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Context and Intentions
Since a few years I learn about how we can collaborate more effectively to solve societies grand challenges. We recently wrote an Action Research for the Weaving Lab, which is the organization that I work for. The practical challenge we face is to (1) create accountability for decisions we make and (2) have a formalized way that helps us gain clarity on how to make decisions together. If you work in a collaborative setting, I intend to share my perspective, insights from theory and a process that can help your group make better decisions together. This Blog post covers why we need better processes for making decisions together and collects some pragmatic ideas of leading practitioners in the field.
Why do we need better collaborative governance? And what is is it?
Many factors, such as globalization, the rise of information technology and increasing political instability, make today's world fast-paced and societal and environmental problems wicked (Head & Alford, 2015). Being faced with wicked problems, many societal actors form collaborative networks and communities (Weber & Khademian, 2008). To effectively impact e.g. economic or political systems around the world these networks require effective governance (UN, 2009).
Governance is defined as the rules and forms that guide collective decision-making (Ansell & Gash, 2008). We want to make high-quality decisions, but what is high quality? High-quality decisions are satisfying various demands of relevant stakeholders (Reynolds, Schultz, & Hekman, 2006). They are thoughtful in terms of long- and short term consequences. They are made with consideration of potential opportunities and challenges. If a decision is of high quality it allows the organization to move forward in strategic and tactical ways to produce a relevant outcome (Bhushan & Rai, 2007).
For high-quality decisions, we need effective governance systems. A governance system, consists of joint activities, processes, and structures (Koschmann, 2012; Agranoff, 2006). Instead of the most powerful actor or group, good governance of networks seeks to truly enable the participation of those who are impacted by a decision (Holley, 2018). It involves us learning about the diverse perspectives of impacted stakeholders and using them to arrive at meaningful decisions (Koschmann, 2012).
An effective governance system further needs to provide stability and flexibility at the same time (Wheatley & Frieze, 2006). Ansell & Gash (2008) found that formalization of governance creates stability, clarity and collective habits, which in turn translates into effectiveness. A network needs to formulate processes on how to gather information, ask relevant stakeholders, analyze scenarios and formulate decisions (Wiek & Walter, 2009). This clarity may cover the following questions: Until when does the decision need to be made? Who is mainly responsible and who needs to be considered? What are the expectations and desired outcomes? (Spiegelfabrik, 2015). While formalizing processes and decision processes is necessary, many challenges and opportunities in networks are emergent (Wheatley & Frieze, 2006). A governance system, therefore, needs to remain flexible and adaptable. It needs to allow the network to keep in motion without spending an unreasonable amount of time on a decision (Reinventing Organizations, 2015). So, governance of networks needs to remain flexible while being as formalized as possible.
Let`s get practical! - Processes for effective governance
Theory always sounds nice, but what about concrete tools that we can use in our collaborations? Let`s start of with some key ideas that help us to create a culture of consent in our organizations:
Now we can move on to a more concrete process. In the advice process, any circle or person can make a decision if everyone who is meaningfully affected or has expertise with the matter had the chance to give advice (Reinventing Organizations, 2015). A circle here can be a team, a subgroup or a temporary team that deals with a particular decision. In this way, network participants have autonomy and tap into the collective wisdom and knowledge at the same time.
The process is based on the notion of consent, which allows a decision to be implemented if all valid objections are cleared. Valid objections are defined “as something that would cause harm or move us backward” (Reinventing Organizations, 2015, p. 2). During the advice process, there are several moments where such objections can be voiced and addressed.
In practice, an existing circle or one that has newly formed takes on the responsibility for a specific decision. After gathering information and discussing alternatives, the circle drafts a proposal. The proposal is then sent to all who are impacted or have expertise. Within deadline advice and feedback are sent to the decision-making circle. The circle then makes a decision and sends the outcome to those impacted to be reviewed. Decisions can be revisited at any time, but as long as there are no valid objections the new solution can be implemented. All in all, many decisions in a network can be made in circles with a formalized advice process that requires the consent of those impacted.
So let`s put it all together in a graphic:
Making decisions is not the easiest part of life. I often doubt what my next steps are, where to move and what to do. Bringing more clarity into how we make decisions as individuals and collectives is actually a critical skill in our fast-paced world. I sincerely hope that the explorations in this blog post increase your understanding of making wiser decisions together. If you want access to the references or share your own ideas feel free to contact me (email@example.com). I look forward to your point of view.