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Democratic [R]evolution through Structured Dialogic Design

Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) is the dialogue and decision-making methodology used by the Institute for 21st Century Agoras and others in their ‘co-laboratories of democracy.’ Laboratories of Dialogue – Co-Laboratories – enable people to listen to each other on issues of common concern, going beyond what they think is important, to find the deep drivers that dynamically influence their situation. Armed with the knowledge of what is really driving their situation, they devise action plans with enthusiasm and commit to working together in carrying them out.

The secret of Co-Laboratory success is Structured Dialogic Design (SDD). SDD honors individual autonomy in the group dialogue, respecting everyone’s words, and allowing their careful clarification. It does this in such a way that every stakeholder participant is on an equal level. SDD helps human beings transcend their boundaries of knowledge and culture to generate something that we call community wisdom. Hierarchies of power, expertise, and personality are marginalized. When everyone has submitted their answers to a triggering question and clarified them, the tension goes out of the room as everyone feels that they have been heard. The group has formed in mutual respect and with an agreed upon vocabulary.

At all stages of SDD, interactive software records, prints, and projects the words of participants and then graphically represents their conclusions in real time. SDD sessions begin with a carefully crafted triggering question. After the group has posted and clarified their answers/observations to this question, they vote individually for the observations that they consider most important, and the votes are tallied. These votes produce a ranking of the observations on the basis of their perceived importance.

The process does not stop there. The observations that receive the most votes are ranked according to their influence on each other. This is done by juxtaposing pairs of observations and deciding if they share an influence relation. Participants decide whether:

Accomplishing Observation A will help to accomplish Observation B
And vice versa
Will Observation B help to accomplish Observation A ?.
Will Observation A help to accomplish Observation C ?

Working with paired influence evaluations in this way honors the limitations of our short-term memories (7 ± 2) and relieves participants from the oppressive chore of fitting each observation into their personal conceptual maps. The software keeps track of the logic of their choices and vastly reduces the number of required pairs. In doing this logic for the participants, the software frees them to deal with matters that really concern them. At the end of this process, the software produces a “tree of meaning” (influence pattern) where the deep drivers are at the roots and the lines of influence among the observations are traced.

The roots of the tree are the leverage points where groups can effect real and enduring change throughout the rest of the tree. By concentrating on the roots, groups avoid the trap of emphasizing the erroneous priorities represented by the importance ranking. Research on 50 SDD applications has shown that the observations deemed most important are seldom if ever the most influential ones (Dye and Conaway, 1999). Groups that fasten on what they think is most important are doomed to futility if they are not attending to a situation’s influential leverage points.

Armed with this influence tree, participants concentrate on what needs to be addressed to really change a situation. They know that they have their priorities straight. Confidently in a climate of respect and cooperation they draft and evaluate actions that will help them effect the changes they desire. In the action phase, they do not create an influence tree. Instead, they break into small groups and, utilizing the action items already ranked by importance, they create scenarios that they think will best address their problematic situations. Each small group then presents its story to the whole group while posting large dots on the action items they judge as essential. Finally, the group decides by ¾ majorities which actions will be in their collaborative action plan. Being the authors of this plan, participants easily commit to carry it out.

Qualities of SDD

In the practice of Structured Dialogue, roles and functions are divided between the participants/designers and the facilitation team.
The participant/designers have complete control over the content of the dialogue.
The facilitation team controls the process.
Facilitation team personnel run the software, record the proceedings, post questions and contributions in real time both through PowerPoint projectors and as 8 1/2 x 11 sheets on the wall, play back proceedings as requested, and provide real time reports.

The facilitators of Structured Dialogue encourage participants to bring to the surface all possible concerns, insights, and fantasies. Working together, they develop triggering questions to move the discovery process along. In this way, they come together framing questions and deriving consensual answers in the manner of a Research and Development team.

In this way, SDD:
Authenticates every participant/designer;
Elicits ideas and points of view from all stakeholders;
Moves toward effective consensus;
Elicits and deals with the different priorities of stakeholder participants;
Equalizes power relations among the stakeholders;
Goes beyond identifying factors that are important, to specifying those that are most influential in achieving goals.
Structured Dialogue fundamentally differs from many other methodologies that poll stakeholders to find out what problem they think is most important, or what action they deem most effective, but do not probe deeper, proceeding directly to prescribing action plans to meet problems and effect change. These plans usually fail because they fail to identify the crucial leverage points. By performing these extra steps, Structured Dialogue enables participants to go the extra miles that spell the difference between merely talking about and actually effecting needed evolutionary change.

The technology component of SDD amplifies the power of stakeholders to focus on productive dialogue, much as the telescope amplifies the power of astronomers to focus on observing celestial bodies. It enables participants in convoluted situations to make decisions on the basis of paired evaluations without having to integrate those decisions in the grand pattern of things. The computer operated by an impartial party displays the options, records the decisions, tracks the logic that develops, and makes that logic immediately available. With its inbuilt algorithms, the computer speeds and deepens information and analysis by orders of magnitude.

SDD imposes a technology-supported discipline of open and focused dialogue. It employs traditional respectful listening and open expression within a discipline where individuals explain their ideas, clarify them, and have their actual expressions projected onto a viewing screen and have them posted on a wall along with those of their peers.

