Getting to a shared definition of a “good” solution in collaborative problem-solving

By Doug Easterling

Doug Easterling (biography)

How can collaborative groups move past their divisions and find solutions that advance their shared notions of what would be good for the community?

Complex problems – such as how to expand access to high-quality health care, how to reduce poverty, how to remedy racial disparities in educational attainment and economic opportunity, and how to promote economic development while at the same time protecting natural resources – can’t be solved with technical remedies or within a narrow mindset. They require the sort of multi-disciplinary, nuanced analysis that can only be achieved by engaging a variety of stakeholders in a co-creative process.

Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives allows for a comprehensive analysis of complex problems, but this also raises the risk of a divisive process. Especially when the defining problem involves contentious issues such as economic structures, health behavior and land use, participants are likely to bring differing notions of what constitutes a “good” solution.

Disagreements over values can stymie the group’s efforts to generate a collective solution, even when there exist options that everyone agrees would improve conditions in the community. From a game theory perspective, different participants have different pay-off functions for the possible alternatives, which makes it hard to agree on the solution. If the group doesn’t arrive at a shared solution, nothing changes in the community. For most problems there are solutions that everyone agrees are better than the status quo, but these solutions emerge only if the group works cooperatively to co-create them. How does a group with disparate views move into a position where co-creation is possible?

The first step for the group is to locate shared values and common interests. While this step seems obvious, it is too often not carried out. Collaborative groups typically begin by identifying participants’ personal and organizational interests regarding the issue at hand, but they don’t supplement that step by developing a shared assessment of the overall community’s interests regarding the issue.

The Community Heart and Soul Model

One potentially valuable tool is the Community Heart & Soul model, which the Orton Family Foundation (2015) developed as a means of helping towns and small cities gain community-wide alignment around “what matters most.” The premise behind Heart & Soul is that even if residents have differing opinions on many topics, they should be able to agree on a core set of things that make their community special and that need to be preserved and promoted. By defining what about their community “matters most,” residents are able to provide direction to elected officials, agencies and other groups that engage in policymaking, planning and problem-solving.

The Heart & Soul model allows a community to identify shared interests by having residents share their personal stories. A locally based project team deploys volunteers to interview residents about the positive and negative experiences they have had living in the community, as well as what they do and don’t like about the community. Stories are also collected through radio programming, story-telling booths, neighborhood gatherings and community-wide forums. The goal is to hear from at least 10% of the population through one mechanism or another. In addition, the project team explicitly seeks stories from residents from all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The stories gathered through the Heart & Soul process are shared widely via websites, radio, written reports and open forums. The goal here is for residents to gain a broader, richer sense of who lives in the community and to build an appreciation for the diversity of people and experiences that exist there. At the same time, there is an expectation that in sharing their stories with one another, residents will come to recognize that they share much in common, especially with regard to what they want the community to become.

Another major step in the Heart & Soul process is to distill the personal stories into a set of shared values. The local project team compiles and analyzes the stories and other information to identify recurrent themes. Those themes are vetted and refined in community forums, and eventually become the basis for a set of Heart & Soul Statements. This set of statements describes what the community (as a whole) values with regard to topics such as the geographic setting, natural resources, the economic base, services, the arts, families, children, diversity, traditions and the feel of the community.

Does it work?

In 2014 I led a team of researchers at Wake Forest University that evaluated the Heart & Soul process within the first nine communities that implemented the model. Our evaluation found that each community was able to identify a set of things that matter most to local residents — across demographic and ideological divisions. The level of specificity was greater in some Heart & Soul statements than in others, but all communities came out of the process with greater awareness of their common interests.

How might it work for collaborative problem-solving groups?

The Heart & Soul process has the potential to deliver comparable benefits to collaborative problem-solving groups. Having participants share their stories can bring the group together around a collective view of what is good for the community. Distilling those stories into themes can point to specific goals that should be advanced by the group’s problem-solving efforts.

Sharing stories and distilling commonalities is unlikely to completely eliminate the values conflicts that arise when a group is grappling with a complex, contentious issue. But this process can lift up and reinforce the places where participants are on the same page. This in turn can help the group move beyond its differences and bring out the best in one another, which ultimately is how co-creation happens.

To find out more:
Orton Family Foundation. (2015). Community Heart & Soul Field Guide. 2nd Edition. Online: (PDF 6MB)

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 developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 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).

4 thoughts on “Getting to a shared definition of a “good” solution in collaborative problem-solving”

  1. Thanks Doug, you have pointed us to a useful resource in the Heart and Soul approach. It reminds me of some aspects of Appreciative Inquiry in the way that I have used it for collaboration. I note that you have focused on the value of finding shared interests and dealing with conflicts of values. That, of course, does make sense. However, I would like to suggest that there is another outcome that could prove just as useful: participants gain a greater appreciation of the social complexity that is embedded in the problem they are working on. The divergent values are not, in my opinion, simply a barrier to overcome in working together, they are often integral to the complexity of the situation. Appreciating that complexity and divergence will help participants to relativise their favoured solutions, recognise that their view is partial, and therefore (on a good day, with a tail wind) avoid entrenching simplifications with their associated fundamentalist positions on what to do. I have found in my use of approaches similar to the one you suggest have had that positive outcome; participants avoid conflict of favoured solutions because they realise that their views and values are not the only ones that need to be accommodated, and then engage with one another more open to finding that accommodation.

    • Thanks Graeme for your endorsement and thoughtful extension of the points I was hoping to get across in the blog. I have also seen instances where sharing stories deepens everyone’s appreciation of complexity — beyond simply appreciating that other people have different perspectives and experiences related to the issue, but more fundamentally that a true understanding of the issue requires that we move from our own 3-dimensional worldview into n-dimensional space — where everyone is going to feel at least a bit disoriented or upside down.

      But not everyone is willing to go there. Some people resist or distrust ambiguity. Some want to be right — either because that’s part of their psychic make-up or because they are participating in the process as a representative of an institution or sector that has defined interests. Co-creation requires the fluidity and curiosity that only comes when we enter in a mode of discovery. I generally don’t see that level of open-endedness in community-based problem-solving groups, especially when a funder has put money on the table (or on the dessert tray that’s waiting in the kitchen).

      And even when the stars align and the wind is in our favour, it takes quite some time to move through the process of listening to one another’s stories, recognizing the truths contained therein, and building a more complete and nuanced understanding of the things that the group is working on (probably expanding that agenda in the process). That is especially true when the people telling the stories come from different cultures and traditions. In the two Heart & Soul communities where indigenous people make up a major segment of the population, their stories (and histories) were starkly different from those told by Whites and Hispanics who came to the area more recently. The communities are still in the process of hearing and understanding those seemingly divergent stories. It will take a while (maybe a generation or two) before a larger, more integrated, more nuanced perspective emerges. In the meantime, residents are left to mull their differences and struggle with how to move forward as a single community.

      This process brings to mind Scott Peck’s model of community-building and its four stages: 1) pseudo-community, 2) chaos, 3) emptiness, 4) true community. Getting people to hear one another’s stories moves this process forward, but it’s hard to feel like progress is being made when everyone is feeling chaos or sitting dormant in emptiness. That’s where we need to be building out the “art” of co-creation. How do we maintain the experience of creativity in the face of conflict, frustration, deflation, etc.?

      Thanks again Graeme for pushing us to dig deeper.

  2. An interesting resource that I intend to review as another approach to organizing and guiding project teams forward (see [Moderator update – In November 2022, this link no longer available: ringbolt[dot]net/2017/01/07/are-you-a-collaborative-project-manager/)]


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