the “win” or outcome.
An important first step when bringing participants in a decision-making process is collectively setting up the norms for how participants will operate and the principles that will drive the overall process. Some examples of meeting norms include:
- Treating everyone with respect
- Engaging in active listening
- Staying future-focused
- Commitment to reaching a shared decision
- Assuming positive intent
- No jargon or acronyms
Norms are specific to the participants. Principles, in contrast, describe the process. They can be used to help participants check in on whether the process as designed matches their expectations. These principles can also be used to assess the process as it implements and ensure it stays on track describing the process to others while building its credibility and trust in the decisions being made. Some examples of principles include:
- Mutual Respect: The process will hold participants accountable for listening to and considering the views of all participants, and encourages them to respect the legitimacy and input of others.
- Inclusiveness: The process will involve the broadest possible range of groups or individuals who may be affected by a policy or who can make a meaningful contribution to the debate.
- Accessibility: The process will take the appropriate measures to ensure that all those invited to participate in a dialogue have access to the process. This will take account of factors such as language, region, distance, ethno-culture, religion, socio-economic background, age, knowledge or capabilities.
- Clarity: Recognizing that a clear mutual understanding of the objectives, purpose and process of participation and feedback is vital, the conveners (or participants) will establish the terms of decision-making process in advance (or at the outset) and communicate them clearly.
- Transparency: To build trust, the process will include open lines of communication, ready access to relevant information, and time to build relationships between participants.
- Responsibility: The process will depend on all participants operating in good faith while recognizing that adequate resources and time are required for an effective process.
- Accountability: The process will solicit feedback from constituencies outside of the room to engage a broader range of views in the decision-making process, including clearly articulating how this input has been used.
Making decisions collaboratively does not by default mean that the decision must be made using 100% consensus. There are many ways to design decision rules, and even multiple ways to define and use consensus. Successful consensus processes attempt to accommodate minority interests in different ways, addressing concerns related to imbalances in representation and power, and have a variety of rules with different benefits and weaknesses. The choice of decision-rule can greatly affect the process in both positive and negative ways. Example decision-rules include:
Full consensus: In high-stakes issues, unanimous agreement can be challenging to reach and requires participants and their facilitator to have skill at coming up with “both/and” solutions instead of pressuring each other to accept the unacceptable. This type of decision-rule is time consuming and may not meet predefined deadlines, but it also uses the tension around the issue to come up with creative, new solutions to the problems at hand.
This decision-rule is the most extreme means of ensuring minority voices have equal power in a multi-party decision-making process. One of the downsides of this decision rule is the risk that participants feel pressured to agree so as not to derail the decision, leaving important interests or concerns unvoiced during the planning process. Another downside is the risk of reaching a decision that is the “lowest common denominator” instead of the best decision.
Consensus-minus-one and % agreement: Consensus processes have also used the unanimous-minus-one decision rule, set percentages, or called for super majorities. For example, you may decide that 80% of participants must agree with a decision for it to be accepted. The non-unanimous decision rules risk not having 100% buy-in to the final decision, but gain a couple important things. First, the process is able to move forward even if one party disagrees, making the decision process less likely to be undermined by participants who hold back their objections until the decision-making point when they then veto the decision. Second, these decision rules also allow for legitimate objections from participants who otherwise would hold back their concerns so as to not derail the process.
Hybrid Decision-Rules: While full consensus may be the preferred decision-rule, a hybrid process allows for a backup for when consensus fails. A voting rule such as the full consensus-minus-one or super majority may be the fall back if the group agrees to abandon the attempt at consensus.
Gradients of Agreement: Another option is to explore the many definitions of “yes”. Because each participant in a process will bring different individual criteria for when they will bring up their interests and objections, there are different gradients of agreement. While some participants may be willing to agree with reservations, others may only be satisfied when they can strongly endorse the final decision. Abstaining from the decision can be very different from formally disagreeing, which is different from actively blocking a decision. Understanding these individual dynamics helps explain the value of considering not only the full consensus decision-rule, but also consensus-minus-one, and percentage agreement decision-rules when seeking full agreement on a decision.
You can also allow gradients of agreement in the final decision, such as “agreement with reservation” or “step aside.” Such gradients increase the monitoring of the decisions, with participants recognizing that new information may result in a need for refinements and adaptations to the decision. By not forcing participants to fully agree or disagree, greater room to negotiate also exists and the facilitator has an opportunity to work through reservations.
It is not uncommon for a complex decision-making process to result in a stalemate at some point, where no decision is acceptable to all parties. However, a stalemate or deadlock can also be seen as an opportunity to revisit the approach to the dialogue. With this in mind, the participants and their mediator/facilitator can try some of the following suggestions to overcome the barrier:
- Break the problem and potential solutions into smaller parts, making the issue more manageable;
- Ask each interest in the dispute to present the case for the other party, stepping into their shoes;
- Decrease the stakes of the decision by agreeing to experiment and make shorter-term decisions that are not resource intensive;
- Identify and focus on those issues where there is agreement;
- Renew energy by taking a break from the process; and
- Identify new information to overcome inaccurate thinking about the problem and to create possible solutions.