SDD enables participants to engage in “focused and open dialogue.” In SDD, people generate and clarify the meanings of a large number of observations, efficiently produce “team-based patterns,” and use graphic displays of the relationships among their observations. The software program embedded in the system increases the speed of group work by up to 20 times and deepens analyses as much as five times for large-scale applications involving 150 observations and twenty participants. Without the software support the production of such patterns is not feasible because of time constraints.

Unlike many group-participatory methods that elicit trust, openness, and euphoria in their preliminary sessions, and then bog down in the details, the good feeling in Structured Dialogues lasts. Satisfaction builds as the action plan makes progress toward the group’s goals and leads to further commitment to the work.

Over many years of experience, Structured Dialogue run in this way has consistently helped groups transcend differences of class, culture, ethnicity, and positional power. It involves representative stakeholders (customers, victims, actors, owners of the process) and available points of view in the design process. It brings the lack of a commonly shared metanarrative into focus and encourages creative adaptations among participants. It generates novel communal insights and emergent activity scenarios. It restores and organizes the creative entanglement and intricacy that is generative of creative self-organization.


The city square (agora) of Athens is the reputed birthplace of democracy. Athenians participated in their government. They discussed issues, decided courses of action, and carried them out. Democracy made Athens a dynamic, creative force 2500 years ago. Even then, however, democracy was fragile, sometimes stupid, and short-lived. Plato held it in low esteem and Aristotle likened it to “mob rule.”

Why, then, do we want to create 21st Century Agoras? What we want to create are communities energized by vibrant participative democracy. In our Information Age as old hierarchies prove dysfunctional, it is imperative that human communities have flexible ways to tap their wisdom and power. We do not believe that unstructured discussion on the Athenian model is adequate for dealing with the complexities of the Information Age. It was not adequate even for the simpler situations of that bygone age.

A pivotal example of this failure of simple dialogue occurred during the originating days of the Club of Rome, circa 1970. Outstanding authorities in fields such as economics, sociology, biology, psychology, environmental science, philosophy, and politics had come together to address imminent crises, to discover fruitful ways to meet them, and to envision a humane future. They conversed profitably within their own disciplines, but they were frustrated in their attempts to converse across disciplines. Soon it became obvious to one of the founders of the Club of Rome, Alexander Christakis that differences in language, expectations, semantics, and outlooks were blocking and diverting abilities to hold fruitful ongoing conversations (Christakis, 1988).

Since then it has become routinely evident that the difficulties that bright, well-intentioned experts encountered in attempting open dialogue within the Club of Rome are symptomatic of all attempts at participatory democracy that tackle complex situations.

Subsequently, at the Battelle Institute, the University of Virginia, and George Mason University, Christakis and John Warfield developed Interactive Management (IM) that enables dialogue to work in “wicked” situations. In 1989, Christakis took IM into corporate arenas and began to refine it into SDD. Then in 2002, with the founding of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras, a determined effort was made to make SDD available to non-profit, community, and civic organizations. In 2006, Christakis and Ken Bausch published How People Harness their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy, which explains SDD in detail including its origins and the science behind it (cf. also Christakis et. al, 1988; Warfield & Cardenas, 1994; Christakis & Dye, 2000).

Also in 2006, Agoras successfully launched an online version of SDD and is improving its delivery system in 2007. Early successes combining face-to-face and online SDD include a series of ongoing dialogues supporting the UN’s Cyprus reunification efforts through the Cyprus Civil Society Dialogue Project (blogora.net/page/Cyprus+Civil+Society+Dialogue). Other recent successes are Michigan’s LDUDL program for democratizing education (www.lcudl.wetpaint.com), Americans for Indian Opportunity’s formation of a functioning international Indigenous organization www.aio.org, the Agriculture Departments new 5-year plan for controlling Invasive Species, and revitalization of an historic intentional community in Pennsylvania.


Bausch, K. (2000). The Practice and Ethics of Design, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, No 1, pp. 23-51.
Bausch, K. and Christakis, A.N. (2003). Technology to Liberate Rather Than Imprison Consciousness, in Loye, David (ed.), The Great Adventure: Toward a Fully Human Theory of Evolution, SUNY Press.
Christakis, A. N. (1988). The Club of Rome revisited in: General Systems. W. J. Reckmeyer (ed.), International Society for the Systems Sciences, Vol. XXXI, pp. 35-38, New York.
Christakis, A. N., Warfield, J. N., and Keever, D. (1988). Systems Design: Generic Design Theory and Methodology, in: Systems Governance, Michael Decleris, (ed.), Publisher Ant. N. Sakkoylas, Athens-Komotini, Greece, pp. 143-210.
Christakis, A. N., and Dye, K. M. (1999). Collaboration through Communicative Action: Resolving the Systems Dilemma through the CogniScope, Systems: Journal of Transdisciplinary Systems Sciences, Volume 4, Number 1 pp.45-55.
Christakis, A. N. and Bausch, K. (2002). Technologue: Technology-Supported Disciplined Dialogue, in Roberts, Nancy (ed.), Transformative Power of Dialogue, Elsevier Publishing Co.
Christakis, A.N. and Bausch, K.B. (2006). How People Harness their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy. Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.
Dye, K. M. and Conaway D. S. (1999). Lessons Learned from Five Years of Application of the CogniScope Approach to the Food and Drug Administration, CWA Report, Interactive Management Consultants, Paoli, Pennsylvania.
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Source: | December 24th, 2008 http://ncdd.org/rc/item/2884

To Learn More…

Visit the Institute for 21st Century Agoras website: http://www.globalagoras.org/

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