consensus

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to. Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

Walking away might happen because the outcomes which are being worked towards (the what) are just not compelling enough.  Or it might be because the process of how the collaboration is working (high level governance, day-to-day secretariat work, speed and complexity of decision-making) doesn't suit them.  Or it might be because the other collaborators (the who) make too uneasy a team - perhaps there's a fundamental clash of values or identity.

What this tells you, then, is that decisions about these three threads (the what, the who and the how) are shared.  No one party can impose their preference on the other(s).

So sometimes there's a need to compromise, if the prize is worth it

Some outcomes that one organisation wants to achieve may depend on it helping others to deliver their own outcomes first or at the same time (the what).  This may mean that some collaborative work doesn’t easily fit into the first organisation’s priorities, processes and systems.  This is the main reason why collaboration depends on great internal working too - see future post.

You can't force collaboration

Organisations which the initiators or collaborators would really like to involve, can decline to get involved (the who).  You may need to go into persuasion and listening mode, asking "what would it take, for your organisation to collaborate?" or "what do you want to achieve, that this emerging work could help take forward?" or "how would it need to be organised and run, for your organisation to be happy with getting involved?"

Helping your team share decisions

The big challenge in sharing decisions is knowing how much decision-making authority you have within your own organisation.  Let me explain why.  There will almost certainly be some tension between what your organisation wants and what your collaborators want.  Even if it's just over process matters like how far in advance to send around pre-meeting reading, or whether to have formal Terms of Reference for a steering group.  So the people 'in the room' doing the negotiating need to be clear about their organisation's ‘bottom lines’ and preferences, and clear about their own mandate to commit it to things (including things which don’t directly deliver their own organisation's objectives).

You or your team need to be confident that the people the report to are happy with the ways things are progressing.

And if you or your team are involved in  working out the process (e.g. planning wider stakeholder engagement, planning and running meetings, project planning), they need to do this in conjunction with collaborators’ organisations.

If your organisation has rigid annual planning and budget-setting processes, there may be a tension because it will not be in control of the pace that the collaboration moves at, so there will be quite a lot of uncertainty to take into account when doing that internal planning and budgeting.

Keep an eye out for the impact of your own internal systems such as authorisation or reporting procedures - are they getting in the way of collaborative work?  Who do you need to talk to, to sort this out?

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Deadlines

Do deadlines help a group reach consensus? Or do they get in the way? Yesterday brought the news that the latest round of talks in the peace process in Northern Ireland had broke up without agreement, the deadline having passed.  There's a report from the BBC here.

I make no comment on the content of the talks, but I am interested in the process.  Why was this particular deadline set?  And do deadlines help by providing a sense of jeopardy - a time when the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement comes into play?  Or by restricting the time for exploration and low-anxiety creativity, do they get in the way of positive consensus?

Deadlines for discussion and agreement may be tied to objective events in the real world:  mother and midwife need to agree how to manage labour before it happens.  They may be tied to objective but less predictable events: the Environment Agency and the stakeholders discussing details of the Medmerry Managed realignment flood defence scheme wanted to get it built in time to protect the area from the higher risk of winter storms and flooding.  Or they may be tied to other events which are choices rather than unstoppable events, but ones where choosing not to meet the deadline would have very large consequences:  the Environment Agency and the Olympic Delivery Authority needed to agree how to handle drainage and water quality from the Stratford Olympic site in time for the games to happen in 2012.

I may be missing something, but the Haass talks don't seem to have any of these justifiable external pressures.  So why the deadline?

Position, Interest, Need - uncovering latent consensus using PIN

Sometimes our work involves facilitating conversations among people who know that they disagree with each other. They may be professional campaigners, politicians or lobbyists. They may be householders or developers.  They may be in the room because a sudden row has blown up triggered by news of a forthcoming decision about funding, planning permission or a change in the law.

Whatever has led to it, the people I'm thinking of have already established a 'position' about the topic, and assume that their job in the meeting is to advocate and defend that position.

Defending a position

Defending a position leads to people asserting certainty about causes, consequences and facts, often more certainty than is justified by the current state of knowledge and analysis.   It encourages people to dispute the facts put forward by others, and to question their motives.  People defending a position often build such an edifice of certainty around themselves that it is very hard for them to move away from their initial position, even if they want to.

The things said about those who don't agree with the position can be damaging to working relationships and lead to a decrease in trust, making subsequent conversations harder.

Win/win or win/lose?

Positional conversations assume a win/lose paradigm.  But what if it were possible to find a win/win?  You can only discover the potential for a win/win if you move beneath the positions and discover the interests and needs.  (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but I'd have to kill you.)  What has led people to develop their positions?  What interests are served by those positions? What are the needs which are met through those interests?

Below the inversion

I was first introduced to this concept by Pippa Hyam and Andrew Acland in their training for Environmental Resolve, an initiative to find consensus to thorny situations run under the umbrella of The Environment Council.  Up until that point, I don't think I'd really understood the difference between a really great compromise, and a true win-win.  It was a fairly life-changing experience.

Using questions to walk down the mountain

How do you help people move away from positions and towards their interests and needs?

One approach is to help people avoid getting positional, at least too early on in the conversation. This may be hard to avoid: positions may already have been taken.  But it you aren't in that situation yet, the facilitator can help the group enormously by holding them in the uncertainty and exploration phase: the not-knowing.  Invite people to tell their stories and share their perspectives about the problem, issue or desired future in an open way.  If options have been generated, get people to explore their pros and cons without asking them to express a preference.

If positions have already been expressed, then the facilitator's greatest asset is their ability to ask straight questions and then listen in a genuine spirit of curiosity.  Using questions like "what would that give you?" or asking a participant to "tell us more about why that's something you'd like to see" invites people to say more about the things that underlie their positions.

Listening really well, reflecting back on what's been said to check understanding and show that the person has been heard, and asking further questions which clarify or invite expansion - these interpersonal skills are invaluable.