Have you ever found yourself at an intersection and you just couldn’t decide which way to go?
In a perfect world with ample time at hand, you could consider applying a structured decision making approach to find a solution to your problem. A structured decision-making process, which we like to abbreviate SDM*, is a method that helps you weed through the multitude of possibilities in a, well…structured way. While this method can be used for a variety of problems, may they relate to work-life balance (McDonald-Madden 2018), the military (Keeney 1982) or environmental management (Game et al. 2013). In environmental management, the approach has been successfully implemented for about 20 years.
So what is it? SDM approaches a problem by analysing it’s components separately with the aim of finding solutions that achieve the fundamental objective of everyone that is affected by the decision (the stakeholders). With a set of simple steps, SDM works through a problem from stating the objectives of all stakeholders, finding alternative approaches that meet these objectives, identify the consequences of the alternatives and analysing their trade-offs if the objectives and alternatives compete. Once your problem has gone through this process, also referred to as the PrOACT cycle (see below), you can settle on a decision. Sometimes you might find that you need to go back to one of the earlier steps because you missed something in the first round – hence the cycle.
While SDM can be applied to any kind of problem, from managing the Great Barrier Reef to booking flights for an overseas trip, it is most useful for complicated problems that are to hard to work out in your head. So really if you just need to know if you need to go left or right at an intersection Google Maps may be able to help you faster. The problems that we work with in Environmental Management, however, are complex and often have multiple objectives. The types of problems are very similar, and really only belong to a few classes (Runge and McDonald-Madden 2018), all of which SDM can be used for.
The School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UQ offers a master’s course on SDM approaches (Environmental Problem Solving, ENVM7512 , in case you’re interested), which is coordinated by Eve McDonald-Madden. Chris O’Bryan and I are helping with the practicals in this course and since our exposure to SDM was limited before we started this course, the learning curve was steep for us. But two semesters of teaching, preparing worksheets and getting bombarded with smart questions from the students, have helped to get familiar with the theory of SDM. However, until recently we experienced SDM in real life. Fortunately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service offers interested professionals to participate in their SDM workshops as observers. This year’s choice was located in Honolulu or Gainsville. I know nothing about Gainsville**, and Chris grew up around there, so we decided to give Hawai’i a shot.
The workshop investigates four different decision problems related to Hawai’i. Each group consisted of 2-3 “coaches” that facilitated working through the SDM process and a range of stakeholders, for example biologists from local forest departments or conservation groups etc. There ws also a number of observers that were free to sit in with the groups as they liked to observe the SDM process. While the workshop offered an interesting range of decision problems, from conservation of threatened land snails and waterbirds, to reef protection, and fire management, the observers were mainly interested in the group dynamics.
While all observers agreed on the usefulness and practicality of the SDM approach, we noted key factors that can greatly influence the process:
- Individual’s personalities (i.e., group members and coaches) can shape the way that the SDM process is taking.
- Strong personalities can take over the discussions. Therefore, coaches need good facilitation/ mediation skills.
- Sometimes even coaches can lose the forest for the trees. Having a team of coaches helps to avoid getting stuck.
- When the decision-maker was in the room, they were often either expected to take over the majority of the communication or simply more likely to take on the largest responsibility.
- Any decision affects range of stakeholders, to avoid missing or misrepresenting everyones objectives, all stakeholders should be involved in the process.
- While larger groups often had a broader range of ideas, without smart eliciting of information from the coaches, it would be more likely for a few people to remain more quite or others to overtake the discussion.
- Importance of terminology – a problem in every field, but especially since every workshop will bring together people from different backgrounds, it’s crucial to explain the terminology before using it.
Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and we are both thinking about participating in the certification program that NCTC is offering. Applying structured processes for making decisions, could help a lot of decision problems in conservation and environmental management and help to find solutions in a transparent and efficient way and at the same time make most stakeholders happy.
*not to confuse with species distribution models – in ecology also widely abbreviated in the same way
** apart from it being a “Rock City“