Collaborative Problem Solving

Process Design


Develop a provisional process design explaining the logic and outputs of each phase in order to garner participants’ early commitment to the process and the products.

Most stakeholders will want some sort of road map of what is to come before fully committing to the process. That road map takes the shape of a provisional process design that builds on the findings of the background inquiry and formulates a clear path for the collaboration, with the caveat that it can be modified and adjusted by the stakeholders at their first meeting and along the way.

Foundational elements of the provisional process design include: the mission, key process phases, intended outputs for each stage, process issues for the group charter, as well as a tentative meeting schedule and location.

In essence, the drafting of this road map provides a framework for the subsequent group charter, which is one of the first tasks for participants when they convene. The process for developing a group document involves providing material for participants to respond to, having them review and revise, and creating a collaborative version.

It’s important that conveners and participants understand the process and agree with the intended outputs of each phase.  Time spent upfront, clarifying assumptions about the purpose of the collaboration and laying out the principles of how the group will deliberate and make decisions, reduces conflicts about the process later on.

A process design provides participants with a tentative roadmap for the collaborative strategy.

Draft the process design.

  • Identify mission and intended outputs.
  • Identify key phases, decision points, and outputs for each phase.
  • Develop a communication strategy for participants including invitation and information about meeting logistics.

Review the process design draft. 

  • Ensure that conveners and participants understand and agree with intended outputs of each phase of the draft process.
  • Clarify tentative decision points.

The convener has a strong commitment to a different process design.
The first option for the process leader is to engage in a full discussion of the assumptions that underlie the design and make adjustments based on deeper understanding. If no process design adjustments can be made either by the convener or by the process design team, the decision of whether to continue needs to be made.

There is a lack of balance among participants.
If the list of participants means that some critical perspectives will be missing, the convener, process design team, and others must recruit people who will ensure a more balanced process.

The background inquiry is incomplete.
Deadlines that truncate the background inquiry and rely on just a few informants increase the probability that unanticipated issues will arise during the process. If this is the case, the process leader can appeal for more time or resources, or secure an agreement that more resources may be sought from the convener later, if the need arises.


  • Based on meetings or interviews with stakeholders, and prior meetings with conveners and group leaders, what is the mission and goal of the collaborative?


  • Is there sufficient balance of voices and viewpoints?
  • Are there entities not actively involved in the collaboration that should be kept informed along the way?
  • What are expectations for participation in terms of meeting attendance, frequency, interaction, and decision making?
  • Is there formal standing for invited members or are the meetings open to anyone?
  • Is there room and value for other roles, including observers, advisors, and ex-officio members?

Process Design

  • How are the roles of the group and its leadership defined?
  • Has the convening group ratified the process design?
  • What are the decision-making rules (consensus, super majority, or some combination) and what are the meeting ground rules?
  • What are the rules on disclosure of information and confidentiality within and outside the group?
  • Is a steering committee or other type of committee required? If so, what is the scope and composition of the committee?
  • Is there value to having two distinguished co-chairs?
  • What process issues are likely to shape how long the process will run?
  • What milestones or process encouragements can be built into the process to move the process along?
  • What will the process be called: task group, commission, study group, advisory committee, problem-solving workshop, retreat, focus group, formal mediation, or negotiation session?
  • How is the process designed to help de-personalize conflict?

Resources: Time and Expenses

  • How long is the process likely to run? Is there a logical deadline?
  • How many meetings are needed and is it better to spread them out (and possibly lose momentum) or bunch them up and do an intensive “blitzkrieg”?
  • Will there be in-between meeting work? If so, by what type of group (work groups, technical committees, etc.)?
  • What support is needed and what is a reasonable budget for outside services, travel, meeting room expenses, food and supplies?
  • How will the process be funded and staffed?
  • Are there any special cultural, institutional, or organizational considerations that need to be built into the design?

Related Examples

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