Collaborative Problem Solving

Clarify Intentions


Identify the expectations of conveners to help them envision how the process might be organized, who might be participating, what time and resources will likely be required, and what the outcomes might be.

In this stage, the objective is to identify the hopes and expectations of conveners and potential group leaders, and come up with a preliminary roadmap of the process that reflects their combined intentions in a realistic way. Through interviews and focus group discussions with these individuals, a statement of purpose and a preliminary process outline can be developed.

There needs to be a sufficient level of detail—including which issues should be addressed, what outputs can be expected, who might participate, how long it might take, and what resources it might require—to ensure that conveners are clear about how the process might be organized and implemented. To some degree, the provisional statement that is drafted at the end of this stage is a useful test of commitment on behalf of the parties.

Labels like ‘strategic plan,’ ‘collaborative planning project,’ ‘visioning exercise,’ or ‘action plan’ may have different meanings for those engaged in sponsoring and conducting a process.

Clarify what potential conveners seek in a potential collaborative process.

  • Via interviews and focus groups, gather perceptions from conveners about which issues to address, how they emerged, and what outputs to expect.
  • Clarify whose vision or purpose motivates the proposed process.
  • Determine how the proposed collaboration relates to other problem-solving processes, if any.

Verify potential process requirements including participants, resource needs, and outputs.

  • Clarify who the conveners see as potential participants.
  • Assess expectations of conveners regarding available resources, time commitments, and intended outputs.

Develop a provisional statement of purpose.

  • Produce a provisional process design based on interviews and focus group discussions.
  • Review the provisional design with conveners to test its potential acceptability.

Expectations are unrealistic or unclear.
Taking time, listening carefully, probing assumptions and hopes (by asking, “If this process works as intended what will the group produce?”), are investments that will help to clarify purposes at the beginning of a process.

There is insufficient time, money, and human resources.
If resources are strictly limited, conveners should consider setting more modest expectations, postponing until resources can be generated, or abandoning the project.

Convener is too wedded to a particular outcome.
Legitimacy is more likely to occur when participants in a process feel free to explore alternatives, deliberate about their strengths and weaknesses, and develop criteria for choosing among them.

A durable commitment to the process is lacking.
A group charter—detailing how the process will be run, what the behavioral expectations are, and what outputs are expected—can help to offset hesitation on the part of some participants. If the concern reflects a deeper lack of trust in group processes, it is sometimes useful to carve out a simple project that can demonstrate the group’s ability to collaborate.


  • How or why has this issue surfaced and who is driving the collaboration?
  • What distinguishes this proposed process from related ones?
  • Are conveners or key stakeholders expressing any “givens” or non-negotiables about the purpose or process?
  • What reservations are being expressed publicly or privately?
  • What does the community think about the subject/issue?
  • Who should be consulted for background outside of those initially recommended?
  • What are the known conflicts or tensions on the subject/issue?

Purpose, Goals, and Vision

  • What should be accomplished (vision and purpose) through the collaborative process?
  • To what extent do others accept the vision or purpose?
  • Can differences about the intended purpose be resolved prior to initiating a process?


  • How realistic are the convener’s and leader’s conception of the time and resources that will be necessary?
  • Will consulting and working with the community add real value (or is the final decision a fait accompli)?
  • Is the process flexible enough to accommodate additional stakeholders?
  • How open are the conveners and process leaders to advice from stakeholders (including those possessing detailed local knowledge)?
  • Do conveners, key stakeholders, or others have any serious reservations about the purpose or process?

The launch of a process intended to engage scientists and agency officials in the design of inter-agency protocols to respond to outbreaks of coral disease, was delayed in part because of disagreements between agency staff and process consultants about the time and resources needed to accomplish the task. Process consultants were arguing for more meeting time while agency staff was concerned about requesting more time and funds. The resulting scaled-back agenda accomplished only some of the group’s goals.

Related Examples

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