It’s all about the right frame.

Decisions with numerous stakeholders are socially complex and often lengthy processes. If a few specific framework conditions are worked out at the beginning, the chances of success increase significantly, as an example of an urban mobility project shows.

The picture is well known and resembles many others regardless of the occasion. Whether in investment decisions, in strategy meetings or in the course of public participation in major projects: representatives from different perspectives sit together and try to convince each other of their own point of view. There are clear pictures of the necessary results that reduce the freedom of movement in their minds. Although alternatives are discussed fact-based, deviations from the preferred solution are perceived as personal losses. A common solution space rarely comes about in this setup.

In our example, two municipalities had to decide on the upcoming replacement investment in a cable car that was used jointly as a public transport means and also as tourist infrastructure. Numerous meetings have already passed without coming closer to a sustainable result. Depending on the form of organization and leadership culture, top-down decisions are often made in this situation, or people put each other off until the next meeting. In both cases, no high-quality decision is made: In the first case, the solution is not supported by all critical stakeholders and, in the worst case, torpedoed during implementation. In the second case, the process slips into a stalemate that will never end without additional impetus.

Break the deadlock

Such standoffs are seldom acceptable in the long run. On the one hand because they tie up resources, on the other hand because the outstanding decision should be followed by a realization and the results will not be available until then. In our case, the contractual regulation on the financing of the cable car was about to  expire. Without a new agreement, investing in a new infrastructure and operating it would be impossible. Deadlocks are only functional in deliberate delay tactics or blockades. In the majority of cases – and we want to address them here – there is, however, a desire for a sustainable joint solution. In order to approach one, it is necessary to recognize the characteristics of a multi-stakeholder decision: While there is a clearly defined beneficiary in “simple” decisions, according to whose value expectations the decision-making process is based, here there are several. The complexity arises on two levels:

  • In terms of content, there is a need to design the potential results of a decision in such a way that they are beneficial for several decision-makers.
  • On the social level, a process is needed that allows several decision-makers to agree on a common solution without losing face.

The solution for both challenges can be found in the same place: at the beginning of the decision-making process.

All beginnings are easy

At the beginning of a joint decision-making process with several stakeholders who want to derive a specific individual benefit from the process, the decision-making framework must be defined. The essential parameters for the common solution space are defined here, whereby it is important to have the actual decision-makers on board. The point here is not to find the supposedly best solution at an expert level, but to jointly ensure stable framework conditions at the level of the people who are responsible for the benefit or the respective business case. In a first step, it is particularly a matter of jointly defining why this decision has to be made here and now.

As in our example, this can be quite difficult, as public transport has a completely different economic and social benefit than a cable car for tourism.

In the case of newly started processes, this discussion is relatively easy to conduct, as no one has taken a position yet and has to deviate from an opinion that already has been represented. In the case of existing stalemates, on the other hand, persuasive power is required, because returning to the starting point of the process is a strict condition. In addition, sensitivity is required in the facilitation, as the results of this first round have to be unanimous in order to be valid in the future.

The importance of this fundamental agreement lies in the fact that with the intersection of facts that are accepted by all decision-makers involved, a robust starting point for the decision-making process is established. The following steps can then be developed – also unanimously: the intended benefit and the criteria to measure it. However, the prerequisite is that the WHY of the decision is supported by all decision-makers. If this succeeds, the solution and the results can be worked out quickly also in multi-stakeholder settings.

In our cable car project, this agreement has led to a sustainable realignment of the decision-making process, which has since been processed in a dialogue format. For this it was necessary to find the areas that are important for both municipalities and for tourism. The entire decision-making process had to be subjected to this definition of benefits in order to enable the restart.

If, in the course of the further decision-making process, there should be a change of people who initially contributed to the creation of the framework conditions, this should not result in any deviations due to the clear documentation. However, if a new and previously neglected perspective is added, for example by an investor, the process must in any case be validated, if not restarted. Due to the clearly documented alignment of the decision-making framework, expectations with new stakeholders can be clarified in advance and time-consuming discussions avoided.

Our Solution Framing© approach, which was used in the project described above, is suitable for all kinds of complex decisions. It ensures stable framework conditions and creates the conditions for result-oriented and efficient decision-making processes.

Author: Heinz Nusser
© Decision Advisory Group GmbH