Identifying what can/can’t be changed


This activity directs a group away from the “givens” (those elements of a problem that realistically can’t be changed) and instead supports participants to focus on the “policy-relevant variables” (those elements that can be manipulated and changed).


  • Explain the distinction between problem “givens” and “policy-relevant variables.”
  • Provide an example.
  • Ask each person in the group to identify “givens” and “policy-relevant variables”
    on a card—working alone or with a partner.
  • Put two sheets of newsprint in front of the group, one of which is titled “Givens” and
    the other, “Policy-Relevant Variables.”
  • Have the stakeholders record their responses on the relevant sheets.
  • Facilitator notes areas of apparent agreement and disagreement.
  • Participants discuss implications for designing possible “solutions.”

Where there is disagreement on the “givens,” the facilitator keeps the conversation going about what is meant by “givens” and why certain aspects of the problem are considered “givens” by some. If that doesn’t lead to agreement about “givens,” the facilitator will try to generate strategies using multiple conceptions of “givens” regarding a particular issue or problem.

In Practice

This example illustrates how a group might distinguish between “givens” and “policy-relevant variables.”

Issue: Possible sea level rise in Hawaii

Possible perceived givens

  • Global patterns of continued greenhouse gas emissions [GGE] cannot be sufficiently
    reduced to alter long term patterns of climate change, OR GGE is but one of many
    factors—and not the most important one—in global climate change.
  • Continued sea level rise will contribute to long-term beach retreat, loss of beaches,
    threats to coastal housing, hotels, and infrastructure such as highways, sewage
    treatment plants, etc., OR long-term threats of sea level rise are overstated.

Possible policy-relevant variables

  • Reduction of GGE to reduce or alter global climate change
  • Designation of key beaches/coastal areas for protection
  • Protection of selected coastal areas by coastal structures such as dikes
  • Regulatory protection of threatened coastal areas via designation of new setbacks and ‘no-build’ hazard areas
  • Relocation over time of threatened public infrastructure
  • Relocation/abandonment of some coastal housing, hotels, and infrastructure
  • Education and behavioral modification of potential coastal property purchasers

About Strategies

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