Collaborative Problem Solving

Background Inquiry


Gather first- and second-hand background information to determine which issues should figure into the tailored design of a collaborative process.

In this stage, the process team designs and implements an inquiry plan that specifies who will be interviewed, what questions will be asked, what documents will be consulted, and what other information will be sought.

Good background information—gathered from surveys, interviews, focus groups, and existing documents—can identify potential barriers to problem solving, provide realistic assessments of time and resources needed, and ultimately inform the design of an effective collaborative process.

It’s important to understand the way stakeholders frame the issue, their degree of attachment to their perspectives, and their history of interaction with the topic at hand. If a valid assessment uncovers problems with the objectives and/or scope as originally conceived, the initiative should be reconsidered and revised.

From the information gathered, the process team can begin to identify which issues—substantive, relational, and procedural—will figure into the design of the collaborative process.

A less-than-adequate assessment could
actually subvert the effectiveness of the collaborative process.

Identify stakeholder perceptions of the problem or issue, relationships with other stakeholders, and willingness to engage in a collaborative process.

  • Gather information from potential stakeholder via surveys, interviews, or focus groups.
  • Review reports, newspaper accounts, or other background documents on the issue.

Assess the viability of the objectives of the initiative.

  • Review interviews, surveys, or other data for indicators that shared agreements are
    lacking and objectives have been inadequately construed.

Based on assessment, reassess objectives with conveners.

Assess the factors that might enhance or impede an effective collaborative process and ensure that the process design [Stage 3] anticipates these factors.

  • Review interviews, surveys, or other data for perceived reservations, pre-conditions,
    old enmities, or other factors shaping conditions for an effective process.
  • Identify other issues that could be important to process leaders.

Identify potential participants.

  • Identify those individuals who add legitimacy to the process, who can influence the
    success, or who would be directly affected by the outcome.
  • Assess perceptions of potential participants held by others who are likely to be
  • Assess the degree to which subject matter experts should be included.
  • Draft a list of participants and the rationale for their participation.

Assess the acceptability of the proposed project leader/facilitator.

  • Identify perceptions of the proposed leader among potential participants.
  • Assess any questions/issues among potential participants that reflect on the leader’s
    potential effectiveness.

There is no budget for assessment.
If this is a funding issue, the options range from reconfiguring the budget to reducing the scope or declining the work. It’s important, though, to ascertain whether the lack of funding is actually a reflection of a tepid level of commitment to or interest in the project.

There is general resistance to engaging in a collaborative process.
Some resistance can be addressed by explaining the process and the role of the process leader. An exploration of the costs and benefits of alternative processes (or no process) can also help to address initial hesitancy.

There is perceived inequity in access to technical expertise.
Process leaders can increase access to expertise by organizing joint fact-finding, or otherwise ensuring that empirical claims can be assessed by objective analysis.

A rival or competing process is underway.
The greater the similarity of another initiative in terms of participants and process intentions, the better it usually is to wait for the alternative process to unfold.

Issue Background and Context

  • What are the different ways participants understand, define, or frame the problem and what are their perceptions based on?
  • Is there historical “baggage” or old enmities that need to be understood?
  • How content are participants with the status quo on the issue?
  • What do participants believe has gone wrong in addressing this issue in the past?
  • Are there portions of the subject (as opposed to the whole) where agreement or resolution is likely?

Process Design

  • Are there conditions for participation in terms of format, groups or individuals involved, time, location, etc.?
  • Are participants comfortable with the role of the convener and facilitator?
  • Do provisional ground rules for the process need to be established before a first meeting based on who may be participating?
  • Have participants been provided the opportunity to review and improve the collaborative process?
  • Will a copy of the assessment report be given to (a) everyone interviewed; (b) only the conveners; or (c) anyone (or no one else) who requests it?


  • Who can help lend legitimacy and influence the success of the process?
  • Are there folks who will not “come to the table” but whose views and wisdom are critical to understand and incorporate?
  • Who will be affected by the process outcome?
  • Who is willing to participate in the process?
  • What do people feel about the other participants in the process?
  • Who might distract or sabotage the conversation and any potential output if they were excluded or included?
  • Who are the subject matter/issue experts?

Team Leadership and Facilitation

  • What assurances does the process leader or facilitator need to give regarding his or her integrity, background or affiliations, independence from the issue, and scope of work?
  • What, if anything, needs to be disclosed about the relationship of the convener, funder, or participants?

Even when carefully conducted, background inquiries don’t always reveal the most significant issues likely to emerge. In a land use planning visioning exercise, background analysis revealed divisions in the stakeholder group and passionate attachments to particular substantive issues. What was not initially obvious, however, was how the personal styles of particular participants and their relationship issues—more than an attachment to particular issues—would undermine efforts to engage in group problem solving.

Related Examples

Please enable JavaScript for full site functionality. Click here to learn how.