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close this bookCommunity Participation in Problem-solving: Leadership (HABITAT, 1989, 35 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentGuidelines for the trainer
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentA statement of principles
View the documentI. Styles of leadership
View the documentII. The power of leaders
View the documentIII. The maturity of groups
View the documentIV. Leading a problem-solving group
View the documentV. Using participatory problem-solving techniques
View the documentBibliography

V. Using participatory problem-solving techniques

When you have the responsibility for leading or advising project or residents' groups, it is a great advantage to have a good grasp of certain processes that ensure focused and action-oriented meetings. The previous manual in this series, which outlines an eight-step model for problem- solving and decision-making, includes two extremely useful techniques for generating ideas and identifying possible solutions, whenever a group faces a problem-situation. These techniques are:


They are particularly useful tools for leaders who want to adopt a facilitating rather than a directing stance in relation to the groups with whom they are working. They enable them to offer a method by which a group can identify its own needs, establish its own goals and develop its own plan of action.


Brainstorming is a very simple technique but one which can be most effective in generating ideas about solutions to any given problem. Once the problem has been posed, you ask the members of the group to suggest ideas which you immediately write up on a large sheet of paper or a blackboard. The key is that any idea is welcomed, however wild or "far-fetched" it might seem. In this collecting or logging phase, the emphasis should be on quantity rather than quality. Also, it is important that each and every idea is written up without any kind of evaluative comment.

Often, the pace is quite slow at first, if members are not familiar with the technique. However, when one or two participants have made suggestions, the pace quickens, as the members catch on to the value of the exercise. They will begin to "build on" one another's ideas and begin to enjoy themselves as they come up with imaginative and, sometimes, bizarre suggestions. It is an exercise in creativity - a way of encouraging people out of habitual, fixed or narrow ways of looking at problems.

Only when the group has exhausted its ideas do you turn to reviewing and evaluating the range of suggestions that have been made. Then the "reality-testing" questions are asked considering all the strengths, weaknesses, consequences and resource demands:

- Is it technically feasible (will it work)?
- Would it be acceptable (to those who would be affected by it)?
- Are necessary resources available to make it work?

Let us take an example:


Imagine you are working with a residents' committee and you are concerned that, whenever you hold a meeting which is open to all members of the settlement, the turnout is very poor. The question posed is; How to encourage more of the residents to attend?

The objective is not to explore the reasons, but to trigger solutions. You suggest a freewheeling brainstorming session. Within 10 to 15 minutes, your collection of ideas could look like this:

"Advertise better"
"Colourful posters"
"toner to every household"
"Get the Chief to issue a directive"
"Make the meetings more Interesting"
"Involve the people more when they come"
"Make sure the meetings are more lively"
"Put on a film"
"Make a video"
"Provide refreshments"
"Hold the meetings at more suitable times"
"Form a community drama group"
"Invite some well-known speakers"
"Make the hall more comfortable"
"Put on an exhibition"
"Impose fines"
"Play music"
"Follow meetings with entertainment"
"Hold meetings in a bar"
"Give things away"
"Project sweatshirts"
"Organize competitions"
"Invite suggestions for agenda"
"Start a community newspaper"

Force field analysis

The force field analysis technique Is described in detail in the previous manual. Essentially, it is a way of identifying the range of factors that have an influence on any problem-situation. These factors are identified as either positive or negative. The positive ones are the "driving forces"; the negative ones are "restraining forces". The driving forces are all the things that will help us achieve some positive change In the situation - help us achieve our goal. The restraining forces are all those things that are working against our achieving our goal - the obstacles that have to be overcome. The first task is to identify as many of these driving and restraining forces as possible. The second task Is to suggest ways of changing the strength of the forces so that the positive, driving forces are strengthened and the negative, restraining forces are weakened or eliminated.

Force field analysis Is particularly useful for any group leader, because it provides a method for handling discussion - a method for collecting, pooling and interpreting ideas from all individuals in a group; for establishing group goals; and for drawing up a mutually agreed plan of action.

