2. Simple sketches make your participation strategy clear

How Sam Kaner’s simple diagrams give us a way to think together about participation


This is the second article in a three-part series. Part 1 is Participation is great, but workshops are weak tea. Part 3 is How to visually plan a participatory creative process.


This stuff matters

The systems we all want to improve are mostly made of people, whose participation either reinforces the status quo or tries to change it. Even technical systems are really socio-technical, dependent on human participation. Since they are made of participation, we’re going to need participation to shift them.

So let’s get concrete about this abstract term

The previous article in this series argues that many or most efforts of substance require the participation of people who come together from across boundaries and differences. Participation, it says, is strategic.

“You keep using that word, ‘participation.’ I don’t know what you mean! What actually happens? What are the outcomes? When do people actually get something done?”

Yeah, it’s a problem. Terms like “collaboration” and “co-design” get tossed around so much that they start to lose their meaning. Poor “participation” has always had been a skinny bird-legs kind of a word, with no power to make us perk up our ears.

I really mean something plain. It’s just that we aren’t use to “strategizing” about who gets together when, what they do together, and how that adds up over time to something that matters.

So while the word might seem abstract, what it stands for is not: people having conversations, making stuff together, planning, arguing, changing their mind, sharing meals, and generally doing what they do together in a way that moves them all forward.

We need a way to get all that onto the wall where we can work with it.

What’s in a participation strategy?

  • Who gets together when, and to what end?
  • How do we give a collective effort a really good beginning?
  • People start out seeing things differently; how will they get aligned?
  • How will power be distributed? Who gets to say what happens next? How will decisions be made? How will the whole thing be managed?
  • How will this group of people go through a creative process together to sense what’s up, conceive some things worth trying, try them out, and establish the outcomes they want to keep living with?
  • What about money and logistics and all those details?
  • How do we defend against the many risks: paralyzing disagreement, dysfunctional power, the fog of uncertainty, etc. etc.?

The work of addressing these questions and sequencing activities is where participation strategy lives. When forming and executing it, we regularly encounter three difficulties:

  • Overcoming near-term blindness, to take the long view
    Moving the conversation with stakeholders and sponsors from “come facilitate our workshop” or “help us with our collaborative project” to the longer strategic view of a collective effort.
  • Mapping activities in sequence
    As people who support organizations and communities with good process, facilitation, education, and exploration, we do our best to make wise choices in sequencing activities. We’ve used all sorts of lists and maps for this, but never settled on a happy convention.
  • Making different strategies visible and clear
    When planning is collaborative, it is important that everyone involved can be imagining, comparing, and discussing the same things. (And in the classroom, a strategy can seem so abstract, so hard to grasp; making them visible is key to understanding.)

Sam Kaner’s “participatory decision-making”

Feeling the need for all this, I was excited to see Sam Kaner’s talk, Participatory decision-making in multi-stakeholder collaboration, in which he describes a visual language for sketching participation strategies. (And here is a great set of slides, an expansion of those he shows in that talk.) His sketches look like this:

Sam Kaner, “Participatory decision-making in multi-stakeholder collaboration,” vimeo.com/32178909

First a basic description, then some additions

In this article I’ll describe Kaner’s visual language. It’s straightforward and easy to learn, and you can use it to cover many situations. In the last part of this series I offer some possible extensions to support the kinds of activities we have found to be powerful in our own work.


The basic language

I need a way to refer to this when I talk to people about it. I’ll call them “Kaner Diagrams,” for obvious reasons. He doesn’t call them that, and in fact he repeatedly encourages us all to make this language our own, extend and modify it for our own purposes. But it’s useful to have a name, so Kaner Diagrams it is.

Note: If this stuff interests you, I recommend you watch the video to learn directly from Sam’s clear, step-by-step development of these ideas. These are summary notes. He gives a full narrative.

Stakeholder groups

Use circles to represent stakeholder groups. We can use color to indicate different groups, particular to the situation we’re working with. If we were in an organization, we might distinguish between marketing, sales, engineering, engineers, executives and customers. In a recent project we made a distinction between people who had four very different responses to urban wildlife. Capture the differences you believe necessary to represent the diversity of the system you’re addressing.

In these examples, I’ll use generic colors to indicate diversity, and copy Kaner’s colors where he uses them to represent different kinds of authority, as described below.

