WEBINAR REWIND: “Understanding the Squishy Stuff” + “Are We Smarter Together?”


Two presentations that challenged some of the key principles of P2 were featured in our last “encore” from the 2016 IAP2 North American Conference in Montréal. Dr Mark Szabo looked at the way the “squishy stuff” – emotional responses that are hard to quantify but no less important to consider – can be addressed. Jacques Bénard discussed the collective mindset, questioning whether decisions reached collaboratively are really the best ones. 

Mark’s presentation aims at finding a better way to make sense of complex conflicts and help practitioners face these conflicts with confidence. The “squishy stuff” takes a project beyond simply following regulatory requirements and legal procedures. That understanding can help address things like “scale deficit” (where a narrow view misses a broader implication), a sense that people feel left out (even if they have been given a chance to be included), abuse of the system (such as protesters disrupting P2 sessions) and the wide range of public policies inherent in a democracy.

Not understanding the emotional aspect leads to what Mark suggests is an incorrect approach, in which values take a back seat to interests, and people’s emotions are discounted. Over-controlling something that is uncontrollable leads to what Mark calls the “Coherence trap”.

Flock of starlings via Tumblr

Mark likens these emotion-related conflicts to the movements of a flock of starlings: there’s little real leadership and each bird’s actions feed off those of the ones close to it. You can’t predict where it’s going, and it’s impossible to control it.

Because these conflicts are dynamic, you can focus on specific patterns of interaction within the conflict and design new patterns of interaction. You can do that with five key questions:

  1. Who is actually in conflict?
  2. Who are merely influencers?
  3. What are the possible influencer coalitions?
  4. What are the common elements?
  5. Who needs to be persuaded right now?

As an example, Mark looks at the controversy over the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The broad issue breaks down into two parts: concerns over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to the production and shipping of oil, and concerns over tanker traffic going through the Douglas Channel on the British Columbia coast.

The groups involved in the GHG concerns – the pipeline builder, the oil companies, environmental groups and the Government of Alberta – got together to discuss how to deal with that issue. Those concerned about impact on the Douglas Channel – the oil companies, the pipeline builder, the Aboriginal communities (there are nearly two dozen of them along the pipeline route from northern Alberta to the Coast) and the government of BC – got together.

Determining these “coalitions” is not easy, but Mark contends it leads to a much better outcome. It requires

  • Going against our natural urge to “make sense” of things
  • a comfort level with uncertainty
  • collaboration
  • humility
  • persuasion

And when you come up with a design for interaction, be prepared for the fact that not everyone will like it.


Jacques Bénard’s question asks whether we make better decisions individually or as a group. Social scientists have been looking intensely at the way groups operate since the mid-19th Century, during times of political and social unrest in Europe. The French scientist, Gustave Le Bon, observed that people in crowds lose their sense of self and personal responsibility and tend to follow the prevailing view, with collective intelligence falling to the lowest common denominator.

Francis Galton & “friend”

From there, you could easily question whether crowd-formed decisions are the best ones, but then came the English mathematician, Francis Galton. In 1906, he took an ox to a country fair and offered a prize for anyone who could correctly guess the weight of the ox. The average of all the guesses was spot-on. This led Galton to conclude that, when unbiased by passion and motivated to do their best, a group could be trusted to make better decisions than their individual members.

The American psychologist, KZ Lewin, who coined the term “group dynamics”, noted that individuals behave differently in a group than they do on their own.

Other researchers find that the tendency to conform is so strong that people can be induced to go against not just their own values, but their own senses; the combination of psychological pressures, similar values and a crisis situation can kill any advantage that collective decision-making might offer.

Other factors that can diminish the benefits of collective decision-making include:

  • Polarization
  • the Spiral of Silence – people holding minority viewpoints are muzzled and even agree to things that go against their beliefs and values
  • the false consensus that results from the spiral of silence
  • social loafing – members of a group don’t contribute and leave others to carry the load

Since the notion that “good P2 means better decisions” is a cornerstone of the P2 profession, what does this mean for a practitioner? Jacques points out that the P2 practitioner’s job involves minimizing the negative influences around a group setting. He says we need to take a hard look at how to inform the public of the inherent biases in a process, and what responsibility do practitioners bear when group dynamics lead to an irrational decision.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.