Perhaps an example will both clarify the processes and highlight the value of the technique.


A community worker is attending a meeting of a women's group in a settlement for which an upgrading project has been proposed. The women are enthusiastic about the possibilities of Improving their homes and the communal facilities. They have many actual proposals. In particular, they are keen to set up their own brick-making project but they are very worried about their husbands' reaction to this idea. How to convince their husbands to support them in this activity Is the main problem at issue.

The community worker suggests that there might be a way to help them in thinking through the matter, explaining that there is a particular method for clarifying ideas and analysing a problem. The women say they are willing to see how It works out.

The community worker puts up a large sheet of newsprint and draws a line down the middle of the sheet and writes up the word "Positive" on the left and "Negative" on the right side:


The conversation goes like this:

CW: "Let's look first at some of the problems you will face in persuading your husbands. Any ideas? As you call them out, I shall write them on the paper."

Mary: "Money. That's what my husband will think of first.

I can't see him being at all willing to contribute any of the cash we need to buy the machine."

Martha: "That's right. The problem is that they will not see that the scheme will work. They will not believe that we will be able to make some money out of the project within a year, we should be able to pay back all the outlay.

Rose: "In fact, they do not believe we have the organization or the skill to do something of this kind"

Julia: "True, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that!"

CW: "In what way, Julia?"

Julia: "Well I think our husbands do not really like the idea of our doing anything like this, whether It makes money or not. In their eyes, It's not the proper role for a wife!"

CW: "In their eyes, what Is a proper role, do you think?"

Julia: "Looking after the home, minding the children, doing the cooking"

Mary: "I think Julia Is right and, also, I suppose our husbands are a bit traditional in this respect. Not really selfish - but a bit afraid of our being independent."

Mercy: "They will be really against the scheme if it means the home is neglected in any way."

CW: "OK. Are you happy with what I have written down?

If so - should we now have a look at the positive side?

What do you want me to put down?

Mercy: "Well, the scheme really will work. When this upgrading project gets under way, there will certainly be a demand for bricks."

Mary: "Yes - the experience of the women's group in Taipou shows that."

Martha: "We are already showing that we can organize ourselves. We hold regular meetings, we have properly elected officers and we are keeping proper records of our meetings and the money that we collect from members as subscriptions. We even arranged for someone to talk to us on a few occasions about bookkeeping - so we could learn how to do accounts."

Mary: "Like the Taipou group, we could get the people of the association, who sell the brick-making machine, to give us the same kind of training in how to use it which they do free."

CW: "What about your husbands? You described their attitudes earlier as very negative, but are they all of the same mind?

Rose: "Not really: some take a harder line than others, and a few will certainly give us all the support we could wish. Take Mercy's husband, for instance. As you know, he Is the Location Chief. He Is certainly going to back us."

CW: "Can I add one myself to the list - your own enthusiasm and determination!"

After such a range of views, the force field chart would look like this:


CW: "Fine! Now we need to have a good look at what we have written up on the sheet, because what we need to do is to see what we can do to weaken any of the negative things - and, of course, strengthen the positive ones that are working for us.

"What's your reaction to what we have there on the two lists?"

Rose: Well, we seem to have got more positive than negative things!"

CW: "Yes, but I suppose it is going to depend on how strong any one Item Is, rather than how many. One strong Item might outweigh a number of others.

Do you agree?"

Martha: "OK. I've been thinking about that first one on the negative side. I mean, how important is it that our husbands actually contribute some money? I don't think It Is. In fact It would be much better if we raised the money ourselves. We could try to get funds from selling things we make - like baskets and table- cloths

- and we could start approaching some of the sponsors. The women in Taipou were given some money by an embassy: they have a special fund for projects like this. I think that, if we can show we mean business and are prepared to put in something ourselves, we stand a chance.

