By Renette Anderson for EDRBlog.org.
It seems intuitive: Vocal opposition to an issue? Bring the sides together in a problem-solving group. It’s the best way to resolve an issue.
But is it?
It depends. If you, as an organizational lead or consultant, have the time and are really willing to entertain multiple points of view as part of the decision-making process, a problem-solving group can be powerful. Synergy often shapes solutions individuals overlook. Done effectively, a group process can strengthen organizational or agency credibility, even when there isn’t full agreement with a final decision
On the other hand, if you don’t have the time and resources to invest and/or are only willing to entertain certain solutions, then a problem-solving group can easily backfire. It’s counterproductive to engage stakeholders, get everyone’s expectations up, and then not fully commit to, or even abandon, the process. It can lend credibility to – or further embolden – your critics and sway those on the fence to the least preferred side.
So how do you know? Here are three things for you to consider, based on insights I’ve gained from almost thirty years of mistakes and successes:
1. Start with an honest evaluation. Ask:
– Why do you want a group process?
– What is it you hope to accomplish (both in concrete AND political terms)?
– What is your time frame and is it realistic? (Group processes take time.)
– What questions are really on the table? (Rephrased, what can and/or will you really consider? If something is not an option, for whatever reason, don’t ask the question. )
– What do you intend to do with the information/recommendations generated?
– How will you handle the things you expect to come up that you don’t want to hear?
– How do you intend to keep information flowing in two directions – them to you and you back out to them?
– What kind of resources are you willing to commit to the process?
Be honest about what YOU want and why. (You can give an edited version to others but you must tell yourself the truth.) If you have already made a decision and have no intention of listening to varied opinions, other public engagement options are more effective. If you do want feedback, identify one or more open ended questions and prepare yourself to listen. Remember, you must either act on the feedback or give a very good reason (from their perspective) of why you can’t or won’t.
Reality check: If you’re a command and control kind of person, the group process is probably not for you unless you’re willing to fully turn over the facilitation reins and listen to the group’s recommendations.
2. Next, consider the group’s make up. Ask:
– Who do you want involved and why?
– Who do you not want involved and why?
It’s tempting to stack a group with people who think like you – or go far out of your way to give oppositional voices a disproportionate weight at the table to show how open minded you are. Both moves may elevate a side issue beyond its importance and leave out other, less “noisy” points of view that are critical to effectively define the issue and arriving at solutions.
It’s a balancing act. Supporters help with credibility and tone. A “devil’s advocate” helps avoid groupthink. A pragmatic, “out of the box” thinker may plant the seed that broadens perspectives and helps generate the synergistic process you hope for. Be realistic about those whose sole purpose may be to sabotage. If you need to include one or two, plan carefully to keep things moving forward and address bad behavior directly when it first appears.
Your answer to “why” individuals are or are not at the table is critical. Before you move ahead, run the list and your reasons past someone you trust and who is willing to tell you the truth.
3. Consider the objective and timeline. Make sure you can clearly state your goals. Granted, the group’s objective may alter slightly as things move along. However, if you cannot state a clear focus upfront, someone may hijack that responsibility and you run the risk of creating another problem to be solved.
Within the framework, define the parameters. What must be met? What could be met? Where can’t it go? Provide these guidelines upfront and then plan on reinforcing them as needed to provide a “measuring stick” and keep things moving forward.
4. Finally, identify critical stakeholders who will not be at the table but who need to receive updates and/or opportunities to raise concerns. Keep this list small and manageable. Be consistent in your communication to ensure any support they offer is effective. This can be limited to internal team members or may be expanded to include key external contacts.
Group processes, done correctly, are powerful. The “correctly” begins with an honest, upfront assessment and initial planning.
Renette Anderson has facilitated stakeholder processes at the state and local level for most of her career. She holds a BS in Mass Communication from the University of Utah and an MA in Organizational Communication from BYU. She currently works for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.