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The 5Ps #2

Just as careful consideration in selecting the appropriate people and place are critical factors in a successful MeshWORKS effort, the process that stakeholders use also requires thoughtful planning. From an SDi perspective, this means creating alignment and integration in the MeshWORK’s design. In alignment we gather pertinent stakeholders with diverse vMEMES to identify the root causes of the challenge and paint a comprehensive picture of what is happening in the environment. This helps us to understand what we will do with whom. This thoughtful analysis sets up for success during the integration phase where we put our strategic vision into action. W conduct pilot projects, learn and adapt, and scale accordingly all the while scanning the environment for patterns. In this phase, then, we focus on how we should support stakeholders to address their concerns.

A MeshWORKS process should enable stakeholders to listen to and respect each other and to suspend judgement in order for everyone to voice new possibilities to the best of their abilities. This is not just an exercise in coming together to share information. The process evolves over time as stakeholders listen to each other and learn about each other’s concerns. This in turn may produce a dialogue around shared outcomes and how to coordinate new ideas into actionable results.

This section will be divided into 3 parts: pre-MeshWORKS, MeshWORKS and post-MeshWORKS. Although this approach may appear linear at first glance, I recommend that one actually view the multi-stakeholder collaboration process as a series of learning loops that evolve over time in support of the needs of the group. In order to enable sustainable change, collaborative dialogue needs to be an iterative process, not a one-off meeting or singular event.

Pre-MeshWORKS workshop process (planning and preparation): Selection of participants and location are key activities for SDi designers to conduct prior to any collaborative forum. Part of this coordination can include surveys and interviews with stakeholders in order to to sense desired outcomes, who is being affected by the current challenge, what is working, well, what is not working well, and perceived obstacles to progress. Another critical element of the pre-MeshWORKs process is to assess the potential of, conditions for, and barriers to change. The research and analysis will inform the organizers and fine-tune the process. According to Lida Citroen (2013), this preparation will guide SDi designers to outline what they hope participants will know, feel and do as a result of taking part in a MeshWORKS endeavour.

MeshWORKS workshop process: Having the facilitators declare from the beginning that the MeshWORKS space is a safe container and that all participants belong and will be heard will help set the right tone for the forum. Facilitators should also engage stakeholders in establishing the ways in which the group wants to resolve internal conflict and ensure the inclusivity. This means actively seeking ways to delineate the norms for conflict resolution and the collaborative process. A clear understanding of the ‘rules of the game’ for these discussions will help generate a framework for conversations throughout the MeshWORKS.

Framing the challenge: With ground rules in place and a collaborative tone set, facilitators should then work closely with stakeholders to frame the problem and/or opportunity. Helpful discussion questions include:-

  • What are the stakeholders life conditions (time, place, problems and circumstances)?
  • What are the root causes and the driving issues for these life conditions?
  • What are the interests of the stakeholders and why are these interests important?
  • What is currently working or functioning well? How can that be shared and/or scaled?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What are possible scenarios for the future?
  • What are the shared interests, problems and/or opportunities?
  • What is needed in order to move from shared understanding of a problem or opportunity to shared action and commitment?

Mapping the complex system: To support the framing of the conversation, participants should collectively describe the environment in which they face the complex challenge. To support this part of the SDi design process, Beck & Cowan (p156) recommend charting the “big picture patterns and flows in the milieu”. Participants can provide an inventory of ongoing activities and initiatives related to the complex challenge they face. They can also visually map connections among stakeholder networks, environmental factors and ongoing actions. Additionally, a description of constraints and obstacles will help depict the current situation.

In addition to external environmental factors, understanding what is happening below the surface – ie: in the inner landscape of the participants – also affects stakeholder dialogue. Concerns about the misuse of power, discrimination and other grievances may very well be an integral aspect of the MeshWORKS challenge. Facilitators should be prepared to include these concerns.

Painting a comprehensive picture helps participants develop a shared understanding of their environment, problems and opportunities. The collective picture belongs to the group, not just one stakeholder organization, because it integrates the diversity of perspectives in the room. Throughout the process, moderators should strive for a collective picture of viewpoints, one that is inclusive of the voices represented by the  stakeholders and their organizations.

Stages of stakeholder group development: As in most group endeavours, the  participants go through developmental phases during a MeshWORKS effort. One way to help groups move through this process  is to help facilitate it in progressive steps. David Johnson & Frank Johnson (1996) have identified 7 stages that groups navigate with the assistance of expert faciliation:-

  1. Define and structure process
  2. Conform to process and get to know one another
  3. Recognise mutual interests and build trust (if not respect)
  4. Rebel and differentiate
  5. Commit to and take responsibility for the goals, process and stakeholder concerns
  6. Function in a mature and productive manner
  7. Terminate

Understanding that a process goes through many evolutions helps stakeholders understand that it is normal – and expected – to have ups and downs, tension, breakdowns and breakthroughs during the course of a MeshWORK venture. Facilitators enable participants to learn and adapt accordingly as the life cycle of the multi-stakeholder collaboration collaboration develops over time. SDi conveners also learn to be patient with this progression and support its natural unfolding.

