Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building
Updated February 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Collaborative problem solving and consensus building are processes that groups use to make plans, solve problems, develop recommendations, or make decisions in a collaborative (or cooperative) way, rather than in isolated, competitive, or confrontational way.
Collaborative processes can be used with any group of people who face a common problem. They are often used in schools, businesses, communities, organizations, and all levels of government agencies to set policy and to resolve disputes.
In a collaborative problem solving and consensus building process, representatives of all the necessary parties with a stake in an issue work together collaboratively. Participants make a good faith effort to meet the interests of all participants and to make plans, recommendations, and decisions, that if not unanimous, at least everyone can live with. These processes are usually designed by the participants themselves (often with the help of a facilitator or a mediator). This allows for considerable flexibility about who can participate, how, and what outcomes will be considered. However, these processes tend to move through common stages.
- They begin with an assessment of the situation. The goal is to gather information on what the issues are, what the barriers and incentives are, which parties should be included, the time frame for the process, how people will work together, and the desired outcomes.
- The parties then decide who will lead the process and how the meetings will be managed. They may decide they can do this themselves, or they may seek the assistance of an outside, impartial third party to manage the process.
- They develop ground rules.
- They decide what information they need to plan, solve problems, develop recommendations, or make decisions.
- They collect, exchange, verify, and assess information, frame the issues, and discuss points of view.
- They generate and evaluate different options, negotiate, and move toward the desired goal of the process.
- Finally, parties check whether the plans, agreements, recommendations, or decisions will work for all authorized decision makers and whether they are implementable.
- At this stage the plan, the decision or agreement is formalized and the group develops plans to implement and monitor the outcome.
There are 10 ingredients common to all successful collaborative problem solving and consensus building processes. These are:
- inclusion of all affected stakeholders,
- incentives to participate,
- effective representation and clear accountability,
- agreement on the scope of the process,
- establishment of clear objectives,
- provision of sufficient resources,
- opportunities for learning and capacity building,
- full participation and communication,
- careful, consistent and continual process management, and
- clear connections between the process and how outcomes are implemented.
Collaborative problem solving processes are often used in natural resource planning. In the United States, the U.S. Forest Service has to formulate forest management plans. These plans are frequently controversial, as different forest user groups: timber companies, jeepers, snowmobilers, hikers, skiers, and environmental protection advocates (among many others) have very different interests and concerns. Increasingly the Forest Service has brought these groups together in collaborative processes in an effort to develop plans that are accepted -- even embraced -- by all these groups. Another example is the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative which is a collaborative group that seeks to collaboratively develop environmentally, economically, and politically sound wind power in the US.
People interested in pursuing a consensus process should do some reading to learn more about how these processes work. They then might approach leaders of different interest groups to try to assess their level of interest in such an endeavor. If some people are interested, it is often possible to start talking with them, and then enlist their help to bring more people into a process.