Structured Decision-Making: Roadmap to Wise Choices?

As a facilitator, I’m always searching for new approaches to help groups plan strategically and make smart decisions.  One approach I’m currently exploring is “structured decision-making”, or SDM (though somehow that sounds faintly obscene when I say it out loud).

Structured decision-making is a systematic process developed for making wise, transparent decisions in the face of complex issues with diverse stakeholders, high stakes and divergent perspectives.

Example: The Holiday Dilemma
Here’s a super-simple example of how SDM might work, from my friend and colleague Trent Berry. He’s the co-founder of Compass Resource Management,  based out of Vancouver. Compass boasts one of the world’s most masterful teams at designing and facilitating structured decision-making processes for resource and environmental issues.

He explains:  “Imagine you and your spouse want to plan a holiday.  You want to go to Mexico.  They want to go to Hawaii.  How do you resolve the difference?  Well, you start by trying to understand why each other prefers one location or the other.  What are you really trying to achieve.  So, you might point out cost, things to do, safety, etc.  Those are your objectives or interests.  Now rather than just arguing about a location, you can discuss the relative merits of each from the perspective of what you each want to achieve.  doing that you may discover that some of your facts are wrong – e.g., cost.  But you’ll also understand how much importance each of you is placing on different things – e.g., cost vs. safety.  And through the process you may understand each other better and you may actually come up with a third option that meets both of your objectives.  Not always –  but sometimes.  Really, structured decision making is similar to what used to be called ‘interest-based negotiation’.  The only way it may differ is there is the discussion goes beyond two private parties and the focus is on not only understanding interests but also doing a better job of really understanding how different options perform across interests. Its a marriage of science and values.”

The Steps to SDM
In practice, SDM processes can often be described in decision trees or other concept maps.  The basic steps follow, in many ways, a really great government policy briefing note. Here are the steps for a “PrOACT (Problem, Objectives and Measures, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs” SDM framework (originally outlined in the book “Smart Choices”):

  1. Define the problem
  2. Specify the objectives and measures – including getting agreement on “what matters”, and prioritizing information and assessing uncertainty or risk with different kinds of information
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Identify the consequences for each
  5. Clarify the trade-offs.

Growing interest in SDM
From Alberta to Australia, the wave of interest in this approach is growing. One major application is for complex resource management issues. Imagine a group of environmental activists, First Nations, oil industry proponents and government staff trying to come to some sort of sound, values-based decision-making around large-scale oil exploration over a relatively intact natural ecosystem. How do you design a dialogue process that isn’t about greenwashing or tokenism and doesn’t suck the life force – not to mention the coffers — of all involved for the next decade?  Past experience has shown that lengthy land-use planning approaches and environmental assessments don’t always yield wise results, and especially not in a timely or cost-effective way.

As Berry explains, “environmental assessments all too often look like a long, expensive shopping list of environmental impacts, with no way to prioritize or sort through them. Structured decision-making starts from a place of shared values – because science can tell us about all the options, but it can’t do a thing about setting priorities or assessing the relative risks among them. Only a clear set of values can do that.”

Beyond Resource issues
SDM is also being used with child welfare workers in California, adult protective services in Michigan  and a host of other agencies.  Check out several other case studies on-line, including several at http://www.structureddecisionmaking.org/applications.htm.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!

POP everything! Strategic planning in 30 seconds or less

P.O.P. – Purpose, Outcome and Process – is one of the snappiest, most useful planning tools I know. And it’s completely scalable – from planning a 10 minute phone call to organizing a campaign.

One of the simplest, snappiest and most useful planning tools I know is one we teach at Rockwood Leadership Institute.  It’s a sweet little acronym called “P.O.P.” – standing for Purpose, Outcome and Process. Given the state of my memory, I  lunge at anything this easy to remember.  And this fast. Sure, it may take a bit more 30 seconds sometimes, but it’s still pretty snappy and massively effective.

Here’s a snapshot of P.O.P. And really, it’s so straightforward, this is all you need:

  • “Purpose” answers the question “why
  • “Outcome speaks to “what” – the vision of what success will look and feel like when you ‘arrive’
  • “Process” speaks to “how” – the specific steps involved in getting there.

Straight from the Source
The “P.O.P.” model was devised by brilliant leadership consultant (and fellow Rockwood trainer) Leslie Sholl Jaffe and her partner Randall Alford.  As they describe it, “POP is a useful tool for a multitude of the daily activities leaders find themselves faced with: meeting agendas, campaigns, difficult conversations, unplanned calls and conversations… As you can gather from the list, POP is scalable, it can be used for large, long term projects, regular weekly staff meetings, a meeting you attend or a call that comes in that has no agenda, coaching/mentoring sessions…”

Case in point: Workshop Design
Last week I met with a small team of folks designing a workshop within a larger conference for immigrants and refugees.  We started by stepping back and asking: what is the overall purpose of this workshop? Why now? Why here? How can it advance our particular focus on supporting skilled immigrants and refugees in the job market? Then we asked: if this workshop were wildly successful, what would the outcome be? In other words, what does success look like, in concrete terms? Only then did we address the process – the specific format, agenda design, room set-up, breakout size etc.

Cart before the horse…
All too often, action-oriented social justice and not-for-profit leaders jump straight into planning the process of calls, meetings and entire projects – without first nailing down a clear sense of the purpose and outcomes. In practice, it’s vastly more effective to “go slow to go fast”.  Even doing a quick “POP” for simple tasks, I’ve found, can save hours of time, and help ensure that your  creative energies are aligned and vastly more effective from the start.

Power: What Lies Beneath

“There is nothing wrong with power if used correctly… What we need to realize is that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

wave-clipart.pngAs a campaign facilitator, I see groups constantly faced with nuances in strategy – those fuzzy lines around the “ends vs. the means” dance that seems to need constant re-assessment, if power is truly the aim of the group. By “power”, I mean actual impact on policy decisions. But for many social change activists, after years of battling against the status quo, “power” is synonymous with “abuse”. It doesn’t have to be that way. But what is the ethical, right, smart way to deal with power? What lies at the core? How do we find that sweet spot where power comes from a place of integrity and generosity?

For me, ultimately, underneath all the strategy, tactics and analysis, love is what drives positive power.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote continues to inspire me.  And despite the reputation activists often have of being perennially angry,  I believe love is actually what drives many – maybe most – social change folks. Yes, some are driven by anger, and woundedness, and a desire to lash out at authority of any kind. In those cases, our job, as facilitators and coaches, is to help them connect with that deeper positive force within them – the force that will help them sustain their energies over time and build connection with others; that will enroll, rather than repel, the ‘persuadables’ that are so key to any  movement if it to grow beyond the converted.

Thanks to my American colleague Kevin for reminding me of MLK’s beautiful quote.

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