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Keys to Successful Collaborative Problem-Solving

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Where environmental problems require collaboration, Agency experience and academic research suggest that there are seven keys to successful collaborative problem-solving: a shared problem; a convener of stature; a committed leader; representatives of substance; a clearly-defined purpose; a formal charter; and a common information base. Collaborative efforts to solve environmental problems are more likely to succeed when these seven factors are present.

  1. A shared environmental problem.
    Stakeholders are motivated to collaborate when all parties would benefit by solving a problem, but no single party has the capacity or incentive to do so. Collaborative responses to shared problems allow stakeholders to coordinate their activities, leverage resources, and to enhance accountability. Without a shared problem, stakeholders have little reason to collaborate. In some cases, the intensity of a problem will have risen to the level where common pain brings the parties to a table. In other instances, a common sense of the opportunity for better outcomes through a collective process will be sufficient.
  2. Convener of Stature.
    A convener of stature can catalyze collaboration by legitimizing the process, encouraging stakeholder participation, and shouldering initial organizational costs to bring parties together to address a shared problem. A convener of stature can help to sustain collaborative processes by reaffirming the process and the importance of all parties working together to solve a common problem.
  3. Committed Leader.
    While a convener of stature is necessary to bring a group together, a committed leader is necessary to craft an agreement among collaborating parties. When participants become disappointed or disillusioned, the committed leader – staff or manager – can sustain a group.
  4. Representatives of substance.
    Successful collaborative problem-solving requires direct involvement of representatives of substance – individuals with sufficient authority to decide on behalf of, or sufficiently influence, their represented interest and who collectively, by virtue of prominence, role, or market share, can implement timely solutions to a given problem. These representatives must represent a critical mass of affected stakeholders; by bringing these stakeholders together, a collaborative process can foster development and implementation of an effective policy. Excluding key stakeholders from collaborative processes, by contrast, frequently leads non-participants to reject resulting decisions, undermine timely and complete implementation, and inhibit subsequent efforts to develop collaborative solutions to environmental problems.
  5. Clearly-Defined Purpose.
    “Bounded” problems are more easily overcome than large “fuzzy” issues. Therefore, collaborative efforts are more likely to succeed when groups develop a clearly–defined purpose for themselves. This purpose should respond naturally to the collective problem that the group shares. An overly ambitious or misaligned purpose can frustrate groups, undermining both the collaboration process and the development of viable policy solutions.
  6. Formal Charter.
    Because collaboration is a complex and high-stakes process that often involves many individuals and issues, clearly and collectively articulated roles and responsibilities are critical to timely success. A formal written charter fosters successful collaborative problem-solving by reducing the uncertainties and ambiguities among collaborating parties that can cause conflict and, thus, enhancing participants’ confidence in each other and the collaborative process as a whole. A formal charter can also help to ensure that decision-making processes are transparent and participatory, enhancing the legitimacy, accountability, and “ownership” of collaborative processes by allowing stakeholders to understand how decisions are made and to have a voice in decision-making. Collective definition of purpose, roles, and procedures also enhances group ownership of both process and outcomes, enhancing the likelihood of successful collaboration.
  7. Common information base.
    A common information base enables collaborators to develop a shared understanding of the problem and possible solutions, facilitating development of viable, legitimate policy solutions through information exchange and dialogue. Information asymmetries (where different actors hold different information) can exacerbate power inequalities and foster conflict among collaborators.

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