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Relationships Matter

In the last post I argued that procedural issues can be as important in a decision as substantive issues, and now I am going to go further and say that relationship issues need to be considered as well. Seriously. More, even.

Let’s go back to the family taking a trip from Seattle to Portland and choosing between driving, taking a train, flying or bicycling. Their criteria are speed, safety, fun, cost-effectiveness and exercise (all substantive issues) plus the procedural issue of timing (by which they mean flexibility about when their trip starts).

But, really? The family includes some very annoying teenagers. For this and other reasons relationship issues are going to matter a great deal. (When do they not in a family vacation?) So when they consider the trip, the idea of being stuck in a tin can together for four hours is not appealing. The jet is a different tin can, but the train has the benefit of allowing them to spend time together if they want, while allowing them to get away from each other when the annoyance factor gets too high. Bicycling also has that quality of melding and separating, and in addition bicycling tires everybody out and for this family, physical tiredness leads to more copacetic relations.

They decide not to go into too much detail and simply lump all these considerations into the criterion of “Flexible Togetherness.”

(To simplify their table, they’ve decided to drop the van for now. They can pull it back in later if they want to.)

Here are their ratings:


Here’s the radar graph…. a little confusing:


And despite Philip’s concerns that you would take the total area too seriously (just don’t), here are some different, to me less confusing versions of the same graph:


Note that the bicycle alternative is looking good.

Here’s the same chart but with the train brought to the forefront:


For this family, relationship is important in thinking about how to get from Seattle to Portland, and the resulting analysis is richer for including them.

What about agencies choosing which bridge design (if any) to use? Or relicensing a hydroelectric dam or deciding on a new rule for disability determinations? Should they include relationship issues?

What about trust?

If an agency wanted to build public trust, and one alternative allowed for verification while another one would be a black box, wouldn’t it make sense to consider impacts to trust when choosing among those two alternatives?

What about respect?

If a person respect’s the agency’s regulation, they are a lot more likely to comply with it. If the agency is choosing between a rule that is valid, but only makes sense to an expert, and a rule that is valid but easier for a layperson to understand, shouldn’t the impacts to public respect be taken into account in choosing among those alternatives?

Ownership may lead to more volunteerism, so the degree of ownership the public has in an alternative is relevant if the agency cares about volunteer hours.

If the agency feels more comfortable framing trust as verifiability, or respect in terms of compliance or public ownership in terms of volunteer hours, if that feels somehow more scientific–fine. Whatever framing is applied, these issues are about the relationship between the agency and the public, and the ways different alternatives impact that relationship.

Relationship criteria aren’t always necessary for a good set of criteria. But… be skeptical if they are missing. Checking for missing relationship criteria is a good habit to get into.

Sometimes relationship should be considered by the agency but isn’t. Sometimes it is considered but not articulated as such. Overall, in our experience, the larger the bureaucracy the more distaste they seem to feel about relationship–as though considering such issues as trust or credibility would mean they were pandering to the public.

When relationship affects the way an alternative does or does not fulfill the goal of a plan, then including relationship isn’t “just” about popularity. It is about effectiveness.

And when relationship issues actually do swing the agency’s decision, but aren’t articulated, then the problem is lack of transparency.

Most complex problems include substantive, procedural and relationship pressures. To get a resilient, resonant and authentic decision, they all have to be surfaced.


Look for more on this topic in the Elements of a Decision series.

What Matters in a Decision–Procedural Issues, Too!

To choose between alternatives, a person has to identify what matters–all the important things that swing a decision. And to make that decision transparent, a bureaucracy has to put those criteria into the record.

In the last post, explaining radar graphs, I gave an example of a decision process: how a family planned to get from Seattle to Portland. Even this simplistic example contained at least a dozen glosses. The first gloss occurred here:

First, they figure out what matters to them: speed, safety and fun

These criteria are pretty flimsy. Looking at this list, you should immediately notice that it is all about substantive issues; procedural and relationship issues are left off–as usual.

