Changing school hours, tearing down an aging playground, reductions in bus service and other common issues can quickly become contentious topics that tear at the fabric of communities and cost school administrators needless hours, dollars, and heartache.

Fortunately, collaborative problem solving is a tool for turning contentious issues into positive opportunities. Collaborative problem solving processes bring stakeholders together (usually with the assistance of a trained facilitator) to define a problem, identify the core interests and concerns of all involved, and generate solutions that integrate these interests and concerns.

Why use collaborative problem solving?

Not only do collaborative approaches bridge differences by enabling participants to better understand each other’s interests and find mutually acceptable solutions based on common interests, but they often result in higher quality solutions than would otherwise be possible. As people learn about each other’s views and needs, they learn more about the problem. In developing options together, they consider a wider variety of possibilities. In arriving at a plan or policy that reflects the concerns and ideas of all participants, they develop the best possible solutions. Another benefit of collaborative problem solving is that it accelerates the pace of a decision or project because stakeholders are less likely to block implementation if they understand that a plan or policy reflects their input and has been crafted to meet their basic interests. Stakeholders involved in this process often have a high commitment to the success of the plan or policy. Finally, collaborative processes can save districts resources by mobilizing the resources of all of the participants be those resources time, space, ideas, fundraising capabilities, or donations.

How does it work?

  • Identify an issue that needs to be resolved.
  • Identify a neutral facilitator to guide the process or the district may decide to convene the process with the help of a small, representative group of stakeholders.
  • Assess the feasibility of collaboration and who needs to be involved and how to engage them.
  • Convene all needed participants.
  • Participants jointly agree to objectives and ground rules for working together.
  • Conveners and participants work together to frame the issues to be resolved.
  • Conveners and participants develop agreements that integrate interests and resources.
  • Conveners and participants implement their agreements together.

For example:

In 2011, a metro area integration district was facing the potential closure of two schools that leaders once hoped would address segregation and the achievement gap. Following a public outcry, the district embarked on a collaborative problem solving process designed to gather stakeholder input on options to redesign the 10-member district. Ultimately, the district arrived at the innovative solution of transferring two of the schools to other districts.

How do I get started?

While districts can lead successful collaborative problem solving efforts on their own, their chances for success are greatly increased by utilizing a professional facilitator. The Minnesota State Office for Collaboration and Dispute Resolution can help. Learn more at or by calling 651-539-1409.

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