Pilot project design: As the group develops a comprehensive picture of their complex challenges, facilitators can start exploring the possibility of discovering common ground and shared goals. Given that inequalities and grievances are often present, the group may need to build confidence and/or co-create alternative future scenarios among themselves. By honouring differences and employing a dialogic approach, participants learn how others view the situation from their respective viewpoints. This fosters a possibility for collective action.

When common ground emerges during the MeshWORKS process, facilitation can work with stakeholders to design pilot projects and prototype possibilities. According to CEO and top designer Tim Brown (2009), prototyping:-

  • Explores an idea, evaluates it and produces useful feedback to improve upon it and drive the concept forward
  • Communicates an idea with sufficient clarity to gain acceptance across a variety of stakeholder groups, prove it and show that it will work
  • Avoids costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long, thus producing results faster

Low-hanging fruit is a smart prototyping opportunity to pursue in order for the stakeholders to gain confidence and show others that progress is possible. Pilot projects help build momentum for the MeshWORKS endeavour.

Implementation: When a group aligns around a pilot project, facilitators should enable stakeholders to outline a way ahead. The group should provide a detailed implementation plan, with desired output and outcomes. This should also include an inventory of resources and functional capacities that are currently available to use. The SDi enterprise should also articulate the criteria  for success and make commitments, including:-

  • What task or project?
  • Who is responsible for the assigned task?
  • Who is the customer and who is the executor for the task?
  • When? (road map or timeline for execution)
  • Why? (purpose/intent of the assigned task)
  • What are the conditions for success? How will these be assessed?
  • How will agreements or commitments be enforced?
  • How will breakdowns be addressed?

Conversations that put ideas into accountable action also help us “place the right person into the right job (project) with the right tools and support” (Beck & Cowan, p168). Following up on these commitments requires people with the willingness, legitimacy and ability to get things done. They need to have some level of of power, influence and/or authority in order to persuade those in their parent organizations or communities to take new steps. The ability of group representatives to negotiate with their own organizations is crucial to getting solutions truly framed, explored, crafted, agreed to and implemented (Jeff Weiss, 2013).

Post-MeshWORKS process (follow-through): Designers also help the SDi enterprise to adapt to shifts in the environment and changing needs of stakeholders. One way to do this is to plan the key activities that will take place after a MeshWORKS workshop occurs. Assessments, following up on commitments, sharing stories and other ways of sustaining the momentum of the SDi enterprise are critical post-MeshWORKS event considerations.

Momentum and continuity: SDi designers should consider having a process in place to help ensure that collaboration continues between events. Doing so helps stakeholders maintain momentum and generates a sense of continuity. Here are some ideas to consider that can help participants stay engaged in the MeshWORKS process and stay informed:-

  • Environmental scanning and the sharing of updates
  • Newsletter
  • Online collaboration platforms
  • Interim workshops and seminars
  • Video and telephonic conferencing

Scheduling progress reviews among decision makers with resources and project leaders who are implementing the action plans also helps promote collective action. Updates also serve to monitor trust levels and downplay status distinctions. Collaboration works well when stakeholders are less concerned about who gets credit and more interested in healthier relationships and positive outcomes.

Another means for sustaining momentum is to always end a meeting by announcing the next event. Thie could be an online conference, a social event, an in-person workshop or whatever activity best serves the needs of the group. Connecting and building upon collaborative forums stimulates stakeholder interest and generates a sense of forward movement for the group.

Developing a MeshWORKS narrative: We can think of a meaningful MeshWORKS initiative as an engaging story. Stakeholders come together to collectively face a challenge. These heroes face risk and uncertainty as they struggle with the given issue. They experience exciting highs and frustrating lows during their journeys of inquiry. Insights and ‘aha’ moments might even generate transformational development as participants discover new ways of seeing themselves and others, and as they learn new ways to deal with the issues at hand. Resolution of a challenge builds stakeholder confidence while making a positive impact. As participants return to their organizations and communities, they bring back and share their stories of their MeshWORKS experience. This is also a healthy manifestation of the RED vMEME in which a mythology can grow amongst stakeholders who share the hero’s journey.

Creating a narrative about the MeshWORKS initiative also enables stakeholders to share their compelling journeys of challenge, struggle and triumph. It is transmitted inside the group in order to learn from victories, setbacks and best practices. Sharing stories outside of the stakeholder group can also be a powerful way to communicate the outcomes of the MeshWORKS, highlight the successes and embolden others to participate.

Practical application: The design and implementation of a systematic approach to helping community leaders provide alternatives to violence required a deep appreciation of Afghan culture. To learn about the complexities of life in Afghanstan, my civil-military interdisciplinary team designed a series of collaborative forums. On a regular basis we brought together stakeholders together with experts in Afghan politics, culture, history and economics to identify problems and opportunities, search for common ground and develop collective action plans.

