Most multi-stakeholder processes convene a diversity of opinion around complex issues. They do so with the express mandate of surfacing these different perspectives and working with them – maybe even transforming them – to become the building blocks with which to construct an agreed and robust solution for an important challenge that the parties care about and would like to see change. Big!
In addition, often the goal is to build something together that not one of the organizations could build successfully alone. Sometimes they need help. A neutral facilitator in the role of Chief Process Designer can work with the parties to help lay the foundation for a long lasting, stable outcome. This construction process takes authentic consultation and building a way forward together as the only real solution. And the intention to construct this solution together needs to be held strongly by all sides.
However the gulf in the landscape between the organizations involved in a multi-stakeholder dialogue can be wide and strewn with obstacles that need to be cleared away before a new shared “structure” (project, programme, idea) can be created.
This clearing and the co-creation process that follows doesn’t just start in the workshop room of the multi-stakeholder dialogue event. It starts from the first conversation that breaks ground for this new thing you are building together – in the preparatory meetings, the calls, and the emails, that are the design discussions for the overall process.
These initial design discussions offer a wonderful opportunity to build trust, to try to understand these different perspectives and to work together to create an agenda or a concept note – effectively the “blue prints” for the process – that all parties can be happy with. If you are not watching closely however, this preparatory stage can also become an environment which may model what you don’t want to happen in the workshop room of your consultation process.
How can you see the preparation stage as a virtual “hard hat zone”, where everyone needs to be careful and notice potential pitfalls and other possible obstacles that might make your work together less smooth or according to plan? You need to make sure that the pattern and tone of the preparatory dialogue and exchange is what you seek overall in your process. Everyone needs to watch that the attitudes and opinions (even at this initial stage of concept notes, budgets and agendas) are being expressed, shared and received in a way that assures creativity and co-creation instead of precipitating reactions that are more positional (because it is easy to take a position in an environment of so much difference.)
One important thing to look out for is your own stance as a facilitator. Even the facilitator can become a party to this. For example, the facilitator might be tempted to flash their “Chief Process Engineer” badge, and dig in their heels on the process design when suggestions for changes coming in don’t seem to work from their own expert frame. If they don’t notice their own positional stance, this can further exacerbate a fragile situation, or if they can be aware enough to notice it, name it and change it, it can be enormously helpful to group learning in the process.
We want people in the end of our design process to be happy with the blueprints we’re drafting together, whatever they end up being. Just the same as at the end of our consultation process we want people to be happy with their collaborative work and proud of the beautiful new thing that they built together.