How to make decisions
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What follows is an explanation of a particular set of methods developed since 2004 by The People Speak to help large groups of people with highly diverse ideas, opinions and points of view to make important decisions as a group, to come to creative compromises, and to have fun in the process.
This explanation may serve as a guide for others wishing to facilitate decision making in related situations. It is likely that the methods will require adaptation in each instance. If you or your group choose to use these strategies and techniques and have observations or improvements to suggest, please contribute them to the project wiki at http://wiki.theps.net/index.php/Category:Who_Wants_to_Be.
Who Wants to Be?
Who Wants to Be? is a spontaneous, democratic gameshow, where the audience makes up the questions, has all the answers and sets the rules. The basic premise is that every member of the audience has a vote, and that they can propose ideas from the floor, discuss them with the rest of the audience, and then vote on any decisions that come from the discussion, moving to wards a conclusion within a 1.5 hour time limit, unless they vote to extend that limit and keep the game going.
Gameshows are fun, and the key to a successful Who Wants to Be? is making sure that it is enjoyable for all participants. Because the timing, structure and really every part of the game is malleable and subject to audience adaptation, it can be difficult to plan and predict.
One of the crucial elements to The People Speak's approach in all of our projects is to be as open as possible as to what content or direction of the event can be. We want the people themselves to decide what the important questions are rather than making any assumptions about what topic or approach will be relevant.
The instability of what will occur when people come to one of our events becomes an entertaining factor, as does the free and spontaneous contribution of the participants. The techniques which The People Speak employ are designed to engage people creatively in the drama of an undecided outcome while maintaining a coherent structure.
Too short, and everyone will feel short-changed and rushed, too long and people will be frustrated and start to leave. We've found that a good starting point is 1.5 hours, approximately the length of a feature film - split into two 45 minute halves.
The two-part structure is useful because it allows a dramaturgy to develop. The first half can be about brain-storming and ideas generation. The second half can be about whittling down, reality-checking and making creative compromises.
It helps to have a clock clearly visible, counting down to the end of the half, to make sure that everyone understands the scope of the discussion and (if necessary) vote to extend it.
There are many different voting systems, and this is often an issue that audiences spend a while debating before they find something that feels comfortable.
The starting point is as simple as possible, without the simplicity being too restrictive. In our experience, this is a useful starting point, which can be modified to suit the audience's needs:
- Three clear choices are presented,
- The audience votes on one of the three,
- Majority wins.
The three choices are important because they can be configured to be:
- Choice A
- Choice B
- Neither A nor B (go back to discussion)
In our experience, most audiences are happy to compromise with this system - simple but potentially expansive.
It is vital that the decision is important to all participants. If people feel that they are playing without having some stake in the outcome - financial, emotional, or social, they won't be inspired to take part and contribute creatively.
So far Who Wants to Be has been used successfully to decide:
- What audience-suggested images to collage onto a mural in a community play area.
- How to develop and improve a much-loved public space.
- What to do with a £1000 cash pot of the audience's £10 donations.
See the project website at http://whowantstobe.co.uk for more examples, videos and write-ups.
Hosting the gameshow requires quick thinking, mediation skills, improvisation and humour. It is the most public facilitation role, and potentially the most powerful - so the host has to be careful to facilitate, rather than dominate the discussions.
The audience will be coming up with suggestions thick and fast, and will often need some help to group those suggestions into a decision that can move towards a vote.
For example, the audience faced with a decision about how to spend £1000 might make the following three proposals:
- let's have a dancing competition to decide who gets it!
- let's give it to Cancer Research UK!
- let's rent a flat for a month and cut everyone in the audience a key!
If this is the beginning of the show, the host would be working these into categories, encouraging the audience to come up with more ideas on similar themes, which can be returned to later in detail if necessary. The host might then say:
'Ok, those are some great ideas, so do we want to:
- A: compete for it,
- B: donate it to a worthy cause, or
- C: spend it on an activity for all of us'.
The audience can then come up with more ideas in categories A, B, or C. By voting on increasingly specific suggestions, or combining ideas to create interesting compromises, the host can help the audience to work their way towards a final decision at the end of the show.
It helps tremendously if the audience can refer back to suggestions during discussion. Even if it's just someone scribbling down what people shout out on a white-board, having a visual record of the live discussion can generate a wonderful response from a crowd.
Having a visual record of which decisions have been made can also help - especially to prevent sudden reverses or changes of direction that contradict previously made decisions.
In past games of Who Wants to Be?, audiences have changed the rules to incorporate an 'adjudicator' role: someone who can watch new votes and refer back to previous decisions to make sure that no contradictions are introduced and the momentum of the process is maintained.
The dramaturgy and visual style of 'Who Wants to Be' borrows from many TV gameshow formats. Of course any style or theme could be adopted, but the TV gameshow is instantly recognisable to many and helps to maintain everyone's excitement.
The seating or standing areas should resemble a small amphitheatre so that people see each other. Also everybody needs to see the visualisations (see below). There must be enough space between chairs so that the host or hosts can get to each participant.
The lighting should be dramatic, picking out the host and the member of the audience that is currently speaking - focusing all attention onto them. It also helps to amplify everyone's voices, adding to the gravitas of the situation. There should be enough ambient lighting so that participants can see each other's faces.
Having theme tunes, jingles and tension-building background music, particularly warming up to a vote is a great way to focus the audience's attention on the decisions to be made, and a crescendo when the decision is announced helps to emphasise the conclusion reached.
PA systems, projectors, computers, voting systems, visualisation engines and lighting rigs are very useful - but not essential. All the techniques above can be achieved adequately without any technology at all.
We are developing a range of open-source technologies for discussion, voting and visualisation, but they are all designed to carefully avoid getting in the way of the techniques described above.
One technology to avoid are those voting systems sold by conference technology companies. Designed for shareholder meetings and secret ballots, these gadgets are usually hideously expensive and almost always too complicated for use in public space.
One of the wonderful things about the Who Wants to Be game structure is the capacity for refining and evolving through suggestions from participants. New ideas are constantly generated on how to do the show. The conclusion of our latest show in October 2007 was particularly dramatic because there were three almost equally popular competing ideas of what to do with the money. The decision came down to the final vote which was a dramatic climax. Next time we will incorporate a structure which generates three equally popular proposals which can be decided on in the final vote.
There are many potential problems and pitfalls in helping a diverse group of people make a decision - which is an inherently divisive and political act.
So far, the only serious problems we have encountered are with absent authorities. If a group of people comes together to make a decision, it is absolutely necessary that civic authorities who have a vital stake in the outcome of the decision are involved in the same decision-making process as everyone else.
This means that there can be no censorship of any views of any participants, no exclusion of groups with a stake in the outcome of the decision, and no manipulation of the decision outside of the game.
Essentially, the group must become the authority, and if the game is to be worth playing, it has to be as serious as it is entertaining.
Who Wants to Be? is inspired by an unlikely mix of sources:
The game-play is a form of 'Nomic', A game of self-amendment in which changing the rules is a move, invented by Peter Suber in 1982, (see http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/nomic.htm for more info).
It borrows it's dramaturgy from many wonderful TV shows - especially the 'Ask the Audience' feature of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
The decision-making and facilitation are inspired by years of participating in Talkaoke, (see http://talkaoke.com) and many consensus-based decision-making groups, (see http://seedsforchange.org.uk/vcs/consens).
Who Wants to Be was developed by The People Speak, (see http://theps.net/people.html to meet the team).