The Diamond Ring of Decision-making

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?

2021: A year of Frustration and Innovation

Who’s idea was 2021? To whom should I complain about the events we have collectively endured this year? I’d like to give them a piece of my mind, whoever they are.

Of course, many amazing new things have emerged from the complexity of the past 20+ months. It seems clear that disruption and uncertainty allow some old patterns to be discarded and new pathways to emerge. What seemed impossible two years ago – such as working from home - now seems quite normal.

I have experienced the generative power of disruption myself in a surprising way this year, as I recently wrote about on Linked In. Frustration with COVID politics inspired a brand new political party, and with that has come some important lessons. You can read about my educational journey into national politics .

Disruption allows innovation, yet this tendency is countered by our willingness to slide back into comfortably familiar patterns. Business as usual is very alluring. After all, who hasn’t found themselves wishing for life to “get back to normal” this year? Yes, ‘normal’ feels safe and it can be difficult to resist doing things the way we’ve always done them, even when the rationale is no longer there.

I wrote about the siren call of business as usual earlier this year. At the end of 2021 it seems a good time to revisit that post .

7 Keys to Co-Design: Lessons from the Pandemic

As the end of lockdown arrives we have been looking back on the journey we have all been on since COVID crashed the party. I think this past 18 months have taught us a lot about collaboration and co-design. One thing that seems obvious is that our leaders, and indeed all of us, have been doing things differently lately. This pandemic has challenged us on many fronts, providing the impetus and the permission to think and act in more collaborative ways, to solve things together. We also hear from clients that something similar is happening in the workplace. There is a lot of change, a lot of complexity and high levels of uncertainty out there, making co-design more important than ever.

So what are the co-design lessons from the pandemic that can be applied in the workplace and beyond? You will have your own list, but here is ours:

  1. Get comfortable not knowing the answer. It seems there is always something we don't know, so accept uncertainty because it isn't going away.Learn to act, even when the right action isn't obvious.
  2. Expect the unexpected. When it's complex, there will always be surprises and our plans will always need to be flexible.
  3. Build relationships as well as structure. Strong relationships are the foundation of resilience in a changing world. Focus on relationships even more than the data or the process.High levels of trust make the tough times more manageable.
  4. Ask for help. Even the most capable leader won't have all the skills, knowledge and resilience to manage every situation. Ask for help to be more effective and to share the creativity, energy and accountability.
  5. Just try stuff. Don't wait for the answer to reveal itself as it often won't. Rather, test ideas and learn the way forward together.
  6. Do it 'with' people. Command and control quickly reaches its limits and any complex system will find ways around your 'rules'. Instead, move ahead collaboratively. Co-design the pathway out.
  7. Tap into the expertise of others. Your stakeholders are the system you are dealing with, so invite them in to help. Their knowledge and experience is an essential piece of the puzzle.

There are other lessons I’m sure. But if I can learn even these lessons and build them into my thinking and my ‘doing’, I feel certain I will be better prepared for the complex and ever-changing world we live in.

What has COVID taught you?

Even when they don't want to collaborate, you have choices...

A question that we keep hearing clients is "how to collaborate with the unwilling?".

It is often framed as if being 'unwilling" is somehow not acceptable, and that there is no alternative. It reminded me of the Kahane Framework that I blogged about last February:


A couple of years ago we came across a really nice decision-making framework that has been particularly useful in helping clients with the choices around collaborating or not.

It was developed by Adam Kahane, and outlined in his book “Collaborating with the Enemy” (Berret-Koehler, 2018)

In the framework, Adam suggests that when faced with a difficult situation, one can respond in 4 ways- collaborating, forcing, adapting or exiting-

He suggests that one should choose to collaborate only when it is the best way to achieve the objectives. So this means collaboration is appropriate when adapting or exiting are hard to swallow, and forcing is impossible because one can only succeed by solving with others (multilaterally).

Adam also notes that the choices can be situation and time dependent, and one may move between the choices (for example between collaborate and force) over time or as circumstances change.


So such a framework can remind us that we may have a lot more choice than we think when faced with intransigence and opposition, and that we can still be in the drivers seat by choosing a different pathway.

So if you feel stuck when facing opposition to your collaborative intent, cut yourself some slack, stop blaming and open up to some different options.

Re-experimenting with my migraines

In reflecting on my blog (below) from 2 years ago,I realised that I had fallen back into the black hole of "business as usual", and my approach to solving the problem was a key part of the problem.

Even though I had recognised previously that my focus on being overtired and stressed was preventing me trying alternatives, I had fallen back into a pattern of just trying to "fix" that probable cause.

Over the last 2 weeks I just happened to avoid my evening sugar hit (I love lollies!), replacing them with fruit and lots of water, and was pleasantly surprised at the result- no migraines!

Now while I'm realistic enough to appreciate that I probably haven't found the magic answer to my migraines, it did serve to remind me that 'just trying stuff' in complex situations is a more appropriate response than staying fixated on our belief in the one answer.

So my experiments continue, to salve my aching head....


I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!

COVID Horse or COVID Mouse?

I first published this blog in April 2020 at the height of our initial COVID lockdown. 16 months later it feels just as relevant. What do you think? Are you seeing Trojan Horses or Trojan Mice in our COVID responses?...

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?

Lessons from a newborn

Mindset is crucial for effective collaboration.

The clearest reminder for me about the importance of mindset was when our son was born (32 years ago!)

I guess my wife and I both thought at the time that the world would keep rolling along and we just had to fit the new arrival into our comfortable 'business as usual' existence (notwithstanding the advice from family and friends about the significant change we were about to experience!)