Always check for procedural and relationship issues and add them into the mix as appropriate, because substantive issues are not the only ones that drive the decision. They may not even be the most important.

I’ll write about procedural questions today, and relationship in the next post.

Don’t look for a bright line separating these categories. The important thing is that you push yourself to get out of the substantive rut. Generally speaking, though, how fast the train goes is a substantive issue. How fast you can buy the ticket, or whether the train company takes credit cards, or the level of insurance are procedural issues.

The more complex and contentious a decision is, the more important procedural issues become.

In a complex decision made by an agency, typical procedural issues include:

  • timing,
  • venue,
  • setting precedent (or not),
  • who gets to
    • speak,
    • sign the Record of Decision,
    •  implement,
    • monitor/judge/spank/reward,
  • the approach to risk,
  • what information is shared when and how and, of course,
  • the decision model.

Our culture tends to treat substantive issues as somehow more legitimate than procedural issues. An agency might have a hard time saying “we chose alternative C in part because it is less likely to be litigated and therefore a lot more likely to be implemented in time to make the differences we seek.”

So instead, they go into great detail about ferret dens.

Often, reams of information about substantive considerations are published by an agency engaging in a decision, but very little about procedure. If procedure actually drives the agency’s decision–which is not uncommon, especially where the alternatives themselves are weak–the result is that the documentation–the rationale–is off-point. Blue-ribbon irrelevant. Frustrating. Laughable.

If you are commenting on such a document, and the argument feels heavy but also besides the point, look for the missing procedural elements. Chances are, that is what is bothering you. Surface that lack. If you focus instead on the ferrets you, too, might have been lured into an argument that may not really be a driver in the decision.

But back to our family! In our example, they now agree that flexibility about timing matters. They add that procedural issue as a criterion. They do their research: the weekend bookings on the train are full, and the jet is only available on even days. They rate the alternatives accordingly. The table and graph look like this:



Notice that if all these criteria matter equally, the wacky bicycle option is looking better and better.

The key point: when you are developing a set of criteria, expect the list to start out with an overemphasis on substantive issues, then fix it. Add in the important procedural issues. Likewise, when you are speaking in a public meeting or commenting on documentation about a decision, insist that the procedural issues be made explicit.

Next up: relationship issues in a decision….


Look for more on this topic in the Elements of a Decision series.

Radar Graphs Explained

One radar graph tells a thousand NEPA appendix pages.

Nowadays, the information in radar graphs seems so immediate and interesting. But I can remember how hard it was for me to wrap my head around them at first.

Let’s test my understanding of radar graphs by seeing how well I can explain them.

Here is a simple example which Philip and I will use in many posts to come: a family is deciding how to get from Seattle to Portland. First, they figure out what matters to them: speed, safety and fun. The alternatives they throw into the mix are driving in the van, driving in the sedan and taking the train. Now they want to rate each alternative, so:


This boring table makes a boring radar graph:


The train is slightly better for fun and safety, but not so much for speed. The van is either tied or worse for all the criteria.

The most important thing you see from this graph, as Philip discussed in the last post, is that there isn’t a lot of variety. If the alternatives on a forest plan or transportation corridor look like this, you should be troubled.

But here is another pattern that should really raise red flags! Below, the family added in flying by private jet. I haven’t given you the table, just the graph. (If you can figure out the fly column that would be on the table by looking at the graph, then you are tracking radar graphs. Take a minute to see that you can.)


What’re the problems? Two things. First, all the alternatives are all too good for too many of the criteria. The family is scoring from 0 to 5, yet everything is hovering towards the top end of the range. You want to start out with alternatives that have strengths, but if all your alternatives are sorta good at everything, they are probably too safe.

The second problem is that when you throw in a slightly exotic alternative and still everything hugs the highs, there is probably something missing. In this case, it is because the family is acting as though there are no financial constraints. In fact, this is not the Gates family. They have a budget. So when they look at this graph they should have a hinky feeling about it.

