Leadership in participatory modelling

By Raimo P. Hämäläinen, Iwona Miliszewska and Alexey Voinov

1. Raimo P. Hämäläinen (biography)
2. Iwona Miliszewska (biography)
3. Alexey Voinov (biography)

What can leadership discourse in the business literature tell us for leadership in participatory modelling?

Here we explore:

  • the difference between leadership and management in participatory modelling
  • different leadership styles and participatory modelling
  • three key leadership issues in participatory modelling: responsibility for best practices and ethics, competences, and who in the participatory modelling team should lead.

How does leadership differ from management in participatory modelling?

A simple description of the key difference is that leadership is about creating a vision, setting the direction and producing change, whereas management is about achieving efficient organization of projects and processes. Leadership is about inspiration and motivating people, whereas management is about implementing visions and executing plans. Managers do things right, while leaders do the right things.

In the table below we compare what is required for leadership and management in five key aspects of the participatory modelling process: thinking process, goal setting, participant relations, operations, and governance.

Comparing leadership and management in participatory modelling (Hämäläinen et al., 2020)

Different leadership styles and participatory modelling

We briefly describe different leadership styles and their pros and cons in the participatory modelling context.

  • Laissez-faire leadership allows people to decide their own actions independently. The consequences of this can be negative and result in inefficiency as well as lack of responsibility.
  • Transactional and transformational leadership both rely on a traditional task-focused leader-follower relationship with goals and rewards set by the leader. Followers have independence in the fulfillment of their tasks. Disadvantages include the risk of negative feelings when goals are not met. Participatory modelling projects have multiple tasks, which are typically strongly interconnected and there can be great challenges for the leader in setting the goals for different tasks and actors.
  • Shared leadership can be an appealing idea, but it brings considerable risks for the complex problem-solving processes encountered in participatory modelling. In a participatory modelling team, there can be an implicit assumption that leadership is shared without even discussing the matter. This can result in problems with respect to responsibilities and resource use.
  • Systems leadership emphasizes understanding of the whole which includes mental models, building shared vision and team learning. Acting wisely in such contexts reflects systems intelligence. The core idea is that in problem solving, such as occurs in participatory modelling, people always are part of and act from within systems. Systems thinking is central to understanding environmental problems and systems intelligence provides a natural leadership framework for participatory modelling.
  • Complexity leadership is based on complexity theories. These can enrich how leaders view their environments, but they provide limited implementable tools for leadership practice.
  • Spiritual and servant leadership are both distinctly different from many other leadership styles. There is an explicit goal of influencing the followers in their personal growth assuming that there is a shared vision of moral, ethical and life values. In participatory modelling leaders rarely want to intervene in this way in the personal growth of people in their teams.

Three key leadership issues in participatory modelling

Leadership responsibility for best practices and ethics: Best practices are not only related to finding the right modelling tools but also to the way that models are used and how stakeholders are engaged. Adopting a behavioral lens on modelling complements the technical or algorithmic focus with a process perspective where the human elements are also essential.

Leadership competences for participatory modelling: Technical and procedural skills alone are not enough, but need to be complemented by social skills, environmental sensitivity and ethical skills. Essential specific skills required of the leader of a participatory modelling project include understanding, and the ability to identify, risks and impacts of behavioral, social and emotional effects on modelling and stakeholder engagement.

Who in the participatory modelling team should lead?: Modelling is essential in participatory modelling projects and thus leadership is often implicitly assumed to be the task of the modeller. However, the modeller does not need to be the leader. The leadership role can in principle be assigned to any of the professional actors in the project. The key requirement for the person assuming the role is that s/he understands and is willing to pay attention to the special skills needed in that role. The current training of modellers does not emphasize these “other” skills. Therefore they might not be the best ones to undertake the role.

Final questions

Do you agree that it would be beneficial to pay more attention to leadership? Do you share our view of the leadership and management skills required for participatory modelling? Are there others that you would add? Which leadership styles have you encountered in the context of participatory modelling? Which works best/worst? Should training of modellers in academic institutions also include classes in leadership and people skills?

To find out more:
Hämäläinen, R. P., Miliszewska, I. and Voinov, A. (2020). Leadership in participatory modelling – Is there a need for it? Environmental Modelling and Software, 133, 104834. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2020.104834

Biography: Raimo P. Hämäläinen PhD is a professor emeritus in the Systems Analysis Laboratory, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland. He is an honorary visiting professor in the Center on Persuasive Systems for Wise Adaptive Living (PERSWADE), University of Technology Sydney, Australia and at Loughborough University, UK. He has published extensively on decision and game theory, environmental decision making, as well as developed widely used decision support software. His current interests include behavioral issues in modelling and systems intelligence in social interaction.

Biography: Iwona Miliszewska PhD is Professor and Head of the School of Information, Systems and Modelling, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. She has a decade’s experience in senior leadership roles with responsibility for strategic planning, development and the management of large, diverse teams and significant budgets.

Biography: Alexey Voinov PhD is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Information, Systems and Modelling, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He is director of the faculty’s Center on Persuasive Systems for Wise Adaptive Living (PERSWADE). He is also a professor in the Water Engineering and Management Department, Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente, The Netherlands. He is a keen advocate of stakeholder involvement in modelling and decision making.

