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Introduction to Structured Dialogue

The text has been reproduced by kind permission of AGORAS – the full leaflet is at http://www.harnessingcollectivewisdom.com/pdf/How_Co-Laboratories.pdf

Problematic Situation
A number of people face a complex problem that they need to resolve.  They may have different and even conflicting interests and values, but they all have a need to resolve the situation. They agree to work together as stakeholders in a Co-Laboratory of Democracy.

An impartial researcher interviews 12-14 persons chosen to reflect the diversity among stakeholders on the facts and opinions about the situation.  He or she drafts a white paper that describes the situation from the perspectives of the interviewees.  This white paper is distributed to the participants one week prior to the Co-Laboratory.  Based upon this white paper, a triggering question is crafted.

First Day
Generating Observations – Stakeholders generate responses to the triggering question in roundrobin style.  Their responses are entered into a computer, projected onto a screen, and posted on the wall of the facility.  These observations (and all subsequent products) are printed out and shared with participants in real time.

Clarifying Observations – Stakeholders clarify their observations and answer questions of clarification. No arguing over content is allowed at this step as the intent is to understand each other. Any dissent is accommodated by stakeholders posting dissenting observations.

Grouping Observations – The observations are grouped on the wall on the basis of their likeness to each other and given titles.

Importance Voting – Individual stakeholders vote on which observations they consider most important.  Usually they are given 5 coloured dots that they can stick on the observations of their choice, which are posted on the wall.  These votes are tallied.

Influence Voting – Stakeholders then work with the observations receiving the most votes.  With the help of pairs of observations projected on the screen, they decide by super majority whether achieving observation A would significantly help in achieving observation B.  Then:
• Would achieving B help in achieving A?
• Would achieving A help in achieving C?
And so on.

The otherwise exhausting task of comparing thousands of pairs is simplified by the transitive logic of the software, so that approximately 70 votes do the job in about 2 hours.  In this process, the stakeholders are not burdened with trying to keep track of the bigger picture because the software manages the mechanical logic of how their decisions fit together.

The Influence Tree – At the end of the first day the stakeholders receive a computer printout of an influence tree that graphically presents the conclusions they have reached.  This tree reveals the leverage points for applying effective action to work out their complex situation.

Second Day
Evaluating the Influence Tree – Stakeholders discuss whether the computer-generated tree accurately represents their perception of the situation.  They make any revisions they deem necessary

A Second Triggering Question – Overnight a second triggering question is generated by the facilitation team.  This question deals with action options that might help the group address the leverage points and other challenges presented by the complex situation.

Answering Triggering Question 2 – The stakeholders generate action options, clarify them, group them, and name them in the manner of Day One.  These options are posted separately on the wall on different colour paper.  These grouped action options constitute an Options Field.

Individual Voting – Stakeholders vote for their favourite options using 5 dots.

Small Group Discussions – Groups of 4 or 5 people clustered for their diversity of viewpoint discuss their understanding of how the action options might work together to address the situation portrayed in the influence tree.  They construct together a scenario and select the options that are central to it.

Small Group Presentations – Each small group presents their scenario to the entire assembly.  As they mention how an option fits into their scenario, one of their members places a large dot on that option.

Choosing the Key Options – When every group has made its presentation and posted their large dots, the entire group discusses which options will be central to their effort.  Usually, the options that receive the most large dots and several others are chosen.  Their decisions are indicated in the Options Field, which then become the Options Profile that constitutes the core of their Consensus Action Plan.

Follow-Up Work
Sometimes schedules and responsibilities are assigned on Day Two.  More often, the details of the strategic action plan are finished later either in person or at-a-distance using a Delphi procedure.