By Gabriele Bammer
What skills for generating ideas and reaching agreement should every researcher involved in stakeholder engagement seek to cultivate? What key methods and concepts should they be familiar with?
The focus in this blog post is on generating ideas and reaching agreement, as well as recognising the “groan zone” between these two phases in a group process. Researchers will have diverse attributes and not everyone will be well-placed to cultivate the skills described here. Having an understanding of the skills can help in choosing the researchers best placed to undertake the stakeholder engagement.
Generating ideas: Brainstorming
For brainstorming to work well, it requires rapid-fire contributions, no holding back or self-censoring of ideas, and no discussion or criticism of the ideas proposed. It often involves a group of stakeholders (or stakeholders and researchers) sitting around a flipchart or whiteboard, with one person writing down the ideas as members of the group say them. This can also be easily translated to an online environment. It often works best if a limited time is set. Brainstorming is usually followed by an exploration of the ideas generated.
Understanding the groan zone
When stakeholders and researchers with diverse perspectives generate ideas, there is generally a sense of excitement, as the potential for innovative thinking about the problem under consideration is recognised. But the mood changes when the group starts to consider how to pull together the various insights into creative ways to address the problem.
Groups enter an uncomfortable space that Sam Kaner called the “groan zone”. It is helpful to understand that this is common in transitioning between divergent thinking, where various ideas are introduced, and convergent thinking, where the group moves to organise that information, focus on what is most important, and make decisions on how to move forward. This is depicted in the figure below.
An important aspect of managing the groan zone is recognising and naming it, along with appreciation that it is a distinct, valuable and normal phase in a group’s work.
The listening and dialogue skills described in Primer #7 are important for getting through the groan zone.
Two basic methods for reaching agreement are described. The 1-2-4-All method is useful for synthesising ideas on a way forward in addressing a problem. The gradients of agreement method is useful for testing and improving the strength of agreement.
1. The 1-2-4-All method
The 1-2-4-All method asks the stakeholder and researcher participants a question such as “What actions to address the problem would you recommend?” The method works for groups of any size, in person or online. Ideas are documented at each stage. The method involves:
- A minute of silent individual self-reflection.
- Pairs are then formed to build on the ideas from the self-reflection and to generate new ideas; 2 minutes is allowed for this process.
- Pairs then combine into foursomes, sharing their ideas, noting similarities and differences and developing the ideas; 4 minutes is allowed for this process.
- Within the whole group, each foursome in turn shares one important idea for action, without repeating an idea already shared, and this is repeated until all the important ideas have been shared. This should be a rapid process with no time for discussion or expression of criticism.
In each stage of the process distillation and synthesis occur. If the group is large and the available time is short, there can be a limit in the whole group process of the number of rounds where ideas for action are shared. In such cases, a process is then needed to gather and distribute ideas that were not able to be presented to the group.
If a deeper discussion is required than the one generated, the whole process can be repeated.
2. Gradients of agreement
It is common for silence to be interpreted as consent, but there is a better way to test and improve agreement through so-called gradients of agreement. This technique can be used for:
- Informally soliciting what stakeholders think about something that researchers have proposed
- Decision making by groups of stakeholders or stakeholders and researchers.
Both involve moving beyond yes/no responses or silence to give stakeholders a range of options to express their level of agreement with a proposal. The options can range from quite simple as shown in the first column in the table below, to more complex as shown in the third column. It is beneficial to get everyone to express their view without knowing what everyone else thinks by voting simultaneously (this process can also be anonymous), but then to share the results so that the range of outcomes can inform on-going discussion. This also helps move beyond assumptions about the group’s view and encourages everyone to develop their own view.
When researchers want to know what stakeholders think in order to inform their own decision making, it can be helpful for them to figure out ahead of time how they will respond if stakeholders want to know more or if they disagree with the suggestion. For example, will they organise the meeting so that such responses will be dealt with on the spot; will they organise some sort of follow-up; or will these responses simply be noted?
Such preparatory thinking is essential when the stakeholders are involved in making decisions, rather than simply informing them. For the gradients of agreement to work in such circumstances, preliminary discussion and decisions are required on:
- What level of agreement is necessary for the decision making? For example, will it require a simple majority or 100% who are at least willing to live with it?
- What steps will be taken to seek to attain that level of agreement? For example, how much time will be allocated to people to air their questions and concerns and how will they be responded to? How often will the group revote?
When the necessary level of support agreed to ahead of time is not there, it can be quite reasonable, for instance, to listen carefully to the outliers, as they may see something that has been missed. If really understanding different perspectives is important, the process may require a few iterations of discussion and voting.
Anything to add?
Particularly welcome are examples of how you have used brainstorming, recognising the groan zone, the 1-2-4-All method and gradients of agreement in stakeholder engagement.
If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on basic skills for generating ideas and reaching agreement that would be useful?
If you have engaged with stakeholders in your research, are there other basic methods and concepts for generating ideas and reaching agreement that you would add? Is there anything about these skills that you wish you had known when you were starting out in your engagement work? Do you have lessons from experience to share?
Sources and references:
The section on brainstorming is based on my experience. The section on the groan zone was adapted from a blog post by Carrie Kappel. The section on the 1-2-4-All method was adapted from the Liberating Structures website. The section on gradients of agreement was adapted from a blog post by Hannah Love. All of these authors, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the references below. Particular mention should be given to the work of Sam Kaner, which was used by both Carrie Kappel and Hannah Love; therefore one of his key works is also cited.
Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Third edition, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, California, United States of America.
Kappel, C. (2019). Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone. Integration and Implementation Insights. (Online): https://i2insights.org/2019/05/28/collaboration-groan-zone/
Liberating Structures. (nd). Liberating Structures: Including and Unleashing Everyone. (Online): https://www.liberatingstructures.com/1-1-2-4-all/
Love, H. (2021). Gradients of agreement for democratic decision making. Integration and Implementation Insights. (Online): https://i2insights.org/2021/05/25/gradients-of-agreement-tool/
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Stakeholder Engagement Primer comprises the following blog posts:
1. a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)
2. Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)
3. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
4. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
5. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
6. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
7. Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)
This blog post:
8. Generating ideas and reaching agreement (December 2, 2021)