Structured Design Process

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Described by Dan Shaw in a book review of:

  • How People Harness their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy. By Alexander N. Christakis and Kenneth C. Bauscha

"Many Americans may feel pessimistic about the possibility for effective democracy, How People presents an essential formula for citizen empowerment based in the logic of democratic decision-making. One may well ask, "In a complex situation, how is it possible for a diverse group to come to a democratic decision?" Even when it comes to making a decision as individuals, we rarely apply consistent rules of logic. Christakis ("Aleco") and Bausch lay out the logical formula for arriving at a decision, perhaps for the first time. More than 30 years ago, Aleco, a physicist, began his quest to apply the laws of logic to democratic decision-making. His system, the Structured Design Process (SDP), makes possible effective participatory democracy. Without a logical process, and a ‘transparent´ process, without tools to manage complexity, Democracy is not possible. I hope this article will convince you, as I am convinced, that SDP is the best model for Democratic dialogue, that nothing less will do.

Not surprisingly, the process has numerous stages, and processes, and requires from the participants an ongoing commitment. Christakis and Bausch identify four stages of decision-making: Definition, Design, Decision, and Action Planning. Everyone holding a stake in the outcome is invited to participate. SDP requires a strict distinction between the roles of the facilitators, who guide the process, and the participants, who control the content of the discussions. Defining a "Triggering Question" is perhaps the most important factor to the successful outcome of the group acting together on shared concerns. Often a small group will conduct interviews and write a "White Paper" to provide a starting point in discussions. For example, a triggering question may be, "What are critical current and anticipated issues (or challenges) to be addressed in order to achieve our strategic vision?" A group is then engaged in a sustained dialogue to articulate as many relevant observations as possible. This complexly inter-related mass of observations is called a problematique. The goal then becomes to clarify meanings, and to cluster these observations into groups of items with significant similarities. The relationships between these ideas, the direction of influence, is then mapped using Root Cause Mapping software. If a group focuses on importance, rather than influence, then they will choose the wrong priorities.

In the Design Stage, action options are identified, grouped into categories, then their complex inter-relationships can be graphically mapped. Because the software generates a graphic of the relationship between ideas, action options with the highest leverage become obvious. In the Decision Stage, participants design alternative action profiles, then vote on which action profiles would be most effective.

SDP is designed to use software tools to simplify decision-making within highly complex situations, and to overcome what the authors call "The Burdens of Dialogue". Participants can focus on a limited and manageable number of relationships while the software keeps track. As the process advances, the method of that progression is completely tracked and made public.

Without the SDP, there is really little hope for citizen empowerment and the logical advance of Democracy. Christakis and Bausch have succeeded in identifying the essential components of Democratic decision-making. Even the groups most engaged in our Democracy are rarely themselves operating democratically. Each of us must learn the basic formula for democratic decision making, and apply that process in the development of our organizations. Incredibly, the techniques and tools of democracy are just now being honed, but, it seems that to keep up with the times, the tools of Democracy must be continually sharpened, and applied to the task, otherwise they will surely turn to dust. Christakis and Bausch´s SDP is the toolbox, and if we want Democracy, thankfully, we can now apply the best tools." (

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