We also expended considerable effort observing local customs in order to incorporate some of the effective ideas for security, governance and economic development that already existed in villages. Witnessing these examples of positive deviance helped us to co-design and implement a comprehensive strategy with our Afghan partners that incorporated relevant best practices and respected cultural norms. To scale this grassroots initiative, I prepared our senior leaders to engage senior Afghan officials in bringing parts of this effort into law – which bolstered legitimacy within the Afghan government. Senior leader engagements played a key role throughout this MeshWORKS endeavour to ensure that our efforts worked hand in hand with those of our Afghan and international counterparts.

Prototyping also helped us scale community mobilization efforts for rural areas. We frequently hosted video teleconferences so that our teams in the field, Afghan stakeholders and interagency partners across the country could share best practices and address emerging needs. These collaborative forums facilitated rapid decision-making and information exchanges. We constantly shared what experiments were (and were not) working well in water management, economic development, agriculture, security and governance projects.

To assist in assessing and sharing the outcomes of these programmes, I augmented my team with analysts from a think tank, including an Afghan-American. Together we synthesized reports from our field teams, surveys of rural Afghans and analysis of economic and governance trends. We then distributed monthly assessment reports within our stakeholder network. This storytelling helped articulate impacts, allocate resources efficiently and bolster Afghan confidence.

Additionally, I recruited an Emmy-award-winning photojournalist to help to capture stakeholder perspectives, lessons learned and stories of rural Afghans rebuilding their communities. We made copies of the videos and shared them with incoming units and other partners who worked with us. We also distributed the videos to training centres in Afghanistan and the US and used them during planning workshops. These videos helped transfer knowledge to incoming teams and create continuity with interested stakeholders.

Practice is an integral aspect of the MeshWORKS eneavour because it helps us grow and develop along the Spiral. According to Judith Innes & David Booher (2010, p37), “collaborative dialoguge…requires skills, training and adherence to a set of practices that run counter to the norms of discussion to which many people are accustomed.” Just as an athlete trains off of the field in preparation for competition, the SDi practitioner practices the skills of collaboration in preparation for successfully engaging in collaborative endeavours. These skills are not just conceptual understandings but performance skills that are learned through practice. Through repetition and training, supervised by coaches, practitioners learn to embody collaborative behaviour so that it can ultimately become second nature.

Practice is vital to MeshWORKS endeavours. Theories of SDi, conflict management, complex-systems thinking, project management and facilitation provide building blocks for multi-stakeholder collaboration. Taking these concepts and putting them into action to see what works and  what does not work in a given situation is just as imperative to learning. New ideas are not enough. Stakeholders must experience coordination for themselves to genuinely appreciate its value and embody new behaviours.

I have found that practices that help people learn about themselves, how to relate to others and how to respond to a complex environment support success in a MeshWORK enterprise. Leonard Riskin (2004) offers: “For a person to appropriately implement the strategies associated with the new approaches to mediation and negotiation and lawyering (and multi-stakeholder collaboration), she must have a set of foundational capacities including awareness, emotional sophistication and understanding.” Intrapersonal skills help practitioners learn to suspend judgement and  be open to new possibilities. Through reflective practice, people can better appreciate their own perspectives, filters, strengths and weaknesses. Building interpersonal capacity to listen to and connect with others serves stakeholders who engage with others on complex challenges. Having the ability to deal with unexpected changes in a chaotic environment helps practitioners adapt and overcome challenges in concert with other actors.

Conveners and managers of MeshWORKS endeavours ought to consider the component of practice in the overall design up front. Diverse stakeholders learn in different ways, therefore SDi designers ought to “create a learning environment that benefits a variety of styles” (Beck & Cowan, p 149-150). A variety of different practices that suit the needs of participants can be included in the process of a MeshWORKS event and taught in the planning and start-up of the activity. They can also be introduced as needed during the course of the MeshWORKS initiative. Sponsors might offer some follow-up training and coaching to support participants between formal meetings. Planners should consider what would be best for participants in terms of whether to provide collaborative practices before, during and/or after a formal MeshWORKS event.

Practical application: In Afghanistan my interdisciplinary team worked in an ever-changing and chaotic environment. Consequently I introduced some simple Aikido-based techniques into our routine (derived from training I had done in 1991 with Richard Strozzi Heckler who has spent four decades researching, developing and teaching the practical application of somatics (the unity of language, action, emotions and meaning). We found that centering and blended practices helped us to be more effective in highly-stressful situations. For centering, I invited my colleagues to each be aware of their body’s centre of gravity. With practice, they became aware of when they could ‘go into their heads’ and become off balance. Sensing their feet on the ground, they would come back to centre and re-engage the challenge at hand. In blending, my teammates and I would practice settling in our bodies, facing each other in an alert and relaxed manner, and then extending toward each other in a spirit of exploring what was possible. without losing our own perspective. As we moved closer to one another, sensing each other’s energy and mood, and our own physical sensations, we then blended our individual moves, thus creating a new collective movement. This practice helped us embody collaboration in concert with other people in a stressful environment. I knew I was on to something beneficial for the group when one of my colleagues stated that he wold have appreciated starting this practice even sooner than we did (and practising it more often).

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