Watershed Partners

How Backroom Decisions are Failing Us and What We Can do About it

by Tyl van Toorn

After 17 million people died in the First World War, allied victors assembled to sketch out peace terms for more than 32 countries. The Paris Peace Conference produced the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, with the goal of preventing similar calamities. It failed miserably. Within 20 years the world was at war again and this time the death count tripled that of WWI.

What went wrong?

A lasting peace required more than the winners of the first war deciding what life would be like for everyone else.

Old approaches won’t solve new challenges. But ideas we design together will.

Today’s conditions are obviously quite different in many respects. But people do continue to reject decisions made for them. Everyone wants to have some control over decisions that affect their own lives.

Consider popular hallmarks of a 21st century ethos. “Innovation”, “entrepreneurship” and “collaboration” come to mind. Unfortunately, these words have become all but noise as they are often used without a commitment to what they actually mean. So, despite the desire to shift our thinking, we stay stuck in old ways of working when making decisions that affect diverse interests. Great ideas lose momentum when we don’t invest into integrating competing ideas.

This is clearly apparent in Canada when considering big projects or systemic changes to our public agenda. Take, for example, the shift to cleaner energy. How do we agree to terms for such a complex transition, bearing in mind the economic interests, the environmental concerns, while enabling readiness to set aside our instinct to mistrust? Is there a way to more successfully facilitate conflicting interests between Indigenous Peoples and resource developers? Decisions around energy and natural resource development are politically sensitive and difficult to make due to lack of trust, transparency, and collaboration across different stakeholder groups.

Our challenge to successfully communicate shared opportunities and negotiate sustained outcomes appears complex and insurmountably frustrating but it isn’t all that hard to figure out why we’re struggling. Our traditional processes for making decisions simply aren’t a good fit for the way society wants to live today. We default toward approaches that are slow, expensive, and adversarial, with a declining probability for reaching a good outcome.

Historically, three chronic behaviours have seemed impossible to escape.

First, organizations are addicted to reducing complex matters down to single-issue questions. Second, far too few stakeholders are involved in making big decisions. Third, institutionalized rules, practices, and processes for reviewing ideas and making decisions end up blocking new, emergent possibilities.

These three behaviours arguably helped accomplish much during the first century or so of Canada’s history but they have also created untold and unintended consequences. Single-issue problem solving is senselessly reductionist— five-hundred-year-old thinking. Segmenting elements of an issue so that they can be addressed individually in a controlled manner makes sense when there’s an isolated problem. But where do these exist? No matter how tempted we are to dumb down information to three bullet points or to 140 characters, we must stop trying to isolate problems and instead try to join them.

Of the three behaviours that need to change, probably the biggest challenge is our reliance on the rules and systems created to govern people hundreds of years ago. It’s encouraging that many governments see current processes as broken, but it will take courage to replace them with something that works more than temporarily.

If it’s difficult to picture how things need to change, consider this: With technology creating historically unprecedented connectivity and transparency, single-stakeholder decision-making cannot survive the scrutiny of a public so well connected. It sparks citizens’ suspicions and fears of “backroom” horse-trading between individuals with unilateral authority. As a result, the tent needs to get bigger. And yet the traditional model doesn’t allow for more than two stakeholders to effectively contextualize all the relevant variables into a set of viable solutions, let alone 25 competing interests at once. And yet the stewards of our traditional processes regard most aspects of multilateral decision-making as too complex and too risky to address in the spirit of genuine collaboration.

To paraphrase FDR, our biggest risk is our aversion to risk.

When we minimize our systemic failures, we bury the fact that our current problems have become largely immune to older approaches.

We can’t solve new conundrums with aging processes. Top-down decision-making results in slowed economies, widened social divisions, paralyzed governments, and leads to friction which people increasingly reject.

Fortunately, there’s a better way—if we have the courage to try it—through commitment to iterations of a new, engaging process we call Collaborative Design.

Collaborative Design is not a fluffy flavour-of-the-month management gimmick. It is a powerful and proven approach to resetting systemized organizational culture. And if deployed at scale, it will improve the way we approach complex problem solving and multi-stakeholder alignment.

There has been a dynamic response to the dysfunctional and aging problem-management system being applied to accelerated societal evolution. A global network of solution designers have been refining Collaborative Design from an embryonic and inconsistent practice to a scalable, reliable model.

Whereas current approaches to stakeholder engagement rarely produces trust and a stronger social license, Collaborative Design—done with ambition, persistence, and professionalism—is the surest way to improve on the outcomes we seek. In Co-design, all stakeholders participate during the many stages of a decision-making process: during the initial exploration and problem definition stage, both to help define the problem and to focus ideas for solution; during agreement development, to evaluate proposed solutions and sharing of benefits; and during implementation, to monitor compliance with agreed outcomes.

Collaborative Design completely changes the approach away from representatives negotiating on behalf of stakeholders. Instead, it replaces bilateral, single-issue negotiation with interdisciplinary groups, including multilateral stakeholder conversations that consider the issue from a systemic perspective. Most importantly, Collaborative Design facilitates the creation of new processes to reach outcomes, as opposed to relying on precedents and existing use cases. This results in effective partnerships more likely to implement actions where ownership is established and shared across all parties.

Canada at 150 is full of enthusiasm for the future, with a spirit of curiosity, open-mindedness, and self-confidence. There’s never been a better time to look at making lasting change in the way we approach decision making where the interests of many diverse groups are involved. And, right now, there’s no better place on the planet to prove that Collaborative Design can work at scale.