Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today
<xTITLE>Adaptive Management</xTITLE>

Adaptive Management

by Larry Susskind
February 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
Most environmental advocates and planning professionals know that every effort to manage natural resources or deal with threats to public health and environmental sustainability ought to proceed on a step-by-step basis.  The systems involved are so complex that most efforts to "solve problems" are likely to have unanticipated results. Policy-makers act like they "understand the problem fully" and "know the best solution" when they pass legislation or adopt new regulations. Those of us most knowledgeable about the human-ecological systems involved, however,  realize that the complexity of these systems makes it impossible to anticipate what's going to happen with much certainly. There are just too many factors and too many interactions we don't understand.  So, an adaptive management approach is what is called for.  That is: take one modest step at a time; make a best approximation of what's causing the problem, choose an initial response that seems like it might help, monitor everything to determine what the impacts of the initial move are, and then make adjustments and try again. Plan on doing this repeatedly until everyone involved learns enough about the system involved to approximate the desired solution.

Of course, for an adaptive management approach to work, all the relevant parties (especially those with the most at stake) need to be involved -- helping to diagnose the scope of the problem, assisting in the selection of the initial actions to take, specifying what can and should be learned from the monitoring efforts, reviewing the real-time output of whatever monitoring is done, interpreting the findings together with the others involved, and sharing responsibility for making successive rounds of adjustments.  Adaptive management requires ongoing consensus building.  Unless all the relevant parties agree on what to do at each step and what's happening along the way, policy-makers and experts will just zig-zag from one strongly held view to another depending on who has the most money and energy to invest in lobbying.  It would make so much more sense if all the parties committed ahead of time to a process of shared learning through jointly managed experimentation.  Such efforts are best facilitated by professional neutrals.  They have to be designed collaboratively from the outset.

Consider the case of the recently released report of the special court created to review the claims that childhood vaccines cause autism.  The three "special masters" determined that there was insufficient scientific evidence to substantiate the claims in the law suits that motivated this review.  In the end, though,  the people who were upset in the first place were not convinced by the special court's conclusions.  Instead, why not invite representatives of all the groups involved to work together to formulate whatever analyses of existing data (or the design of a new study) everyone agrees would be dispositive? Why not involve all the relevant stakeholders in selecting a panel of experts to guide such studies or such a review?  Why not subject the preliminary findings produced by the jointly selected experts to review before the panel makes its findings public?  We might even have approached the current effort to formulate a Stimulus Package in this way.  The economy is too complex to know what will and won't work.  So, why not talk about first steps (rather than what will "solve the problem," what will be measured and how, what benchmarks all "sides" agree to use to gauge progress, and what the membership of a bipartisan panel should be to monitor preliminary results and suggest the next round of adjustments? In the Consensus Building Handbook (Sage, 1999) my colleagues and I outline what we consider to be best practices when it comes to joint fact finding and a consensus building approach to adaptive management. 


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 Planning in 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.

Email Author
Author Website

Additional articles by Larry Susskind