Five steps for managing diversity to create synergy

By Doug Easterling

Doug Easterling (biography)

How can we address social, environmental, political and health problems that are too big and too complex for any single person, organization or institution to solve, or even to budge? How can we pool our wisdom and work collaboratively toward purposes that are larger than ourselves?

In theory at least, co-creation generates innovative solutions that transcend what would otherwise be produced by the participants acting on their own. In other words, co-creation can foster synergy.

To maximize synergy, a co-creative group should include participants who understand the problem from all the relevant perspectives. The more complex the problem, the greater the number and diversity of stakeholders who should be included in the process. A broader range of perspectives and ways of thinking allows for a richer and more comprehensive analysis of the problem, as well as more innovative solutions that address more of the underlying factors.

While diversity is crucial for arriving at transcendent solutions, diversity also complicates the process of working together toward a common purpose:

  • When participants come from diverse cultures, professions or disciplines, they find themselves speaking different languages and possibly disagreeing about why the problem is a problem.
  • They bring their own interests and biases which prevent the group from becoming a coherent whole.
  • While the process may be touted as inclusive, some members will invariably have more power than others.

For all these reasons, collaborative groups often fail to generate any new solution to the problem they came to solve, let alone a breakthrough solution. The more diverse the group, the greater the difficulty in setting the stage for synergy to pop.

Over the past 20 years researchers and practitioners such as Roz Lasker, David Chavis and Pennie Foster Fishman have provided important insights for bringing diverse groups together around shared work. Based on my own experience designing, facilitating and evaluating collaborative processes, I offer the following five recommendations for moving the work forward:

  1. Recruit participants who:
    • bring distinct expertise to the task at hand;
    • are curious to learn more;
    • are inclined toward discovery, action and risk; and
    • have an interest in improving the world.

    Avoid people (regardless of their expertise) who are only interested in running things, hearing themselves talk or getting personal credit.

  2. Hire a strong facilitator who is able to help participants bring their assumptions to the surface, see connections, find common ground, listen to one another even when the conversation is tense, and continually move toward solutions and actions.
  3. Before diving into the process of solving the problem, create the space for each participant to share his or her perspective on the problem, as well as the story behind that that perspective.
  4. Map out the systems and the structures that define the problem at hand – in a way that allows participants both to recognize their own perspective and to see the connections and larger context that surrounds the problem (as well as the solution).
  5. Expand the notion of “collaborative problem-solving” to go beyond shared analysis and discussion. The process also needs to include collaborative action and experimentation where participants actually experience the feeling of co-creation.

When a diverse mix of people are brought together to work on an intractable challenge, they often begin with optimism. They believe (or at least hope) that the group is capable of discovering solutions that have previously eluded the world. But too often these groups are set up for failure – because of a lack of attention to who is around the room and the process they will undertake together. Many participants leave these processes frustrated and even jaded.

The recommendations presented here amount to a new direction in how collaborative problem-solving is conducted, with much more focus on the requirements for co-creation and much less faith that things will just work out when we all get in the room together.

Biography: Doug Easterling PhD is a Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and served as department chair from 2005-2015. His research and consulting focus on community-based approaches to improving health and quality of life, with a special emphasis on the work of foundations. He has served as an evaluator, strategic advisor, learning coach and facilitator for more than 20 national, state, and local foundations. From 1992-1999 he served as the Director of Research and Evaluation at The Colorado Trust, where he oversaw the foundation’s evaluation of a series of community-based initiatives. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in April 2016 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

5 thoughts on “Five steps for managing diversity to create synergy”

  1. Hi Doug. Great article. For my PhD, I’m researching the influence of power among different stakeholders at the science – policy interface (SPI) . Are you familiar with any work looking at the influence of power in science; or more specifically, power in the SPI.
    Kind regards,

  2. Yes, the process and mechanism of collaboration/co-creation needs to be valued and addressed as much as the outcomes and impacts partners want it to have. Time constraints, personal development and career goals, institutional priorities and the need to see instant results: all these things and more push a focus upon the process of collaboration towards the bottom of people’s thinking. It needs to be near the top.

  3. Interesting and insightful. However, if attribution (and perhaps accountability) are missing in a collaborative process, interests will wane. People do feel good when they are credited for coming up with new ideas, especially by a peer group.


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