Different stakeholders in a collective effort

We can use a bigger circle to indicate a gathering of people, and arrows between these to represent “the work between gatherings” — planning, management, budget, reading and absorbing, logistics, etc.

A series of gatherings, with some work to do in between

Diagonal groups

The term “diagonal group” and its representation was coined by Herman Gyr and Sam Kaner in 1981. The people in a diagonal group represent a horizontal diversity of viewpoints, and a vertical diversity of power. If we were thinking about businesses in a local community, for example, “horizontal diversity” might mean including different sizes and kinds of businesses. “Vertical diversity” could mean staff, owners, and members of city council.

A “diagonal group,” diverse in power and viewpoint

Large gathering

A community meeting, a town hall, a conference, etc.

A large and diverse gathering (left) and a not so diverse gathering

Example: using what we’ve got so far

In my Pittsburgh neighborhood, the neighborhood association holds monthly public meetings. Between those meetings there are board and committee meetings. This cycle repeats itself from month to month, so we might say that this is a sketch of the neighborhood’s participation strategy:

The board and its committees plan and work between community meetings

And here is an example from Kaner’s video, redrawn:

Stages or phases of effort

When planning, it is often useful to break work into a series of stages. Kaner uses square brackets to encapsulate a phase of a long process. This will be useful when we start making complicated plans, because we can zoom in and out. Zoomed out we simply see square brackets with a label that names the phase. Zoomed in, we can see the detailed steps contained in the phase.

By annotating the brackets with the mission and intended goals or results of each phase, we can sketch a picture of an overall participation strategy.

A series of phases, “zoomed out” for big-picture overview
Zooming in on Phase 1 to see the detailed strategy

Example: Healthy Christchurch

Starting at 20:18 into the video of Kaner’s talk, he uses a real example to illustrate the descriptive power of this kind of sketch. Kaner was involved in an effort in New Zealand called Healthy Christchurch. You can listen to his description of the project, but even without narration his diagrams tell a story. And the provide an example of what these sketches look like in use.

High-level overview of the Healthy Christchurch strategy (Sam Kaner)
Front-end planning by a diagonal group (Sam Kaner)
Months of effort by a core team, sponsors, and the whole community, ending in a weekend festival (Sam Kaner)
Six years of emergence across the community, sparked by the initial stages (Sam Kaner)
A team, with stakeholder input and regional authority, make investments in desirable and sustainable outcomes (Sam Kaner)

Representing different kinds of authority

Kaner suggests using color to indicate different kinds of authority.

Executive authority

Executive authority is the kind of money, power, and influence that often initiates collaborations: executive sponsors, a board of directors, a steering group, a funding agency. Sometimes executive authority comes as just one or two people, sometimes a diverse group (such as a steering committee), and sometimes it is hierarchical — a manager and reporting staff. This can be represented in the notation, or simply left as a generic executive-authority-colored circle.

Subject matter expertise / subject matter authority

Kaner calls multi-stakeholder “thinking teams” the “nerve center of collaborative architecture.” He represents them as diagonal groups, diverse in both power and point of view.

In my reading, everyone with experience in this area says the same thing, and emphasizes its importance: the work of understanding a situation and exploring for its improvement MUST include real diversity — a representative microcosm of the system. Not only because diversity is morally important, but because representative diversity is key to the long-term viability of the results. So I love this: “we know this stuff because we live it every day” is given peer authority to executive power and process facilitation.

Process authority

These are people who combine experience in planning, hosting and facilitating participatory work, with capacity to handle logistics, scheduling, project and program management, communication, and overall support of the people and process.

I find this to be a tremendously helpful set of distinctions, and recommend watching the video to get the richness and the detail Kaner offers from his experience.

The language provides clarity where it is needed: these are all sources of authority, and should be treated accordingly both in plans and by the people involved. Including these distinctions in strategy sketches provides wonderful support for conversations about inclusiveness, adequate representation of voices, and the use of the strengths and gifts of different people and institutions.

In part 3 of this series, I offer a few extensions to this basic notation, both from Kaner’s practice and from our own involvement with systemic shifts.


A note: Kaner’s book is great.

Sam Kaner wrote Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. It doesn’t include this sketching language, but it is full of practical, wise, clear methods, advice and wisdom. I strongly recommend it to anyone involved with this sort of work.


Marc Rettig is principal of Fit Associates, where he and his colleagues pretty much all their time on work that somehow relates to long-term creative participation.