Collaborative Community Problem Solving

The path to a sustainable community is not paved with charismatic leadership, increasing revenues, or technical expertise; it’s not a series of big, quick fixes. Rather, it’s a twisted and rocky path, found one step at a time by creative, open-minded citizens who have a vision of a durable future and a willingness to listen to those with whom they disagree.

When local issues are challenging, tensions often heighten as community decision-making pits one group against another and both against the local government. Each pushes its position instead of helping solve problems; neither understands the other side or takes responsibility for a workable outcome.

Often, the results are anger, resentment, disrespect, distrust, delay, expense, and litigation. One side wins, the other loses, and adversaries become enemies. Local officials can hardly focus on the merits of a question before them; many just want the issue to vanish. Their primary motivation becomes minimizing their own discomfort—not a recipe for a just and durable outcome.

In sharp contrast, more collaborative forms of decision-making build respect and trust. They creatively involve all interested parties and shift the responsibility to them. Results are neither easy nor quick, but ultimately faster and more durable than the alternative.

With collaboration, there’s a far better chance that no one will lose and that everyone will win — or at least be able to live with the results.

Though the appropriate mix of solutions for a given community must be carefully and systematically chosen, the primary challenge for a community is not technical (though technical aspects can be difficult). Rather, it’s attitudinal; it’s developing the capacity of residents — however passionate, committed, and outspoken — to work together for the common good.

The health care field offers an important lesson: After years of relying entirely on technical fixes, we finally learned that an individual’s health requires, not just a disease-free body kept that way by medical experts, but also a healthy mind and spirit — all driven by the individual.

Similarly, we’re now learning that a sustainable community is not based solely on an economy that moves lots of cash. Instead, it requires simultaneous attention to the environment, business, individual well-being, and community cohesiveness (of which collaborative decision-making is an important part.)

A sustainable community’s “stool” is kept sturdy by maintaining strength in all three legs: economy, community, and environment. The challenge is not to “balance” social concerns against business issues, against environmental issues — taking a piece from one to benefit another — but rather to integrate the three — to regard all three as overlapping, inter-related factors that, when considered together, offer solutions that are otherwise obscured when one factor is regarded as paramount and the others subordinate. This is often called whole-system thinking, which is essential to durable solutions.

Although these ideas are framed as ways to solve problems in a community, they apply just as well in many other situations. For example, they work well in a corporation facing a major challenge and an army faced with a daunting adversary. At possibly the most dangerous and pivotal point in the Revolutionary War, General Washington’s plan for the battle of Princeton was developed in a room full of people in the village of Trenton, New Jersey — including not only senior military officers, but also other veteran soldiers, plus townspeople who knew the surrounding terrain far better than did Washington.

No single individual, however intelligent, charismatic, and well meaning, can understand and integrate all factors necessary to solve many challenging problems. Rather, successful solutions require many people with different skills, experiences, and points of view. Their wisdom is best exercised, not by imparting it on others, but by using it to inquire deeply and to listen to those with different experiences, which is precisely what General Washington did that fateful evening in December 1776.



Suggestion: Read Common Ground on Hostile Turf  by Lucy Moore, veteran mediator and facilitator whose work I have greatly admired for many years.  It has many illustrative stories of her own experiences working with large groups in conflict.

Principles of Collaboration

  • Collaboration occurs early, during the framing of a problem, rather than later,
    when the solution is proposed or chosen.
  • Solutions are found at the intersection of interests, where people find
    common goals and concerns upon which their respective points of view are
  • Collaboration does not necessarily require compromise. Working together
    intelligently, leaving positions behind, people consistently find solutions
    beneficial to all parties.
  • Collaborators take responsibility for the outcome, even when they don’t have
    the authority to make the decision.

Collaboration Skills

Prepare for effective collaboration by developing the following personal skills:

  • Employ active listening.
    Acknowledging, empathizing, clarifying, and avoiding judgment are the most
    valuable skills that can be brought to any important communication.
  • Set aside differences and disagreements to solve mutual problems.
    If you’re talking with people with whom you’ve disagreed in the past, don’t
    ignore those differences. Instead, clear the air by acknowledging them and
    even admitting your own mistakes. If necessary, agree to disagree respectfully
    on some points, but keep in mind that what’s most important is that you’re part
    of the same community and you’re eager to collaborate on this particular effort,
    regardless of past differences.
  • Hear their concerns and ideas before telling them yours.
    In important discussions, many of us tend to blurt out our own ideas. But you’re
    far more likely to be heard if you first listen to the ideas of others. Once they’ve
    said their peace, their minds are clear to hear your respectfully offered ideas.
  • Understand their interests before describing yours.
    Look for the interests, fears, and values that underlie the things they’re saying.
    Repeat what you think you’re hearing. Ask if your understanding is correct.
  • Describe your interests instead of defending your position.
    Most of us have a good idea of how our interests can be fulfilled. That idea is
    our “position.” If, instead, we talk about what we want — our underlying
    problems, needs, and interests —before seeking solutions, the discussion may
    lead to alternative ways of fulfilling those interests.
  • Join them before expecting them to join you.
    Look for ways in which their interests are consistent with yours. Then work with
    them to focus on how you can both get what you want.
  • Explore relevant problems and possible solutions by asking questions rather
    than stating positions.

The Collaboration Process

Every situation is unique; every problem requires its own path to solution. The following generalized outline will help you develop the approach appropriate for your particular situation.

  • Assemble a core team to organize the process.
  • If the process promises to be a long one, ensure that there are sufficient resources in place to complete the process.
  • Use a neutral convener and neutral location(s) for the process.
  • Use an expert facilitator.
  • Identify local groups interested in the problem (stakeholders) that represent economic, environmental and community points of view respectively.
  • Find at least one person within each group who is well informed, least contentious, and most willing to listen — those who are better diplomats than warriors.
  • Each process participants must agree to frequently report process progress back to his group.
  • Convene the “diplomats” for the process.
  • Understand respective interests among the parties, not their positions, which will build trust and provide the foundation for building solutions.
  • Develop a common understanding of problems to be tackled
  • Identify facts regarding the problems
  • Where there are disagreements on the facts, agree on objective sources of information for determining the facts, then secure those facts before proceeding.
  • Agree on common goals
  • Develop a set of measures that will indicate progress toward the goals
  • Begin a clear, fair, and rigorous discussion of possible solutions.
  • Convene occasional non-substantive social events to help build bridges among participants
  • Pursue easier issues first to develop the confidence and momentum to take on the more difficult issues.
  • Brainstorm an array of possible solutions
  • Identify barriers to each solution and discuss each.
  • Frame prospective solutions that are consistent with the interests of all participants.
  • Trouble-shoot each prospective solution to find the ones that are viable outcomes of the process.

Smart Governance

As part of an emerging and creative worldwide trend, decision-makers in a variety of communities are finding solutions by integrating economic, community, and environmental factors. Instead of deciding, in effect, which will prevail — economy, community, or environment — they understand that each is a leg supporting the stool of community success. They’re seeking ways to strengthen all three and to integrate solutions among them. Sometimes these

efforts toward sustainable communities start with government, sometimes with business, and sometimes with nonprofit or faith-based organizations. Regardless of where they begin, durable community solutions are developed by, and require the support of all four sectors—public, private, nonprofit, and religious.