What is missing in thinking about private jets? Cost! We’ll flip this criterion around and call it cost-effectiveness so that all the criteria are framed as good things (otherwise major headaches ensue). Notice that their criteria are now more robust.


Ah. Now, finally, a little stress is showing up. If they want the extra fun and speed of the jet, they have to pay for it.

We’ll add one more alternative–bicycling–and one more criterion–exercise–and then you will finally see some alternatives that express a little tension:


And here’s the table just so you know you are tracking:


See how great radar graphs are? Without reading any of the labels, you know a lot about the robustness of a process just by looking at the shape of the graph. A boring graph like the first one isn’t always the wrong thing for a particular problem. But I would be very suspicious if the alternatives in a complex decision process looked like the first graph. Ugh.

Using a radar graph to explore the robustness of alternatives is a wonderful part of your tool kit, O facilitators and mediators, planners and decision-makers, and most of all, members of the public. Just to be totally opinionated, there should be a radar graph in every draft and final environmental impact statement–it should be on the title page, the fingerprint of the entire project! The public should demand it.

Because one radar graph tells 1,000 appendix pages.

More on radar graphs in the next few posts….


The big thing missing from this discussion is how much each criterion matters. I am not going to discuss weighting criteria for a long time. But I will keep this reminder as a footnote in upcoming blogs as we plumb the beauty of radar graphs.

Look for more on this topic in the Elements of a Decision series.

Decisions Galore!

The word “decision” keeps cropping up in these posts, much to the joy of this decision analyst.   But there are very different types of decisions being discussed, and it is important for our conversation to understand what types there are, and who is likely to be thinking of those types.  In the end all the decision types are necessary for good planning, and as I will discuss below, they are all interconnected.

Carie-the-Mediator often reminds me that there is not just one big decision in a planning process.  At every step in the process there are decisions — what type of process to follow, whom to bring to the table, what is on the table, what the scope is, how decisions will be made (nice meta decision that!), what are the constraints on alternatives, and so on.

In Philip-the-decision analyst’s post A framework for planning, I focused on the decision phase of the Steinitz workflow.   I was particularly excited by that workflow’s emphasis on the centrality of the decision (the who, the how, the when) that will be made about which alternative design will be chosen.   Understanding that decision method has implications for the analysis that must be done and the data that must be gathered.   It may and should drive the decisions on process  that Carie was emphasizing.

In his response  to Gathering the Threads,  (see the comment at the bottom), Boykin-the-Designer makes the passionate point that Design is all about decision making.   Agreed!  Any creative process is an integrated series of decisions about what tools to use, where to put the elements, how must those elements fit together, how will the whole design meet individual requirements?  Different design methods may formally break the design process into sequential problem solving decisions, or the designer may enter a state of flow in which the over arching design emerges as a coherent whole.    And all hybrid methods in between are possible.  The decisions I usually talk about are not those Design decisions, but the decision the stakeholders make in choosing a designed alternative.

Watching Carie develop a design for a complex, tense stakeholder meeting,  I am always amazed at the emergent result which is almost always (there are some standard mediator tricks)  innovative and fit for purpose — and not always susceptible to step by step decision analysis.   The boundary between Problem solving and  Design varies widely with the principals and the context.

In any landscape planning process all the decisions above are in play — for process design, alternatives design and the selection of the most fitting designed alternative that is selected for implementation.  And they can be tightly or loosely coupled.

Carl Steinitz would argue that the decision model should influence not only the analysis needed and data required, but the alternative design methods themselves (see the section on Decision models in Chapter 2 of his book A Framework for Geodesign).   I suspect Boykin would not be happy to have his choice of design methodology overly restricted by the ultimate decision model.  Still, the other extreme is more the norm today.  In most formalized planning processes today (and especially in NEPA processes) design methods and the decision model that will be used to choose amongst designed alternatives are usually unaware of each other,  often to the vexation of the decision makers and to the detriment of the entire planning process.

