At Spark, we strongly believe in the importance of integrating new information into problem solving dialogues. The participants in the room can represent all the perspectives but still lack significant information, particularly when a problem is large, complex, multifaceted, and has existed for a long time. Research processes, whether to bring more perspectives and voices into the process or to surface potential solutions or even help experiment with possible solutions, can fundamentally improve the quality of the decisions made by the groups.
However, the use of information within multi-party dialogues is complex, leading to disputes around information reliability, the appropriate ways to interpret it, and when it should be used. While some decision-making processes struggle primarily with how to incorporate facts into the exploration of solutions, other processes have to deal with active disputes about the facts themselves with different interests in conflict over what they see as the truth.
There are two overarching approaches to bringing new information into a decision-making process, both of which are techniques for decreasing disputes over the legitimacy and accuracy of the information:
- Joint fact-finding: rather than each interest bringing their own information, they work together to identify facts they both trust can be a useful process;
- Neutral third party: a third party can provide information when the dialogue participants find working together to find facts too challenging.
In addition to the method for surfacing new information, decision-making processes also need to plan for how to introduce the information and help participants both process and use it while making a decision.
Often, when a complex problem is being examined, participants lack sufficient information to understand parts of the problem or lack information about types of solutions that have been tried elsewhere or on related issues. At its most basic, almost all processes are lacking insight into the full range of perspectives on the problem, simply by the necessity of limiting participation to allow for high quality dialogue.
How and who brings the information: Bringing in information to fill these gaps is not as straightforward as emailing a relevant report or even presenting its key points. Depending on who generated the information and who presents the information, even if it is a neutral third party, the information will carry different weight with different participants. Information can also be brought to the table by the participants themselves and trust in that participant as well as perceptions of their credibility may lead others to reject the information without any serious consideration because they believe that it is only partial or biased—or even believe it is false information.
Differences in interpreting information: Participants also have different ways of framing the facts they receive. All people use frames as tools to process information; identical information provided to people with different beliefs and values will result in different interpretations due to different frames. Frames help to decide what information is important enough to keep and what can be discarded and help set priorities for what to address. They also help people prioritize the importance of using information that answers questions of relevance to the topic.
Some participants may have a frame of complete knowledge, believing they know all the necessary information. Their inability to assimilate new information and recognize competing perspective can limit progress and sometimes results in all new information being automatically rejected. Other participants may have a frame of credibility that defines where reliable information can be obtained. Any information brought to the table from other sources will fall outside their frame. Finally, some participants may have a frame of distrust, believing some information to be too biased and untrustworthy to find reliable.
Reality of learning versus using new information: Decision-making processes must also contend with the challenge of helping participants actively use the new information. Groups tend to either latch onto information that confirms pre-existing notions or latch onto only one or a few key pieces of information. This tendency can result in the real value of the information largely being lost, and often quite quickly. When information is shared well in advance of a decision, this is even more likely to happen as it can fade in memory and only a few key points remain in mind.
The methods below are designed to provide you with specific approaches to bringing new information into a process that can overcome these challenges.
Joint fact finding requires a subcommittee or team to be drawn from participants who are seen by all, or at least by those who have similar interests, as trusted experts. This team is responsible for open communication around information, with debates and discussions to carefully consider available information in order to come to shared conclusions. Each participant on the team is also responsible for bringing forward their information, creating an open dialogue, and allowing for the team to have more knowledge and expertise available than any one participant. In a highly structured and formal process, the end result of a joint fact finding team is a single text, representing the agreed-upon facts and their interpretations. In a more free-flowing decision-making process, where there is not a defined end-point for all decisions to be made, this group is likely to generate short presentations over time related to the issues facing the decision-making group at that moment.
Important steps in a joint fact finding process include:
- Determine if joint fact finding is the appropriate tool for assessing information (as compared to the neutral third party, explored below);
- Select participants and define their roles;
- Identify ways to address disparities in expertise and skill among participants;
- Form an agreement across all parties to the broader dispute on how the result of the joint fact finding will be used;
- Define initial questions that participants will address;
- Complete the fact finding process (or the first round of it, if this is an ongoing decision-making process); and
- Communicate the findings openly to all relevant parties.