While we could learn the techniques of child rearing (nappy change, bottle feed, managing the crying, etc), a big surprise was how we had to adjust our thinking:

  • No longer were we in control of our agenda- we had to adapt and be ready for what emerged in the night, or at mealtime, or when we were due to be somewhere!
  • We no longer knew the answer (and sometimes even the question was unclear - babies aren't very clear sometimes in what they want!). So we had to become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing but just trying stuff and seeing what worked (or not)
  • Our schedule went out the window, we had to accept that flexibility and not certainty was the new order of the day.
  • We could no longer do things 'to'...., it always had to be 'with'....the new arrival- as uncomfortable and frustrating as that sometimes was.

I learned to shift my mindset around some significant patterns of behavior, just as our experience at Twyfords tells us is necessary for collaborating effectively.

My key insight is that our natural and learned thinking that has worked and been successful in the past can compromise our efforts to collaborate.

We need to challenge and shift our thinking - to "rebirth" our mindset so that our collaborative efforts are congruent and effective.

A hop, skip and jump into collaboration

When facing any problem at work, our natural tendency as a leader is to seek a clear process to find solutions.

A step by step guide that gives us confidence we are on the right track, and can get the desired outcome. It would seem that part of the attraction is our need to know, and to be seen as a good problem solver (otherwise we might look a bit incompetent??)

Now it seems that in a lot of circumstances this works just great, but what about those wicked and complex problems where our standard problem solving fail and we need new thinking to tackle it together.

We've spent a fair bit of time trying to make sense of this dilemma- how to provide a step by step guide to solve complex issues when the nature of complexity dictates that a linear approach will fail!

Our insight is that we need to treat such situations more like a dance than a climb- taking a flexible approach allows for the emergence necessary when taking a more collaborative approach.

We can still generate a framework and set of tools in a logical sequence to provide guidance, but we are seeing growing evidence with clients that being able to "hop, skip and jump" is key to success. This might look like

  • starting at the appropriate place in the logic given your situation- maybe step 3 or 7....
  • moving back and forward through the logic as needs dictate
  • missing some steps if needed
  • starting anywhere, but going everywhere.

While you might need to understand the framework and know how to use any particular tool, a key success factor will also be to know what tool to use when- the hop, skip and jump approach.

If you want to know more about how to do this, talk to us about applying our Collaboration System.

The Dilemma- a chip off the old bloke

As I ponder on the past and emerging dilemmas in 2020 - like the recent bushfires, the current coronavirus crisis, and key challenges like indigenous disadvantage, deteriorating mental health and risks from climate change, I'm often a bit disappointed and frustrated by the simplistic and solution focused ways in which we tend to respond.

It seems like "I know the answer, you just need to listen to me and implement what I say, and all will be OK".

Given the complex nature of such challenges, stepping back from the answer and taking some time to explore the question first is being increasingly recognised as a more useful approach, particularly given the history of failures applying the business as usual "solution" approach.

So Einstein's quote from long ago would still seem very relevant ie

"If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions".

However while thinking- and talking together - about getting on the same page is a crucial first step, the emerging dilemma can look a bit too big and complex, perhaps overwhelming, and it can be hard to know where and how to get started.

In our experience, finding a chunk of the problem to focus on can be really useful - something that feels feasible, relevant and achievable to start with.

A "right sizing" exercise can focus the efforts on to a piece of the problem, with greater confidence that it:

  • is substantive, but doable
  • warrants our time and resources
  • motives us and other stakeholders
  • potentially leads to a useful result
  • really matters to those involved

So perhaps we should ask Einstein to sacrifice a bit of that hour to right size the dilemma?

One thing the populist response to COVID tells us about collaboration

The global COVID pandemic, as tragic and difficult as it is, offers many insights into how people and nations respond to wicked problems. An insight that stands out for me is the value of working to understand the problem faced before leaping to solutions. We call this co-defining the dilemma. When done poorly you get Brazil’s COVID response. When done even half well you get something like Australia’s.

So what is the COVID dilemma? A better question would be ‘what are the many dilemmas inherent in this situation? Let’s pick the central two dilemmas within the dilemma, which every country is obviously grappling with:

  1. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our health?
  2. How do we minimise the impact of the virus on our economy?

In many ways these two dilemmas are poles apart – we kill the virus by closing down, which probably kills the economy. Yet we protect jobs by staying open, meaning party time for the virus.

It’s challenging, yet it seems that many jurisdictions haven’t come to grips with the dilemma here. Of course they have acknowledged the pieces but they don’t seem to have framed them as a dilemma to be addressed. Rather they slide into a simplistic ideological battle; On the one hand “we have to lock down to keep us safe”. On the other, “we have to stay open to protect the economy”.

In some countries this over-simplistic thinking has resulted in an over-simplistic ‘plan’ to keep things open as much as possible, protecting jobs and the economy. Of course, this approach has implications reflected in a climbing death toll and in the end a likely massive economic hit as well.

What might they do differently? Lots, obviously. But my contribution would be to get agreement on the dilemma in order to open up the domain of possible responses. Put very simply this could be something like: how do we best respond to this virus and its impacts in ways that keep us safe and healthy while strengthening the foundations of a resilient and productive economy?

This type of framing of the dilemma isn’t an invitation to go to war over solutions. It isn’t an either-or-problem. It is a this-and dilemma that stakeholders need to work on creatively together. Importantly, it contains some insight into what success looks like in the long term – safe, healthy and resilient. These are things we can all work towards, regardless of our ideology.

Understanding the dilemmas instead of arguing over competing ‘solutions’ to poorly understood problems is such a simple yet powerful idea. And what is true of a national pandemic response is also true of a small organisational, issue. Time taken to co-define is always time well spent. What is your dilemma and to what extent do all stakeholders understand it and agree?

To learn how you can co-define your dilemma, take a look at our Power of Co System.