At the very least though, the decision model you use for deciding amongst the designed alternatives  should help the stakeholders realize when a truly innovative design is on the table.


In the image above, each proposed project that a small company would bet its future on is represented by a polygon,  whose vertices are defined by its scores against each weighted decision criterion.  In the image it is clear that while most of the proposed projects follow a similar pattern, the one represented by the red polygon is fundamentally different.  It was unique in its conception, its potential rewards and its potential risks.    The others represented variations on the type of projects the company was used to undertaking, while the red alternative was a major departure.  A well designed decision framework that supports decision makers in choosing amongst designed alternatives should make it easy for the decision makers to see when they are dealing with an innovative new design and not just more of the same.

Ok, enough on decisions for now, but look out for them, they’ll keep cropping up.


Look for more on this topic in the Elements of a Decision series.

Frank Chimero on Design

From FrankChimero.com

From FrankChimero.com

Kate Digilio turned me on to Frank Chimero‘s slim and beautiful book, The Shape of Design. Here’s the first paragraph of his introduction, which I thought Philip–and you–would like:

What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies it by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.

As I took the time to copy this paragraph out, I realized how interesting the idea of audience is as a contrast/overlay to the idea of public participation.

PS Chimero’s blog is wonderful.

Mediation is a Forgiving Process

Recently, I went down to Corvallis to participate in a panel about mediation. It was fun. I especially liked being in a small group with another experienced practitioner and three or four new mediatiors struggling with the early learning. We two old hands got to dispensing advice, riffing off each other, and feeling surprised (in my case at least) at how much I knew and how mellow and wise I sounded.


But I forgot to talk about the most important thing: how forgiving mediation is. There seems so much to learn all at once: the overall trajectory, the body language, the neutrality, the specific words, the … the  everything. How to use silence. The importance of pace. Holding a safe place.

All of these things matter, but the secret about mediation is that if you mean well, and you want to learn, and you listen whole-heartedly and you make the process about them, then you can’t really go wrong.

Mediating is different from, say, sewing parachutes because it is an immensely forgiving process.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that messing up and freely admitting it is one of the most magical things you can do in a mediation. Luckily, you don’t have to go out of your way in a mediation to create these opportunities. You will always mess up and so long as the above conditions are met, it will always be ok.

Good, even.

Why good? When you mess up, notice it and freely admit it, you are modeling several things:

  • You have the courage to form a hypothesis and act on it even though the conflict is a dynamic system that you will never perfectly understand or control. The parties need to know that you are willing to strike out into their unknown territory, that you are willing to take a risk.
  • Once you have formed a hypothesis about the conflict and started to act on it, the parties need to see that you are able to continue to learn from them and to adjust accordingly–demonstrating that you and the mediation are a learning system (and maybe they can be, too).
  • When you are willing to make errors and make adjustments, you demonstrate that the mediation is not about confirming your ego. So you were ‘wrong?’ What great information! Let’s adjust and make it better!
  • You show the ease of shifting status–when you act on your hypothesis, you are doing your job in managing the process–high status–and when you take in the information that that’s not working, you gracefully and temporarily go into low status, which paradoxically makes you stronger in the long run. Sooner or later, the parties are going to have to do the same swoop–let them see how easy it is.
  • If appropriate, you won’t just demonstrate all this by making course-corrections as you go (though that in itself works very well), you’ll actually turn to at least one of them, look him in the eye, and apologize. Yay! Fantastic! “I apologize, I didn’t appreciate how important it was to talk about the 2 x 4 first, but now I do. If it’s ok with Mary (share the eye contact a little) let’s go back and look at that.” Or “I am so sorry to have offended you; that wasn’t my intention. Please help me understand …”  (Oh that wonderful word, ‘help’!)
  • When you trust that it is ok to be wrong, that you can learn from the parties in the moment and, with their wisdom and yours, make the necessary corrections, then you illustrate what we want the parties to know and believe “trust the process.”

