Beyond Ice-Breakers: What Do We Mean By “Participatory Processes”?


For years I have described myself as a specialist in participatory processes, naively assuming that people will understand what the work entails and why it is important.

Now that “participatory” has become a global buzz word, however, I feel the need to be more specific about what this multi-faceted concept means to me and the groups I serve.

Participatory processes are:

  • The opposite of passive observation or merely being asked to listen while others speak.
  • Enjoyable, but not frivolous.
  • Intrinsic to the overall design of a meeting, event or project.

Participatory processes:

  • Contribute directly to the outcome of the meeting, event or project.
  • Foster a sense of inclusion, of being part of a larger whole.

Participatory processes are essential when:

  • The complexity of the situation means that there is no single, correct solution.
  • There are different points of view about the issue under consideration.
  • Conflicts have already surfaced among the interested and/or affected parties.
  • Collaboration is needed to design solutions that get implemented.

To be successful, participatory processes need:

  • To take into consideration cultural differences and learning styles.
  • To provide a variety of ways that people can participate.
  • To be clear about the level impact of that the participants’ voice will have on the final decision.
  • A firm commitment from the decision-makers to honor their promises to the participants.
  • Careful planning and skilled facilitation.

Participatory processes can be used to:

  • Collect and analyze information.
  • Establish criteria for making a decision.
  • Generate and evaluate options.
  • Implement decisions.
  • Monitor and evaluate the results of the actions taken.

I agree with the leadership expert and author, Ken Blanchard, when he says that “None of us is as smart as all of us.” For me, carefully designed participatory processes are a way to stimulate and harvest our collective intelligence. I would love to hear your thoughts!

Need help making your meetings more participatory? Let’s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

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