8 thoughts on “Leadership in participatory modelling”

  1. In general, and especially in participatory scenarios, which for the sake of clarity of my observations, I’m interpreting from an emancipatory perspective, the notion of ‘we’ who develop a consensus in decision-making is conferred by the context of professional relations. That is, a function of the basis of mutual trust in professional dependencies, over formal delegation or inherent authority. It depends, but in non-bureaucratic settings this technocracy (division of competencies) is more likely to be grounded in past experiences and self-evident.

    While the proposed disambiguation of leadership and management roles in various aspects of activities is very instructive, it appears to be born of a perceived need for or seeking a sense of accountability, perhaps in environments where things tend to go astray, e.g. supposedly convergent activities don’t or project inflection points and milestones tend to blur. Needles to say, the critical distinction being that of ‘doing the right thing’, ahead of ‘doing it right’, analogous to leading with ‘why’ towards ‘what’ and ‘how.’

    In the absence of an established ‘team culture’, similar to the pitfalls in the ambiguity of ‘we’ (how might we), potential frictions may be encountered in the interpretation of ‘autonomy’ and more specifically, how that understanding translates to the ‘team’ as an unified entity. In that context, neither the leader nor manager play a foolproof role. In other words, setting aside the notion of project owner (as in CATOE*, not Agile), emancipatory autonomous paths tend to fall or diverge along the lines of impetus and competencies.

    Of course, and I don’t mean – “the modeller is the most technically competent hence…”, but instead, leadership and management roles can be framed in more innate terms of a product ‘champion’ and ‘enabler’ taking turns in coming to the fore and reaching across the lines. The former may be the ‘instigator’, most likely leading and taking responsibility for the early stages, yet potentially blinkered by attachment to their baby, unlike the latter, who keeps at it, through lethargy and inaction, as well as of course, diligently badgers through governance, the sponsors and stakeholder committees. (I’d be happy to elaborate.)

    *Moderator: clarification of CATOE has been requested. It may be CATWOE from soft systems thinking: Customer, Actor, Transformation, Worldview, Owner, Environment.

    • Dear Piotr, Thanks for your reflections on our paper. My assumption is that in many environmental decisions there is not a possibility or time to develop team culture without leadership. Stakeholders have diverging Interests and values. Working together as a collaborative is easier with leadership.
      Cheers, Raimo

      • Hi Raimo. I appreciate your response, however, my observations regarding ‘who’ and the manner of selection of a leader, acknowledging ‘the absence of team culture’, attempt to frame the challenge in terms of demonstrated aptitude to lead and unite the group effort, given some degree recognition from the ‘management’ role. The informal ‘caretaker’ delegation asserts identifiability or evidence of salient contributions towards a shared vision, which would be very likely to change as the project matures, and of course, the approach assumes that a supporting consensus can be gained.

        This line of reasoning is motivated by and attempts to address, a number of references in the paper pointing to both, ambivalence regarding assignment (potentially top-down), as well as qualifying competencies or skills, including coaching, etc.. In my view, that outlook on ‘delegating’ and ‘qualifying’ criteria of leadership represents ‘managerial’ organisational formalisms, which in effect are in direct conflict with the emancipatory objectives and/or nature of participatory activities and their structures and dismiss aspects of autonomy behind individual roles, inherent to the paradigm.

        BTW Thanks for the moderator’s correction of CATWOE.

  2. I think these are critical issues and well stated. One struggle that I’ve had is to what extent does the leader who is the modeler weigh in on the issue at hand; especially when they are not a member of the community in which the issue is being discussed? In certain cases the leader may be a content expert. As communities weigh models, scenarios, and decisions against their values, is there a place for the model leader or content expert to weigh in?

    • So far it has been typical that PM projects have been initiated by modelers who have skills in a particular modelling methodology and see that it could be useful in helping to solve a problem. Models can be used to help understand the complex dynamics of the system but also to elicit and visualize the values of the stakeholders. This has lead to the situation where the modeler assumes the leadership role as it is thought to be the most difficult and crucial element of the process. Yet, in complex real life problems understanding the big picture and the management of stakeholder engagement with good people skills are equally challenging. I think that when modelling is becoming routinely used the situation is likely to change. Projects will be set up so that the leadership role is clearly assigned to someone and this person coordinates the modelers and the experts as well as the stakeholder engagement process. The project leader naturally needs to be neutral so when there are conflicting interests a representative of a certain stakeholder community might not be the best one to be assigned to be the leadership role.

  3. Brilliant stuff – so well observed and useful in giving leadership some choices. Benefits of either leadership or management approach could also be considered to assist with high level decision making.

    • Dear Susan thanks for your positive comment. We think the first step is to bring the terms leadership and management into the attention of the practitioners. This will hopefully raise interest and perhaps self-reflection on ones own personal practices. Pushing new perspectives is not likely to work but when people are be exposed to new ideas gently they are more likely to act on them. We note that there could be more discussion on the roles in the PM projects so that not everybody needs to have management and leadership skills. Naturally high level decision makers need to consider these issues all the time and perhaps more than is seen currently. Commissioners of PM projects could explicitly require that leadership and management issues are dealt with.

      • Greetings Raimo and thank you for your reply. In my work environment at the moment, the relevance is collaboration between participatory research academics and public service administrators. Your analysis is most useful to raise awareness about these two different modes of action in the world of inquiry/project delivery. Additionally some of us need to move from one to the other and back again to do our work. This movement can create many issues in how one is perceived in either setting, which can be misread as personal characteristics (failings) rather than carefully honed capabilities suiting these two very different modalities. It can be very painful.


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