When stakeholders come together to collaborate, dialogue, and tackle complex, wicked, messy problems, you never know where the best ideas will come from. They could come from people at the top of an organization with their system level view. Or from people who work with the details most closely. Or from the people impacted most by the problem. Or others.

There are some human and societal barriers to expressing ideas in a group setting. Some people just don’t like to speak in groups. Society conditions us to think that those with positional power know more and have the best wisdom to share (this isn’t true and I’ll share more about that in a future blog). How do you get past these barriers to get everyone’s ideas on the table for consideration? In the development of Structured Democratic Dialogue (SDD) many group processes that purport to allow idea generation and clarification were rigorously evaluated and only the best were selected. In this case, ours is a slightly modified version of Nominal Group Technique.

How well does it work? Let’s take an example. We recently conducted a Co-lab (a meeting employing the SDD methodology to tackle a specific problem) with 42 participants in support of strategic planning for a school district. The 42 people represented over 70 stakeholder groups and included a board member, the district superintendent, district administrators, teachers, parents, students, and more. Here’s a quick video of what SDD did for one of the student participants and for every other participant as well.

If you were the high school student in the room, without SDD, would you speak up? Would you feel like your ideas were well considered by the group? Without hearing and considering ideas from all perspectives, how else can you ensure you are really addressing the key aspects of the problem? Remember, like the Demosophia name, the wisdom is in the people.


Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I realized there is something for which I should give thanks and most of us never do: some problems just can be solved.

Why should we be thankful for that? For me this knowledge eliminates the pressure to be perfect. When I strive to make significant progress on unsolvable problems as opposed to finding the “one and only right answer” I relax a bit and cherish the progress I do make.

How do I know there are problems that can’t be solved? Because wicked problems (defined in 1972 by Rittle and Webber) exist along with tame ones. Tame ones (why doesn’t my car work?) have solutions. They may be complex and difficult to figure out, but they have answers. Wicked ones don’t. They typically don’t have well defined boundaries, are very resistant to change, appear differently to different people, and don’t have a definitive solution (how will we know when health care is excellent and we can stop improving it?). Wicked problems are the big, nasty messes – education, poverty, corporate cultures.

Of course, as we try to solve these problems we still devote ourselves fully to making significant progress. The complexity within these wicked problems requires other approaches that one person figuring out the right answer though. It requires more perspectives than our own. It takes integrating diverse perspectives, teamwork, collaboration, humility, learning to grasp the systems involved – the elements and interactions at play – to determine the significant the leverage points.

In this world of wicked problems, as my friend Aleco Christakis explained to participants in one of his structured democratic dialogue Co-labs:

Whether [a collective judgment] it is right or wrong only God knows. Really. We also don’t know whether we are complete or incomplete. We still don’t know that too. Completeness is something that mortals like us can only struggle with and never really get there.

Putting these problems into an appropriate perspective is one of the reasons I’m so thankful these days!



Moving from creativity to innovation

November 9, 2014

I’ve never really pictured myself as a “creative” person. Every once in a while, while in the shower, mowing the  lawn, or walking the dog, a connection happens between disparate ideas and I have a new and seemingly inspired insight. This is how I create; how I am creative. I can’t force it. I struggle [...]

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

August 8, 2013

Have you ever heard this blog’s title before? Its a famous saying by George Santayana published in Reason in Common Sense, volume 1 of The Life of Reason published in 1905.  Some things have not changed much in over a century. How many meetings have you gone to where people put dots on ideas on the wall and walk [...]

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A radical idea for changing change management

April 27, 2013

Read books on leading organizational change or on change management and the path they outline are about the same: Create the vision. Make the plan. Communicate it well and often. Begin implementation and get some short term wins. Go on from there. What we know is that most major change initiatives and strategic plans don’t [...]

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Humility – A prerequisite leadership trait

January 1, 2013

Did you ever grab some puzzle pieces that you don’t really expect to fit, and by spinning one they all fall together? This just happened to me with a leadership characteristic that I think should receive more air time – Humility. What puzzle pieces created this image for me? A new book, “Judgment Calls” Thomas [...]

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When solving problems, think about the system and not its parts

December 11, 2012

I am often amazed at the depth of thought and the wisdom of prior generations. On rare occasions when I take the time to hunt around, I stumble across something really good. Case in point. Did you ever hear about Dr. Russell Ackoff? Here’s a little about him from Wikipedia. He’s a giant in the [...]

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Wisdom of the People

August 26, 2012

Deeply Understand What Is DRIVING The Problem Strategies and Actions That REALIZE Solutions Stakeholders Learn and DESIGN Together Like Nothing You’ve Ever EXPERIENCED Before “If all the right people jointly construct an understanding of the problem, the resulting strategies are fully developed, and SUCCESS HAPPENS.” Andrew S. Hegedus, Ed.D., 6/19/2012.   Demosophia (the “wisdom of the people”) [...]

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