The importance of a participatory decision-making process

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I have been reading “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner. The objective of this series is to write down some notes for me, and provide content that can be found by others, to assert if the book should be bought (so for, the answer is a resounding yes!).

  1. The importance of a participatory decision-making process
  2. The four values of a participatory decision-making process

Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making

Sam Kaner

Well, what is this book about?

Decision making is everywhere, from small things like how to divide tasks for an afternoon project to large multi-month enterprises with several stakeholders involved and many workers. Therefore making sound decisions is super important: it will lead to better products, less time wasted. Specially, it wil lead to better morale, as everyone feels that their needs are being heard.

Participatory decision-making

A participatory decision-making process means that every one that is touched by a decision is heard and participates in it. They suggest root causes, share their concerns, suggest solutions and implement the solution. Not only that, but they participate in the decision process itself: run meetings, prepare the agenda, etc.

Why is this so important? Well,

If people do not participate in the decision-making process, that decision will fail with misunderstood ideas and a half-hearted implementation

The diamond of participatory decision-making

Diamond of Participatory Decision-Making. Developed by Sam Kaner
Diamond of Participatory Decision-Making. It was developed by Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger

This diagram summarizes the dynamics of group thinking. First, the group discusses a new topic as “Business as usual”. The participants stay in their comfort zone and make safe suggestions. Some times this is enough for a simple problem, and the meeting ends there. Many times it is not.

Then, the group moves into divergent thinking. It starts generating alternatives and exploring different points of view. It is important that its members feel safe to share novel ideas, without fear of judgement.

This will lead to the groan zone, where the most discomfort and heated moments exist. The group processes all the ideas created in the divergent zone to start building a shared framework of understanding. What is the shared framework of understanding? It is a “state” where the group is aware of the individual’s concerns, points of view and suggestions. Everyone shares the same level of understanding of the problem.

When this happens the group can start to converge. It summarizes key points, judges the ideas and evaluates alternatives. Hopefully, this leads to a decision without any compromise, where each affected party has its problems addressed.

Divergent thinking

  • Generating alternatives
  • Free flowing open discussion
  • Gathering different points of view
  • No judgement

Groan zone

  • Understanding foreign and complex ideas
  • Build a shared framework of understanding
  • The confusion moment

Convergent thinking

  • Evaluating alternatives
  • Summarizing key points
  • Sorting ideas into categories
  • Exercising judgement

Last but not least, there four values adjacent to all this process. They are fundamental in ensuring that the participatory part of the decision-making process happens. They are:

  • Full participation
  • Mutual understanding
  • Inclusive solution
  • Shared responsibility

There is an entire post on this series dedicated to dissecting them.

The facilitator role in participatory decision-making

Well, that explains the second part of “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making“, what about the facilitator? Who is that guy?

In short:

The facilitator supports everyone at doing their best thinking

The facilitator is a servant leader that ensures everyone is heard and feels safe to share their opinions. Lastly, the facilitator guides the group through the diamond of participatory decision making.

There are some “smells” that prevent traditional groups from reaching perfect solutions:

  • Fixed positions
  • Win/lose mentality
  • Self-censorship
  • Reliance on authority

It is the facilitator’s role to prevent them from creeping up and undermining the meetings. These smells are explained in a post dedicated to the values of participatory decision making.

To do its best job, the facilitator must have:

  • Content neutrality – he does not have a position in one of the discussion sides.
  • Does not have a position in the outcome – he does not benefit if a certain decision is made.
  • Does not advocate for certain processes – the group is responsible to choose how they decide things.

In short, the facilitator must be independent and act from outside any of the group’s individual interests.

During the discussion, the facilitator:

  • Builds and sustains a supportive atmosphere
  • Stays out of the content and respects the process
  • Teaches the group new thinking skills
  1. The importance of a participatory decision-making process
  2. The four values of a participatory decision-making process

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