I’m sick of problem trees and brainstorming exercises.

In initiatives based on a landscape approach, once the various stakeholders with some connection to the landscape have been brought together, often one of the first things they are asked to do is some kind of diagnosis or problem analysis, and a favorite tool of facilitators for problem analysis is the participatory problem tree.  Participants identify causes of the core problem and causes for the causes—these are depicted on a diagram as the roots of the tree.  And they identify effects of the core problem, and effects of the effects—these are drawn as the branches and limbs.  Another favorite tool is brainstorming, which is often used to identify possible actions to address the problem.  Of course, problem trees and brainstorming aren’t specific to landscape approaches—they’re methods commonly used in policy dialogues, community meetings, and many other kinds of workshop settings.

When done well, a participatory problem tree can be an effective way for a group to start moving beyond superficial thinking, to engage in a serious analysis and to develop a shared understanding of their analysis.  Brainstorming, when done well, can be an effective way to engender creative thinking.

And I’m sick of both of them.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not the exercises themselves that bother me.  As a facilitator, I have often used problem trees and brainstorming exercises.  What frustrates me is how uncommon it is to move beyond problem analysis and brainstorming to collective action.


Why we get stuck at brainstorming

There are, I think, several reasons for this.  In some cases, the collective planning process is poorly designed or rushed.  I have too often experienced a situation where the organizers of a process expected participants who haven’t necessarily worked together before to share concerns, analyze problems, brainstorm solutions and come up with a workable action plan to address a complex web problems within the space of a two-day workshop.

Sometimes—too often, actually—government programs, donor agency funding, and NGO projects allow little room for flexibility, so that if the stakeholders who participate in the collective planning process identify priorities and actions that fall outside of the predetermined log frame, it’s difficult to incorporate the new ideas into project activities. A problematic tree? Maybe what it lacks is storytelling, synthetic thinking and building community amongst the stakeholders.

Another problem is that sometimes dependency is so ingrained that participants invariably interpret a request to brainstorm actions or develop a work plan to mean, “Identify actions that other people need to take”.  Participants may be one hundred percent correct when, in this kind of exercise, they say, “It would be very helpful if Stakeholder X could do this.”  But if Stakeholder X is not in the room or is not otherwise on board with the process, then having a group of other stakeholders go through a workshop exercise to list things that Stakeholder X should do is not the best way to create a work plan that will actually be implemented.


Getting unstuck

Any strategy for avoiding this problem needs several elements.  One is to ensure that brainstorming and work planning exercises focus primarily on the question, “What do I need to do?”  A second element is to get the right stakeholders in the room from the outset.  Different people and groups are affected by problems differently; different people will have different kinds of connections to the landscape; and there are different kinds of groups, organizations and people who can to make different sorts of contributions to solutions.  These kinds of differences, however, may not be obvious from the start.  So to get all of the important stakeholders around the table, it helps to first do a good stakeholder analysis.

Just getting the right stakeholders into the room, however, may not be enough to move people to action.  In an earlier post in this blog, I suggested that approaches based on thinking in terms of stakeholders have some critical limitations.  If, in designing a multi-stakeholder process, we think of people primarily as bundles of material interests and as belonging to groups based on those interests or their stakes, then the process will tend toward finding ways to balance, reconcile, or make tradeoffs among those differing interests.  The process will be a negotiation, and this kind of negotiation usually becomes a zero sum game.  If the invitation to participate and to continue participating is an invitation to participate in a zero sum game, then not participating and instead maintaining the status quo become more attractive options for some stakeholders.  As a goal, “not losing the zero sum game”, provides little inspiration for meaningful collaboration.

One alternative is to think of this kind of multi-stakeholder process as being about developing and articulating shared values.  I have suggested in this series that landscape approaches are about finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.  Shared values can be one aspect of this harmony.  If people can find or create, and then articulate, values that they share, they will be building trust and building community.  This opens a door to creative collective problem solving and commitment to move forward—commitment to move past problem analysis and brainstorming.

In other words, I’m suggesting that the some of the early steps in the multi-stakeholder process will look something like this:

  • Do a good stakeholder analysis.
  • Then get all the stakeholders around the table.
  • Then get them to stop acting like stakeholders.

Do a good stakeholder analysis. Then get all the stakeholders around the table. Then get them to stop acting like stakeholders. Click To Tweet


Share stories

For this to work, the participants needs to engage in different kinds of thinking and different ways of communicating with each other.  To the analytical thinking, which is typical of problem tree analysis, and the creative thinking, which is typical of brainstorming, we need to be add synthetic thinking.  Whereas analytical thinking disassembles systems to expose their parts and how they work, and creative thinking generates new parts and new relationships, synthetic thinking weaves pieces and parts and relationships into a new whole.  Synthetic thinking can make use of the outputs of the other modes of thinking to imagine a changed system or a completely new system.

To promote this kind of thinking, it helps if the participants can engage in a different form of communication.  One of the most powerful ways to engage people in synthetic thinking is through stories.  Participatory problem trees are great for analysis, but stories tend to be more effective at weaving insights together to imagine a new tapestry.  Stories can also help to bring out people’s values and to communicate those values to each other.

At first, this might simply involve sharing stories and listening to each other’s stories.  In gatherings of diverse stakeholders, the facilitator can make space for participants to tell stories of their personal connection to the landscape.  Knowledgeable elders can be asked to share stories that tell the history of the landscape.  Drama can also be a powerful way to get participants thinking in story mode.

Eventually, you may want to get the participants—the diverse “stakeholders”—to create new stories together.  This is what visioning is about if it’s done well—not simply creating a bullet list of what people want to see in the future, but creating a story about that future that all the diverse stakeholders can see themselves in.  This, I believe, is the spirit of landscape approaches.

*   *   *


You may have noticed that I seem to frequently contradict myself, especially when it comes to the concept of stakeholders.  I criticize the concept, then I keep using it.  I suggest we need to get away from stakeholder-based approaches, and then I say the first thing you need to do is a good stakeholder analysis.  I suppose this is the “wandering” part of the Deliberative Landscapes Wanderer—me wandering around amongst ideas that I’m still trying to make sense of and piece together.

In my wandering, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about seeming paradoxes, false dichotomies, and oxymorons that aren’t really oxymorons.  I suppose if I can’t reason my way out of these paradoxes then perhaps I should just try creating a story.

I’ll get back to you on that.