Sometimes the biggest impediment to resolving conflict or improving relationships between companies, governments, and communities is that there are not enough good ideas on the table about what to do. Often, by the time a diverse group of stakeholders comes together to negotiate, their goal is to make decisions, not to brainstorm options. It is assumed, perhaps, that the more appropriate venue for brainstorming is back at home or in the office with your own crowd. But why not formalize a venue for joint brainstorming between the people who know what’s possible and most helpful?

An important part of creating value in a Mutual Gains Approach to negotiation is “inventing without committing.” This strategy suggests that it is worth the time and effort for parties to work together to imagine everything in the realm of possibility before they start to craft solutions. The best options are those that benefit all parties, but if the stakeholders don’t work together to develop those options, someone is likely to be underrepresented in the options, or left out entirely.

One way to generate a set of mutually beneficial possibilities is to bring together influential leaders of different stakeholder groups in an informal, private, facilitated setting to work together on this important intermediate step which takes place between recognizing conflict, and actively trying to resolve it. This forum is called a “Devising Seminar” – a term with historical roots in a variety of activities facilitated over the years by affiliates of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School to help parties imagine (or devise) a set of alternatives or options that could help address complex situations with multi-sectoral interests.

A Devising Seminar may take many forms, but the key elements are:

  1. shared purpose aimed at developing options, not making decisions;
  2. the dialogue space is facilitated by a professional neutral;
  3. the people at the table have influence and authority in their respective groups;
  4. the conversation is private (i.e. no media or observers allowed); and,
  5. the process is supported by appropriate preparation and follow-up activities to frame the dialogue appropriately in advance, and capture the ideas for reflection and distribution afterward.

In January, CBI partnered with a research team from MIT and Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh) to host a Devising Seminar in Santiago, Chile with high-level representatives of various interests in hydropower development, including government, indigenous and other affected communities, and business interests.