Collaborative Problem Solving

Issue Analysis


Develop a shared understanding of the issue and identify those aspects that are most amenable to intervention.

This stage requires participants to learn all they can about the issue/problem/opportunity and, in particular, about those causes that lend themselves to intervention. Participants in a collaborative process often come with their own (sometimes conflicting) perceptions of the primary causes and the most effective interventions. Building consensus about the “real” nature of the problem requires not only careful technical analysis but also an exploration of individual views.

To arrive at a shared definition of the issue, some groups first develop a shared set of assumptions and then create an “issue map” to graphically depict possible contributing causes and identify which of those might be most amenable to intervention.

Once there is agreement among participants that the issue is well defined and key assumptions are shared, this stage is deemed complete. The significance of developing a shared understanding is the foundation it provides for the analysis that follows; it is a prerequisite to building commitment for executing whatever strategy is developed by the group.

Once stakeholders begin to understand each others’ assumptions, it is easier to reach consensus on what the problem is and what sorts of interventions will be effective.

Educate participants about the issue.

  • Identify, review, and discuss technical analysis of the issue.
  • Share individual perceptions of the issue, including ideas about causation, impact, and
    optimal intervention.
  • Identify areas of agreement and disagreement.

Organize technical analysis as needed.

  • Identify empirical questions the group has about the significance of the issues, affected populations, causation, etc.
  • Organize processes for answering questions (such as a technical panel) that are perceived as credible in the eyes of participants.

Develop a shared definition of the issue.

  • Come up with a shared set of assumptions about the issue.
  • Co-create a shared definition of the issue that includes contributing causes.
  • Identify those causal factors that are most amenable to intervention.

The group could focus on easily identifiable problems or on deeper “root” causes.
In some processes, an immediate fix is a reasonable goal; it may bring temporary relief to deeper, more persistent causes that are not well understood. Focusing on more complex causes in order to develop more sustainable solutions may require more time, resources, technical analysis, and commitment than groups or their sponsors want to or can make.

The group could focus on current needs or future generations.
Determining whether and how to be responsible to future generations requires attention to the values of the group; technical skills—such as scenario construction and statistical analysis—are needed to assess the implications of those value choices.

The group could engage in careful analysis of problems or accept narratives from “experts.”
One of the ways of reducing analytic costs is to limit the analysis of the problem being addressed. In some cases, a planning process may have to rely on expert ‘stories,’ old reports, and anecdotes.

Causes of problems are viewed through a limited lens.
Participants with fixed ideas about the “major” cause of a community problem may try to direct the deliberations back to their view of the most important cause … to the detriment of a broader discussion. Sometimes reframing the problem and extending deliberation can lead to a revised understanding of problem causes.

Views change regarding which problems are priorities.
Once a process has begun and stakeholders understand the process more fully, some may argue for a different problem focus or emphasis. Proposed changes are sometimes a diversion that slows the process, but until everyone has had an opportunity to explain and defend their conception of the group’s work, it is unlikely that everyone will be fully committed to the process.

  • What is the problem, issue, or opportunity? Who says?
  • What is the political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTEL) history of the issue?
  • Why hasn’t the problem or issue been solved before now?
  • How severe is the problem? Who is affected? How do we know?
  • What are the symptoms/indicators?
  • What are the causes? How much agreement is there about problem causes (and their effects)?
  • How “tractable” is the problem? What are the “givens” of the problem that can’t be addressed for legal, economic, ideological, or other reasons?
  • Are the problems and solutions the group is focusing on in sync with the collaboration’s purpose, mission, and scope?
  • What underlying interests and needs seem to be at play, and in what ways do they converge or diverge?
  • What information, data, research reports, or expert opinions are needed?
  • How does each person connect to the issue personally? What one, critical piece of information does each person in the room want everyone else to know about the issue?

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

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