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Facilitating the superordinate goal statement (Step 1 of 5)

The first step in the team.earth process with stakeholders is to obtain a single statement of about one sentence (up to about 3 sentences), constructed through the participation and consent of all the stakeholders, in a way that every stakeholder can enthusiastically agree, “Yes, I think this statement describes my understanding of where we want our system to be once our work is complete, and I was an active participant in the writing of this statement.”

One tendency that needs to be managed—kept in check—is that stakeholders will tend to prematurely offer “what we should do.” It would be incorrect to focus on this question during the initial step, and the facilitator has to firmly steer clear of such a diversion of attention during this first step.

Stakeholders will also tend to offer what they think the problem is, and again the facilitator must maintain the discipline to prevent the diversion of the conversation prematurely.

The goal of step one is to obtain a succinct statement of common understanding with universal participation, concerning what we envision the condition of our system will be, what it will look like, when we have successfully completed the work of improving the system.

Step 1: Hypothetical example
of a superordinate goal
obtained to solve a
challenge of “a lack of
innovation,” identified
in discussion with
about three dozen
representatives of
industry, government,
academia, education,
philanthropy, and others.

Modeling large scale, complex human problems

We model complex, multi connected nodes as a network of symptoms, forces, and entities. Recognizing decades of science in network theory, we refrain from taking a direct approach in the usual, obvious problem domain described by this network.

Instead, we recognize that a network description of large scale, complex human systems can be restated in way that is much easier to deal with, rather than seeking solutions directly in the problem domain. We devise a transform on large scale, complex human systems that will make it easier to work with them—one that lends itself to both practical steps and practical outcomes.

Making complex problems complicated instead of complex

A complex problem with interconnected moving pieces—even with moderately few moving pieces—is much more difficult to solve than a complicated but non-complex problem, even if the non-complex approximation of the problem is large.

We aspire to transform a network of finite actors interconnected in a complex way by choosing an orthogonal direction to move them—outside of the problem definition space.

This transforms the problem into a very large number of smaller problems, interconnected by design in a logical fashion.

The Superordinate Goal

No matter how complex and interconnected the network model of a challenge may be, a goal statement can be used to articulate where the stakeholders want the system to be once the challenge is “solved,” even if that statement must be simplified before all stakeholders will agree to it. The aim is that all the problem stakeholders be facilitated to construct a statement they all agree on that articulates “where we want our system to be.” The goal statement need not be completely practical; the constraints of being doable can be sacrificed in order to obtain agreement. To obtain such a goal statement requires facilitation, as groups of stakeholders tend to get held up by what they think is doable. The facilitator will let them know, “We’ll get to questions of practicality in a later step. First let’s discover what common ground exists in the understanding of where we want our system to go, so that you all, the stakeholders, can declare agreement in a short, concise statement on your superordinate goal. I invite all of you to participate in the construction of the superordinate goal statement.”

Stakeholders come to the table already with these steps done from within their own fragment: How do we want this to look when we’ve solved it, what are the problems that are keeping us from getting there, and what are the solutions we are going to employ to solve these problems?

Each stakeholder’s perspective has to be unpacked, and each of the parts needs to be extracted separately so that they can form a part of the larger understanding. During the facilitated conversation with any particular stakeholder, when trying to unpack just one component, all the other components will inevitably spill out at the same time, often without the stakeholder understanding the distinction between them. And trying to do this in a meeting of all stakeholders requires strong facilitation to manage this unpacking. The strong facilitation requires a graphical visualization, so that all stakeholders can follow along and trust their point of view is being taken into account. This is one of the technology tools proposed by Team Earth.

The meeting facilitation in steps is key, as there is a logical progression in this process which must be followed, without skipping steps, to make it successful.

The transformation we are undertaking here is from “massively complex problem components in limited number” to “a massive number of simpler problem components.” These are aligned to where we want the needle to move. “Complicated”—even at large scale—is much more manageable than “complex.”

Digital fluency and breaking through to true service to society

We are living in the age of fragmentation. The digital age has brought us instantaneous and massive interconnectedness and communication, but what we’ve done so far with it is to collect ourselves into many, many fragments, each focusing on its own understanding and own agenda, at the detriment to the larger challenges and the larger availability of resources needed in common to act and work on these larger challenges.

We’ve made steps forward to set up a world where large scale complex human challenges, to paraphrase Einstein, “can be addressed from a level higher than that from which they were created.” But we haven’t made the intellectual and purposeful breakthrough we need in order to use these tools and infrastructure in true service to ourselves as societies and individuals, and to our planet.

The work of team.earth is meant to help humanity make that breakthrough.

The digital fluency of the new generation is a huge asset, and their optimism to make a difference is perhaps unprecedented. Now is the time to multiply this force for good with tools and methods that align actions towards congruent goals that embrace—but transcend—politics and the dynamics of human nature.

