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Collaborative Rationality

by Larry Susskind
February 2010

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
In their extraordinary new book, Planning With Complexity (Routledge, 2010), Judith Innes and David Booher make the case for a new way of knowing and deciding. They call this new approach collaborative rationality. Instrumental rationality -- the traditional way of making the case for what needs to be done and why in the public arena -- has given way to collaborative approaches to generating and justifying decisions. Innes and Booher point to negotiation theory as the foundation for this approach and use complexity science to explain why it works. They have nicknamed their theory DIAD because it builds on Diversity, Interdependence and Authentic Dialogue. Anyone who works in the public policy arena needs to know what Innes and Booher have to say about collaborative rationality.


Complexity science says that complex adaptive systems need to involve large numbers of individual agents connected through multiple networks. These agents interact dynamically, exchanging information. Even if some agents only interact with a few others, the effects of these connections ripple through the system. As a result, the system has a memory that is not located at a specific point, but is distributed throughout the system. There are many direct and indirect feedback loops; the overall system is open. The behavior of the system is determined by these interactions, not the components; and the behavior of the system can not be understood by looking only at the components. Complex adaptive systems display both the capacity to maintain their viability and the capacity to evolve.

So, Innes and Booher suggest that to make collaborative processes more effective, they should be self-organizing, with diverse agents, involving many interactions and non-linear dynamics. These are the keys to making them creative and adaptive. The inclusion of all agents (i.e. full participation of all relevant stakeholders) is required for coherent and novel patterns of action to emerge. They also argue that "the condition of diversity implies that a collaboratively rational process must include not only agents who have power because they are "deal makers" or "deal breakers," but also those who have needed information or could be affected by outcomes of the process."


The condition of interdependence holds that agents must depend to a significant degree on other agents. That is, as is true in all successful negotiations, each agent (or stakeholder) has something that the others want. This condition ensures that participants maintain a level of interest and energy required to engage each other and push for agreement. Negotiation theory tells us that interdependence among interests is the key to moving past zero sum games to mutual gains agreement. Such interdependence means that players cannot achieve their interests on their own, and that given their diversity some participants will value certain results more than others. As a group, therefore, they can pull together a "package" that allows every participant to get more of what they value without reducing the value that accrues to others.

Authentic Dialogue

Authentic dialogue requires that agents engage with each other in deliberations that adhere to Habermas' ideal speech conditions. That is, deliberations must be characterized by direct engagement so that the parties can test to be sure that claims are accurate, comprehensible, and sincere. Deliberations cannot be dominated by those with power outside the process, and everyone involved must have equal access to all the relevant information and an equal ability to speak and be listened to. (This is what I have described as Joint Fact Finding in previous blog entries.) In authentic dialogue, all participants can challenge the assumptions or assertions put forward by others. Nothing is off the table, and the reasons people give for what they are arguing matter a lot. Authentic dialogue relies on (1) what participants know from their everyday lives and not just on specialized, scientific expertise, and (2) knowledge constructed jointly through interaction and shared inquiry. Many processes that are dubbed "collaboration" fail to meet these conditions, and, thus, do not involve authentic dialogue.

Complexity science explains why collaborative rationality works

Innes and Booher write: "The complexity and rapid change in contemporary society have created an increasing awareness among policy leaders of the limits to hierarchical control by government agencies and to formal expertise in solving problems. This awareness leads to growing uncertainty about policy and a new focus on the need to manage uncertainty, rather than create programs and regulatory regimes that deny its existence. As society has become more culturally diverse, decision makers have to deal with an array of publics with different values, perspectives, cognitive styles and worldviews. Complexity is also reflected in growing interdependence among government players, as agencies find they cannot be successful, even on their own limited agendas if they continue to work unilaterally."

Collaborative rationality sees the world as inherently uncertain and assumes that all decisions are necessarily contingent. "In this view, planning and policy are not about finding the best solution -- indeed there is no one best solution, though there may be many better ways of proceeding than the status quo. Collaboratively rational processes are about engaging with other members of a community to jointly learn and work out how to get better together in the face of conflict, complex changing conditions and multiple conflicting sources of information. Such processes are not only about finding new ways to move forward, but they are ultimately about guiding community and governance capacity to be resilient in the face of the inevitable new challenges."

A resilient system is one that can withstand shocks and surprises, absorb extreme stresses, and maintain its core functions. Resilience (according to Berkes and colleagues, 2003) refers to the amount of change a system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure; the degree to which a system is capable of self-organization; and the ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation in the system. Thus, sustainability is a dynamic process and not an end product.

Now, every time someone suggests a collaborative (bipartisan?) approach to public policy-making, you can assess their authenticity by applying the elements of the DIAD model. Are they really committed to collaborative rationality, or are they just traditionalists hiding behind the mask of collaboration?


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.


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