Academic journal article Group Facilitation

Deliberative Methods for Complex Issues: A Typology of Functions That May Need Scaffolding

Academic journal article Group Facilitation

Deliberative Methods for Complex Issues: A Typology of Functions That May Need Scaffolding

Article excerpt


This paper offers a useful conceptual framework that can both assist facilitators of group processes to reflect on and develop their practice, and be useful for comparative and evaluative research on facilitation and deliberative methods. Facilitators operate from a range of 'theories of change', which can mean that different facilitators facing the same particular group conditions can make quite different decisions about their process design. This article presents a useful inventory of functions that can be scaffolded in group processes, as well as offering potential risks for not scaffolding in certain situations.


During the last few decades, a rich range of methods for working with complex issues has evolved. The need for such methods has been felt within organizations (companies, public administration, non-governmental organizations), in inter-organizational interactions, in local communities, and in many other arenas. Rosenhead (2006), while writing about Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs; one of the families of methods for complex issues), captured a number of important features of the situations for which a large number of methods were designed:

PSMs are appropriate for situations characterized by multiple actors, differing perspectives, partially conflicting interests, significant intangibles and perplexing uncertainties. They can operate in such contexts because they:

* are designed for deployment in a group format;

* permit the simultaneous consideration of alternative perspectives;

* are participative in nature, with interaction among participants, and between participant and facilitator(s);

* iterate between analysis of judgmental inputs and the application of judgment to analytic outputs; and

* allow closure when participants are satisfied with the progress achieved, rather than requiring commitment to a comprehensive solution of all the interacting strands that make up the problematic situation (p. 762).

The first sentence in the quote above describes the nature of complex issues well, but it might be added that complex issues are usually also dependent on many different types of conditions and complex causal relationships: social, psychological, economic, political, technological, legal, environmental and cultural, for example. Some complex issues are of vital importance for different stakeholder groups, for organizations, communities, countries and even for the global society, but are also difficult to manage. A straightforward difficulty is that for any single actor, it may be hard to get an overview and understanding of all the components, conditions, causal connections and potential consequences that may be relevant to the issue. Another difficulty is one Rosenhead points to: there are often many stakeholders with different perspectives and conflicting interests, which may make communication and agreement difficult (Rosenhead, 2006, p. 762).

Complex issues, it can be argued, require that actors have sophisticated capacities for managing different kinds of complexity. Where is this much-needed capacity to be found? It can be looked for in the skills of individuals - either searching for those individuals who have the capacities needed for very complex tasks, or developing methods for training individuals in the appropriate skills (Jordan, 2011). However, an interesting alternative is to turn attention to the possibility of generating collective capacities for managing issue complexity by means of skillful structured facilitation that enables groups to accomplish tasks that would be out of reach both of any individual and of groups working without the support of a method and a facilitator. A research question can be articulated as: Is it possible to build capacities for the management of complex issues into external support structures in the form of methods and/or facilitation strategies? The present study is intended to help address this question by developing a clearer understanding of how deliberative methods can serve a group of people grappling with a complex issue. …

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