Mary: "If we do raise the money ourselves or with help from outside, it would get rid of one item from that side and, if we get started, we can overcome those things we have put as "lack of confidence". If we get going and we do well, we shall have proved something.

"I reckon our biggest problem is how to overcome those other things we have said about our husbands just not liking our doing it at all - rather than staying at home."

Rose: "Ah - then we must be careful not to let that point be a strong one. That one about neglecting the home, not minding the children and so on. We can take the sting out of that one by organizing ourselves well.

Having plenty of volunteers, so that no-one stays too long away from home. Those who can work longer hours than most of the volunteers could actually get a payment for the extra work they do.

Mercy: "Perhaps we could make sure that first point on the positive side is a strong one by trying to get contracts for the supply of bricks outside our own settlement."

CW: "Can I just bring you back to something that Mary said about the attitudes of your husbands being your biggest problem - what can you do about those things you have listed as traditional attitudes about what women should do? And the kinds of fears you say they might have?"

Mary: "Well, we have noted that we have a good ally in Mercy's husband. Perhaps we should ask for his support in organizing a meeting where we could explain what we want to do and where we could try to talk through any objections or problems that come up. If we can bring out some of these things in a group, It might be better than if we each try on our own to convince our own husbands who might be at first against what we are doing."

In such a way, a group works at maximizing the positive forces and minimizing the negative ones. Gradually and logically, a plan of action can emerge.

You will see from the illustration that the technique is one that makes the contributions of members easy - and it ensures that the leader does not play a dominant role, merely setting out the framework, logging the responses, asking the occasional question and guiding a group through an analysis of the ideas they have collected. Proceeding in this way, a group should be able to sustain a focused and progressive analysis of a problem.

However, it should be recognized that the force field analysis is designed essentially for literate groups. Nevertheless, with a little ingenuity, it can also be adapted for groups who do not possess literacy skills and who would not follow the key logging process. Instead of words, symbols could be used to record each of the identified forces.

Working with the previous example, "profit" could be represented by a pile of coins or bank notes, "demand for bricks" by a hand reaching for a stack of bricks'', "training in bookkeeping" by a drawing of an accounts book and so on. Each drawing or symbol would serve as a reminder of the idea, when the group moves into the analysis phase. So the force field might appear on the chart something like this - depending on the leader's graphic skills.



Techniques such as brainstorming and force field analysis are tools which can be used with any kind of problem. Working with them on your own, they give you two great advantages:

- They prevent you from "snatching" at a solution before thoroughly thinking through the problem;

- They enable you to do a collecting of ideas before trying to perform any kind of analysis.

This latter point is particularly important. Our brains have great difficulty in doing two Jobs at once: finding out what we know about any particular topic at the same time as trying to Interpret and organize those ideas. It would be very difficult to arrange a bowl of flowers before collecting those we want to arrange, but this is what we often try to do when writing a report or thinking out a solution to a problem. Brainstorming and force field techniques enable us to separate out the collection and analysis phases of problem-solving.

Additionally, as group activities, they are invaluable. Again, they have two distinct advantages:

- They allow for the pooling of ideas from a number of people;

- They ensure that no important ideas are lost, because they are all displayed for the group to work on.

It is crucial in group discussions that the participants have the display in front of them otherwise, it is very difficult to structure a logical and purposeful analysis of all the ideas that have been put forward.

These techniques are valuable gifts for any group leader, because they provide a method for handling discussion - a method for collecting, pooling and interpreting ideas from ail individuals in a group; for establishing group goals; and for drawing up a mutually agreed plan of action. They are the tools of a facilitator.

The ideal, of course, is that community groups should be able to use such techniques for themselves. This manual has presented a number of ideas for establishing a supportive atmosphere in groups, and for encouraging participative problem-solving and decision-making. However, given the nature of the problems faced in human settlements projects, there are bound to be differences in perspectives and divergencies of opinion. The third manual in this series takes up the issue of conflict management. Are there ways of handling conflict which fit with the principles and practices of community participation?