Benefits of joint fact-finding include the increased likelihood that information is trusted because each interest has participants on the team, and the environment may facilitate creative thinking around solutions and interpretation of facts. Another benefit is the potential for some conflicts to be addressed outside of the broader dialogue by participants who are prepared to invest time and skills into analyzing information. The greatest benefit; however, is the trust developed between participants and the increased understanding of the other points of view through the lens of information rather than beliefs and values.
Challenges: The primary concerns with using joint fact finding relates to the power dynamics and level of conflict; if some interests have significantly more power or resources to collect facts than others, joint fact finding may unfairly benefit them. Similarly, if the level of conflict is so high that participants cannot work together effectively, joint fact-finding can create more conflict and distrust instead of less. When it is not clear up front if these dynamics exist, a hybrid of joint fact finding and neutral third party may be useful.
Using a neutral third party requires identifying one or more third parties that have no stake in the outcome of the dispute. It often helps to have multiple third party sources for information that participants agree to see as neutral. It is important to use an expert who is skilled in presenting factual information and mediating the debate over the information. In a facilitated dialogue, the facilitator can help the group to process the information brought by the third parties and develop a shared interpretation of what it means.
Benefits: Using a neutral third party is an equalizing technique – no one interest will have more control over the information coming in than others, even if some interests begin the dialogue with greater resources and access to new information. When the facilitator is actively involved in the process, it can help information to be integrated into the ongoing flow of decisions and third party information can include bringing new perspectives into the dialogue that otherwise would have been left out of the room.
Challenges: The difference between using a neutral third party and joint fact finding is that the third party not only produces research, they also tend to present the research and discuss its implications with the group while they debate its use. This is a lost opportunity for a smaller group of stakeholders to apply the information to the problem they are trying to solve in some depth before bringing it back to the larger group. Without careful attention to the process, it can result in less ownership of the information by the group and less likelihood of using it when the decisions are being made. The neutral third party approach also requires dedicated resources.
When is the last time you saw a thoughtfully prepared, comprehensive report be fully- and well-used in a decision-making process? It’s not uncommon that high quality, agreed upon information fails to inform a decision in a meaningful way due to a poor process for integrating the information into the decision-making dialogues. Now add the complexity of a setting where different interests value and trust different sources of information and it becomes even more difficult to have information used to inform decisions.
There are many strategies to help with this problem. Below are a few that relate to different types of information and the role of the facilitator, mediator, and negotiator in helping the information be used.
- Strategic Timing of Information: At the most basic level, information is most likely to be used when it is timed to be brought in before a decision has been made, but there are formal/informal decisions and information that are unlikely to be used if it is too early or too late in the decision-making process.
- Balance of Presentation and Dialogue: While the default approach to sharing new information is through presentations and question/answers sessions, it is typically not very productive. Participants need to have a way to connect with the information, such as talking through the information presented with a partner or raising their questions at the beginning of the presentation.
- Preparing the Speaker: Take the time to talk with the speaker in advance of their presentation about what you would like them to present, the format, etc., as well as to make sure the speaker understands the intent of the presentation. This is particularly relevant if the speaker has a specific point of view about the problem or solutions.
- Mix of Small and Large Group: Everyone in the room needs to talk through the information in order to hold onto it to ensure there is room for everyone to have the opportunity to talk. Casual, turn-to-your-neighbor conversations are quick, easy, and important for retention of the learning.
- Documenting and Finding Consensus on Insights: To decrease the risk that the discussion points are lost by the time the decision-making point has arrived, plan on specific strategies to document these insights such as creating as summary of key facts to be used in the decision-making conversation.
These all assume that some type of presentation, whether formal or informal, is happening around the new information. If you have a report being shared and no plan for a presentation, consider charging a member of your group with highlighting key points so there is adequate attention to the full range of the information available, not just the key points participants latched onto prior to the meeting.
Whatever approach you decide to use in integrating new information into a decision-making process, the most important things to keep in mind are active engagement with the information and making sure the insights go somewhere, whether into new information collection or resurfacing when the decision-making moment happens.