Approach for Large Scale Problem Solving in the Age of Fragmentation

What does the age of fragmentation mean?  We have only partially taken advantage of the power of universal communication and ubiquitous data visibility, and in this partially blossomed bud of technology, we have formed groups of effort—fragments—that are not necessarily guided by a whole-system understanding, guided by the big picture.

Each individual, or individual group, represents a fragment that brings to the table its own:

  1. Understanding of how we want things to be—its desired state of the system,
  2. Description of the issues that are keeping the system from achieving the goal state, and
  3. Solutions how to remedy those issues.

What we want to do is unpack each element of the above three in sequence, one element at a time, focusing first only on aligning the fragments along #1—the understanding of how we want things to be—while postponing any discussion or distraction involving #2 and #3.

As a starting point to de-fragmentation, we propose using powerful visualization technology and facilitated dialogue to work towards a singular, concise articulation in about one sentence of #1. We come to a negotiated consensus about how to describe the goal state, #1; all stakeholders express agreement and feel they participated in obtaining that statement for #1 while the discussion of #2 and #3 remains postponed for later steps.

First align the goal statement, #1, and actively postpone the discussion of #2 and #3 while #1 is under discussion.

This goal statement, #1, articulated in short and concise written language, is what we call the superordinate goal.

The nature of the challenge

The characteristics of the challenges we wish to tackle using the team.earth solution framework are as follows.

  • Many stakeholders, sometimes massive multi-stakeholders.
  • Too many moving parts and too much interconnectedness for stakeholders to easily comprehend the whole system at a glance.
  • Stakeholders may be antagonistic to each other because each sees just a portion of the problem’s causes, and may be wedded to only a portion of the solutions.
  • There are many, sometimes massively many elements of the solution that need to occur simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion for the overall solution to be successful. The answer to the question, “Which of these solutions should we implement?” would likely be, “We need to do all of them simultaneously, otherwise a partial solution will be hindered by those that don’t receive resources.”

For change to be beneficial, we should understand from what we are changing and to what we want to change.

Agreeing first on “where we are” and “where we want to be” is the only way to make a map of change that everyone can participate in.

It’s time we used technology to redefine our approaches to challenges in this way.

Problem-solving toolset for large scale, complex human challenges

Here’s a quick tour of team.earth technology and processes.

A massive multi-stakeholder facilitation process we call Future Pull and a technology-assisted Value Engineering analysis process are combined to permit a stakeholder-driven transformation from “high complexity” to “manageable complexity” in a way that problem solvers and philanthropies seldom attempt.

Complexity Science helps us understand the nature of highly interconnected problems, nuances and unexpected consequences, and in what ways these problems respond (and don’t reliably respond) to different types of solution-space inputs.

We use Data Science to understand and validate the application of our practice in both the problem space and the solution space, including in the management and measurement of the effective use of resources.

We propose developing technology for Graphical Model Visualization to translate complex and complicated problem and solution descriptions in a way that make them accessible to stakeholders.

We propose developing technology to permit smart, structured crowd-sourcing as a tool to collect inputs in the problem definition, to align participants for goal congruence, to gather information for resource providers and resource networking, and for providing inputs for measuring results.

Finally, we propose employing knowledge and tools to understand psycho-social dynamics in a nuanced but practical way, taking into account the causes of conflict and polarization and the hierarchical nature of the brain’s adaptation to needs and life conditions.

Reducing the complex to the complicated

The key to solutions to large scale, complex human challenges is to find a sufficient superordinate goal among all stakeholders to allow us to state the multi-element complex problem as an approximately non-complex—though perhaps massive—complicated problem.

“Complex” problems befuddle us, but “complicated” problems are solvable if we have a map that explains in which direction each piece needs to move, and we can apply enough resources to manage enough of the moving pieces in a coordinated fashion.

We propose a new framework that combines disciplines and new technologies to produce this map.

Introduction to team.earth

Some of society’s challenges seem intractable—impossible to solve—even though we all wish we could solve them.

The work of team.earth is focused on a class of problems that do not have silver bullet solutions. These are human challenges where a small effort does not simply “catch on,” scale up, and become a magical fix. These challenges also do not simply yield to normal innovation or “outside the box” thinking, and are generally immune to haphazard application of overwhelming resources.

These are human challenges such as poverty, polarization, inequality, education gaps, religious radicalism, and populist nationalism that by their nature are complex issues and large in scale, where “what we should do” to solve them is unclear, muddled by diverse opinions, and fraught with the risk of unintended consequences.

We propose there is a different way to successfully meet such challenges, and we bring together technology—creating technologies in some cases—and human and organizational processes that have worked successfully in the non-profit, for-profit, and public sectors.
We propose a process and new technological tools to transform the understanding of a complex problem.