Stages of the Collaborative
Problem Solving Process

A typical collaborative process has three well-defined stages, each containing a number of steps, tasks or objectives

Stage 1: Getting Started: The Pre-Deliberation Phase
A stakeholder or a trusted outsider raises the possibility of collaboration and initiates the process.
Following initiation, the pre-deliberation, or planning stage, should be carried out with a group of
stakeholders who are knowledgeable about, and committed to the issue and are willing to
participate in the process from the beginning. During this stage, the objectives of the collaborative
process are to:
  • Assess the issues
    • Identify conditions for collaboration.
    • Develop a clear description of the issues that need to be addressed.
    • Frame the problem as a joint search for resolution of the issue: "How can we...?"
  • Identify Stakeholders
    • Determine what (or whose) interests are at stake.
    • Identify who can affect - and who is affected by - the issue
    • Contact stakeholders and determine their needs for participating in a collaborative process.
  • Design a strategy
    • Consider the most productive format: committee, negotiating team or conference format.
    • Agree on process steps.
    • Identify roles and who might fill them: chairperson, facilitator, recorder, technical resources, meeting logistics, etc.
    • Plan your time frame.
  • Set up a program
    • Decide on logistical details: where and when to meet, agenda, etc.
    • Draft the meeting ground rules and protocols (also called a group charter, meeting plan or convening document).
Stage 2: Searching for Agreement: The Deliberation Stage
Once all the stakeholders have been contacted, the first meeting convened, and the protocols ratified, the participants can begin to deliberate the substantive issues. The facilitator’s role in the deliberation stage is described in Volumes 9 and 11 of this series. The stakeholders’ roles are described in a special issue for citizens called Dealing with Conflict in Your Community.
  • Establish procedures
    • With the whole group, ratify the meeting ground rules and protocols drafted in the planning phase. Make
      changes where necessary.
  • Educate each other
    • Share concerns related to the topic.
    • Identify what is given.
    • Identify what is understood.
    • Identify sub-issues.
    • Identify and share interests -- reasons, needs, concerns and motivations underlying participants' positions --rather than assert positions.
  • Define the problem
    • Define the present situation.
    • Define the desired future.
  • Specify information needs
    • Identify technical background information that is pertinent to the issue.
    • Identify information that is available and information that is needed.
    • Agree on methods for generating answers to relevant technical questions, or a path to follow even if notechnical consensus exists.
  • Educate each other (again, and whenever it is needed)
    • Field trips.
    • Collecting data/soliciting reports.
    • Briefings.
    • Interviews.
  • Generate options
    • Use task forces for larger groups.
    • Bring in the public.
    • Brainstorm.
    • Use expert opinion.
  • Develop criteria for option evaluation
    • Feasibility
    • Fairness
    • Efficiency
  • Evaluate options
    • Priority matrix
    • Goal achievement.
  • Reach agreements
    • Building block
    • Single text
    • Agreement in principle
  • Develop a written plan
    • Document areas of agreement to ensure a common understanding of the participants' accord.
    • Develop a plan of action: what, how, when, where, who. 

Stage 3: After the Agreement is Reached: The Post-Deliberation Phase
Once an acceptable solution has been identified, it must be approved and implemented by all
responsible parties. During Stage 3, the objectives of the collaborative process are to:

  • Ratify the agreement
    • Parties get support for the plan from organizations that have a role in carrying it out.
    • Each organization follows its own internal procedures as it reviews and adopts the plan.
  • Integrate the agreement into the public decision-making process
    • Governing bodies and agencies not directly included in the process have been kept informed during earlier
      phases of the process.
    • Plan is considered and acted upon by the relevant agencies and governing bodies for implementation.
    • Implement the agreement
    • Maintain communication and collaboration as the plan is carried out.
    • Monitor your results.
    • Renegotiate, if necessary.
    • Celebrate your success

*Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program in their book, Breakingthe Impasse, Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes (Basic Books, Inc, New York, 1987), outline three major stages of the negotiation process. These are namely: prenegotiation, negotiation, and postnegotiation. Here, the term "negotiation" has been softened somewhat and reframed as "deliberation" in order to incorporate all types of collaborative decision-making processes. Finally, the discussion incorporates the work of Susan Carpenter in presenting a programmatic approach to public dispute resolution (Solving Community Problems by Consensus, Program for Community Problem Solving, Washington, D.C., 1990).    

Source: North Carolina State University,
   Return to the Environmental Decision-Making pages