Does this seem like another recipe you can’t possibly remember in the moment? It’s not. It’s not a recipe. If you imagine yourself in a situation where you might fumble or blunder, how do you feel? If you feel defensive, that is a problem you need to resolve outside of the mediation room. It is a whole different post, probably a different blog. But if you can put yourself in a place where you contemplate a screw-up and can imagine yourself feeling light of heart, chagrined but focused on the parties instead of yourself, then you are perfect. You are READY TO BE WRONG. What a gift.

Go forth and do it.

Disambiguating ‘Planning’ and ‘Design’–sort of

This book has several good definitions. "A hand is to hold." "A face is something to have on the front of your head." A design is to delight/provoke/transform? A plan is to make stable?

This book has several good definitions. “A hand is to hold.” “A face is something to have on the front of your head.” A design is to delight/provoke/transform? A plan is to make stable?

To pursue our other questions, Philip and I need to be able to distinguish between ‘planning’ and ‘design.’ We want to use the words, at least among ourselves and with you, in consistent ways as tools to clear communication and epiphanous thinking. But we don’t need to make the distinction for all time, all contexts or all philosophers. This is a practical question for us.

We agree that planning and design are both forms of problem-solving and believe they are different in real, useful and pestiferously ambiguous ways.

Part of the elusiveness arises from the fact that planners design and designers plan. Another slipperiness is that plannerly tasks (such as organizing a series of events in a logical sequence) can be done with designerly tools, while  designerly tasks (such as making a drawing of a future bridge) can be approached with plannerly tools (perhaps by abstracting rules about bridge design and getting a computer to draw a possible bridge based on those rules).

At whatever scale, the planning/design conundrum has a yin/yang feeling. It is hard to isolate yin from yang; at every scale a little yin contrasts with and even catalyzes the yang, and at every scale a little yang gets in the yin–but without blending. It is the same with planning and design: they don’t blend in together, but they are hard to isolate.  Their constant propinquity emphasizes their difference at the same time that it makes the differences more elusive.

Thus anything we say to define the distinction between planning and design is going to be rife with exceptions or, even more annoyingly, may appear to be a matter of degree. In an early attempt, I proposed that design is creative and planning is plodding, and Philip countered that planning requires creativity at the large scale (say, developing alternatives) and at the small scale (getting that one expert to stay on topic in a meeting may take a lot of creativity). Besides, what does creativity mean?


But why get so hung up verbs when nouns seem much less ambiguous? If I ask you to imagine a bridge plan or a bridge design, I bet you would come up with very different things. If I gave you some bridge plans and some bridge designs, and asked you to put them in separate P and D piles, I bet your sorting would be pretty consistent with mine, or Philip’s.

So are we making this more complicated than it needs to be?

The question is–what do I need? I need something that will let me think about the nature of public participation when the group task is to design and contrast that with the nature of public participation when the group task is to plan. Can we ask the public to participate in planning and if so how and when and why and all that? Can we ask the public to participate in design and if so…? Will the answers be different? If they are, then I am not wasting my time or yours.

So. For now, to get out of the morass, I would like to propose this means of separating the verbs for our purposes:

Planning= the preparation for, decision-making in, and articulation of a plan to solve a problem; this can include generation of alternatives based on the application of existing rules to a particular context

Design= the generation of (alternative) solutions to a problem that make a leap into the unknown, for instance the unknowable of aesthetics and spirituality or the unknown of administrative and scientific limitations.

Immediately I want to check the usefulness of this definition by testing examples. I ask myself about accountability. I know that bureaucracy does more planning than design, and that bureaucratic activities must support accountability. My definitions help me explain these two observations because leaps are hard things to hold people accountable for, therefore it makes sense bureaucracy would lean away from design. Applying existing rules is consonant with accountability, so it makes sense bureaucracy would lean towards planning. So far so good, for my purposes at least.

