Complex problems require a different approach.

In my I wrote about Sam Kaner’s Diamond of Participatory Decision-Making, which has always helped me think about what authentic collaboration feels like. It can be hard work.

The diamond shows us that after some ‘groaning’ we get to a point where we can converge on an outcome or outcomes, which has always been very encouraging. Yet I also know that when confronting our more complex and intractable problems the reality is that we rarely get to ‘the answer’.

For example, improving water quality and management at a catchment level is one of those ‘forever’ problems that never really go away. Catchments and all that goes on within them are an ever-evolving suite of dilemmas, dynamics, pressures and responses. We can always improve what we do, but the problems are never ‘solved’.

So what does this mean for the diamond of participatory decision-making? As a map for visualising how we tackle complex problems, perhaps the diamond is actually a circle. Rather than getting to the end, we continuously cycle back, through periods when our thinking is diverging and periods when our thinking is converging.

I have tried to illustrate this idea here.

I see this journey as a cycle of learning. In a way we never leave Kaner’s ‘groan zone’. Rather we recognise that when dealing with hard problems we are always sitting with uncertainty, incomplete knowledge, unintended consequences, different worldviews and different ideas. While outcomes are always important, our overarching approach is not about finding ‘the answer’ but about constantly finding new questions to ask and new ways to test our understanding and our ideas. Dave Snowden of fame suggests we “probe, sense and respond” in the complex domain. That is, we test ideas. When we find things that seem to work, we do more, building on success while always watching for signs that this is no longer delivering.

One way to look at this cycle is to see that it is groaning all the way down! But let’s embrace the complexity and reframe our approach from groaning to growing, from solving to learning, from convergence on the answer, to convergence on ideas as we go.

Perhaps this is the diamond ring of participatory problem solving?