Facilitating multidisciplinary decision making

By Bob Dick

Bob Dick (biography)

Imagine this scenario. You are confronted by a wicked problem, such as the obesity epidemic. You know it’s a wicked problem – many previous attempts to resolve it have failed.

Suppose that you wish to develop a plan to remedy obesity. You have identified as many relevant areas of expertise and experience as you can and approached appropriate people – researchers, health practitioners, people with political influence, and so on.

You bring them together to pool their expertise—only to find that you now have another problem. Encouraging them to work collaboratively is more difficult than you expected. They talk in jargon. Their understanding is narrow. Their commitment is to their own discipline. Some of their understanding is tacit. Some of them are argumentative. And more. What are you to do?

Facilitators can help in situations such as this. Different facilitators have different approaches. Here, below, is what I might do.

To guide my thinking I use a concept from the Dutch sociologist and philosopher Anton Zijderveld. We are, he said, Homo duplex. We are individuals … and we are social beings. We are capable of competition and collaboration.

Competition and collaboration each have both constructive and destructive forms. As facilitator I wish to elicit the constructive forms. The participants are likely to be intelligent, motivated, and quite possibly competitive. I encourage them to use their individual and collective motivations to develop a successful end product that is satisfying for all.

Complex problems are inherently unpredictable, I assume. No single facilitation strategy is likely to be effective. I use multiple strategies, integrated to pursue the desired outcomes.

Before the activity I set up the venue. The participants will be seated in an arc around a large whiteboard or similar. This signals to them as they arrive that we are working on a shared task.

When the participants arrive I wish first to develop a sense of community. With willing participants I facilitate an activity involving self-disclosure. Experiencing each other as real people encourages cooperation. Some participants may regard such an activity as irrelevant. Rather than self-disclosure, I instead ask them to introduce themselves, factually describing the expertise they will contribute to our collective endeavour.

With that accomplished, my task is to facilitate agreement about our collective purpose. Experience informs me how this may be more effectively achieved. Initially we look beyond the immediate task to the potential longer-term benefit it can confer.

With agreement reached, I write up both the benefit and the immediate goal. It remains visible throughout the session as a reminder of what we are trying to do.

Now we begin the core task. We are to pool our expert knowledge. We are to learn from one another. We are to develop a better solution than any one of us could devise. It is now important that I encourage the constructive varieties of competition and collaboration.

At this point I conceive of our collective task as crafting agreement from disagreement. My responsibility is to encourage this. My approach is to use processes that assist in doing so.

To steer their competitive instincts constructively I invite them to use their intelligence and motivation to pursue collective outcomes. I urge them to be intensely curious about each other’s views. In presenting their own views I ask them to respect their colleagues’ intelligence by informing rather than persuading.

I seek to structure the process in useful ways. At each step I provide thinking time before anyone speaks. I ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute. I encourage the contribution of contrary views. I challenge people to offer disagreement respectfully, and with our collective purpose in mind. I capture all information on the whiteboard, in their words.

Eventually we have exchanged and understood the relevant information. Now we are ready to attempt a solution. Again, participants first work individually, without speaking. All are then encouraged to offer their solutions or partial solutions. These too are captured on the whiteboard.

To analyse these we agree on the few that seem most promising. We identify the strengths and weaknesses of each. We look for “best of both worlds” combinations. We make a final choice. Before celebrating the completion of our demanding task we deliver a final polish to our chosen solution.

Biography: Bob Dick is an independent scholar, and a facilitator and consultant in the fields of community and organisational change. Much of his experience has been in helping others develop their own skills and understanding in these fields. In pursuit of this goal he develops robust processes that work well in the hands of relative novices. He uses such processes in his own work, continually refining them. He offers regular public workshops on facilitation.

4 thoughts on “Facilitating multidisciplinary decision making”

  1. Hi Bob, looking forward to attending your 4 August evening sessions on facilitative leadership in VUCA times. Really enjoyed your article. Our interest and our work is not about solving the problem nor about implementing the project, nor do we focus on facilitating single collaborative events. However we do enhance the collaborative skills of participants, so they take responsibility for collaborating effectively i.e. understanding complexity; stepping back from ‘knowing’ or ‘having a solution’ until the complex dilemma or wicked problem being tackled is clear and shared; deep listening; sharing vulnerability; embracing uncertainty; constantly revisiting the dilemma as its shape and substance changes over time; letting go of control; learning through shared experimentation; learning together from failure as well as success; etc. I’m sure we’ll all have some interesting conversations over the month of August.

  2. Thanks, Kai. I can understand the advantages of a lingua franca as a way of overcoming barriers caused by jargon. Thanks, too, for the link to know-why.net, which I didn’t know about.

    I can imagine myself using qualitative cause and effect models. First, however, I would wish to be more experienced in their use. I would also need to be aware of any traps in using cause and effect models on genuinely wicked problems. There are such traps, I suspect. Any thoughts?

    Much of my own work is intended to do more than solve the problem or implement the project. There is also a secondary outcome of enhancing the leadership skills of participants.

    Currently I achieve this by coaching them in listening skills, and helping them to be more genuinely curious about each others’ views and models. They may then learn to look beyond the jargon to the reality it tries to depict.

  3. “They talk jargon …. their understanding is narrow…” is this really tackled by this otherwise excellent organization of the right setting? I’d recommend in addition the use of a lingua franca between the disciplines in the form of qualitative cause and effect models (e.g. on know-why.net).


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