Philip has a hunch that design has the ability to solve a problem while pushing our bounds. (Koestler would say that the ensuing design, once the bounds are pushed and if it is successful, then moves out of the design realm and into planning, increasing our pool of planning-ish knowledge.) Design can be provoking, inspiring, challenging or uplifting in a way that is less true of planning. I think that is supported by the definitions. Formula solutions based on existing rules can be very useful, but they are not going to provoke a gasp or set off lightning.

Let’s see in subsequent posts whether this continues to be a useful distinction, or whether Philip can come up with anything better!



This post is part of the planning & design series. If it bores you to tears, don’t worry. It is just some scut work we have to do before we get on to more interesting stuff.

Max Weber on Bureaucracy

Philip and I are writing a book about collaboration and bureaucracy. We are also trying not to use this blog to explore the book directly, but rather to get at subtexts and related questions: questions like what planning is or–the next big series–a discussion about Rationality.

Analyzing Weberian bureaucracy and understanding the interplay among its characteristics is central to our thoughts. In the book, we develop a useful and interesting model for bureaucratic collaboration, one that supports process design and collaboration ethics. At the same time, we are very interested in the way current knowledge, biases and technology may or may not be changing bureaucracy.

If change is afoot, how then will genuine collaboration fare, both in the process of change and in the outcome?

On the other hand–talk about negative space!–we realize that the blog is starting to take on a form of its own, but because we aren’t writing the book here, it is a doughnut form. We leave holes in the middle where our most well-developed, bookish thoughts naturally belong.

This post, then, is to make amends.We’re still not going to put chunks of the book-to-be here, but we want to present enough that it provides you with something more than negative space.

Several authors have extrapolated key bureaucratic characteristics from Weber’s brief but immensely influential essay in Economy and Society. Philip and I have emphasized four:

  • Hierachy
  • Impartiality
  • Expertise and
  • Record-Keeping

Impartiality is the impartiality of distance–blind justice. Expertise is the Enlightenment notion of intellectual ‘divide and conquer.’ Record keeping is the way we distinguish between legitimate knowledge and illegitimate knowledge. All are founded in the Ideology of Rationality, of disconnection. They all fit with an industrial aesthetic.

We want to understand how these 4-or-so characteristics intersect with bureaucratic efforts to collaborate, and generally conclude that bureaucracy is only capable of collaboration in brief, rare instances. (We don’t think of routine, legally mandated participation as particularly collaborative.) Our job as mediation/public participation process designers is to identify those instances, leverage them and maximize the ongoing potential for collaboration while being ready to recognize when the opportunity has closed.

Nested in there is the assumption that collaboration is a good thing, worth maximizing.

Except it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Collaboration is inherently disruptive to bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is intricately linked with a great many institutions we value and rely on. So really what we are saying is “in the rare instances that collaboration is (a) likely to be genuine in the short run and (b) not likely to be deeply disruptive in the long run, then it is a good thing.”

The second half of this statement is partly based on our crude pragmatism. We think the self-correcting pressures in bureaucracy are too strong to allow long-term disruptions. When mediators and facilitators purport to do this, they raise unrealistic expectations.

But what if collaboration could be that disruptive? Would that be a good thing?

Ah, that is a big question. What we can say at this point is that deep disruption is scary and dangerous and in the “be careful what you ask for” category. Disrupting bureaucracy is a big ask. It has a host of unintended consequences.

This also swings us back to the tension between planning and design. There is something about the elan of the unexpected in design, and there is something about quashing the unexpected in planning. Disruption, leaps, inspiration, qirks, coyote/Brer Rabbit/the Fool? These are unwelcome in an industrial model. And yet…  and yet despite all the incentives to bureaucratize, Weber’s Iron Cage has not slammed all the way shut.

Why not?