Agora Tools

The Institue for 21st Century Agoras uses Structured Dialogic Design as a core process for supporting large group collaborative design.

The Structured Dialogic DesignSM (SDD) Process

Structured Dialogic Design

Structured Dialogic DesignSM (SDD) is a rigorously validated collaborative design methodology which effectively and efficiently integrates input in the form of tacit knowledge from diversified design groups into a unified systems construct which represents the group’s shared understanding of their situation or their plan for action.  The process supports groups in a dynamic systems analysis linking situation description with a prescriptive model for transforming the situation.  Moreover, participants need no special training to fully participate in collaborative planning that is managed with structured dialogic design.  This is in part because like all good social system design methods, SDD is free of overarching metanarrative and therefore does not presuppose consensus among stakeholders on questions of values or even on the meaning of words and phrases.  SDD firsts create a consensual linguistic domain in the area under design.  People listen to each other and clarify each other’s meanings and only then proceed with design.  This creates a common spoken and symbolic vocabulary and as well as an environment of mutual respect.

Validations studies of the components and principles of the SDD approach — as well as of the integrated process itself — have appeared in over 400 professional journals of systems science over the past four decades, including journals such as Cybernetics and Systems; Design Management Review; Human Systems Management; International Journal of Applied Systemic Studies: International Society for General Systems Research; Journal of Product Innovation Management: Journal of the International Society for the Systems Sciences; Journal of the Operations Research Society; Journal of Transdisciplinary Systems Sciences; Management Accounting Research; Psychology Review; Systems Research and Behavioral Science; and Technological Forecasting.

The thirty-five year track record of the use of process in communities across the globe by the co-developer of the process (AN Christakis) has recently been summarized in book form (Christakis & Bausch, 2006).  In this appendix, we offer a high level overview of the process and encourage the technical reader to explore additional resources by contacting the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.


In severely simplified form, SDD consists of a three phase process: problem definition phase; solution design phase; and action planning.  The narrative account of the SDD process provided in this volume is limited to the definition phase of the process; however, the principles of SDD remain the same through all three phases with the inclusion of some specialized tasks appropriate for the distinct requirements of each phase.  The program components of each phase are shown below.

Problem Definition Phase (1 ½ days)

1.  Community leaders identify a complex human systems situation which needs a collaborative response which has been unsuccessfully served by alternative approaches, and agree upon a coordinating platform for design work

2.  Design management team conducts a stakeholder analysis and identifies a community of representative collaborative designers

3.  Community leaders and design management team jointly generate and refine a triggering question to focus the dialogue

4.  Community leaders launch an SDD problem definition session

Participants acknowledge their status as stakeholders to discover a shared understanding of the community problem

Participants individually generate and collectively clarify ideas/issues/elements of the problem situation

Relationships among problem statements are examined and decisions are recorded

Comparisons among pairs of problem statements are evaluated and decisions are recorded

A systems view of the connections among key problem statements is reported based on the group’s decisions

Narrative summaries of the shared view of the community problem are crafted

Participants commit to reflect on the problem and to reconvene to design solutions

5.  Design management team delivers a complete document of all of the group’s ideas and decisions – along with a graphic summary of the systems view – to each participant at the close of the session

Solution Design Phase (1 ½ days)

1.  Community leaders confirm the strategic target(s) of the community problem definition for high leverage impact

2.  Augmentation of the collaborative design group is considered (possibly inducing invited technical experts)

3.  Collaborative designers (stakeholders) reconvene, and community leaders launch an SDD solution design session

Participants individually generate and collectively clarify action options that address elements in the problem situation

Relationships among action options are examined and decisions are recorded

Comparisons among pairs of action options are evaluated and decisions are recorded

A systems view of the connections among key action options reveals high leverage actions

Action options are “superimposed” on top of the systems view structure of elements of the problem situation

Narrative summaries of the superposition of action options on the community problem structure are crafted

Collective estimates of time/cost for action options may be displayed as individual estimates mapped on grids

Participants commit to reflect on the options for action, and to reconvene to construct an integrated action plan

4.  Design management team delivers a complete document of all of the group’s ideas and decisions – along with a graphic summary of the superposition map – to each participant at the close of the session

Action Planning Phase (1 ½ days)

1.  Community leaders confirm that the group’s definition of the problem and options for action appear comprehensive

2.  Augmentation of the action planning is considered (possibly including technical experts)

3.  Collaborative designers (stakeholders) reconvene, and community leaders launch an SDD action planning session

Participants assemble into three or more “small teams” to construct action scenarios

Teams each identify highly preferred action options from the clusters which the group had previously constructed

Teams consult the “influence map” (superposition systems view) which the group had previously constructed

Teams build a sequential model (an action scenario) using their team’s selected action options

Teams compare action scenarios with other teams and identify action options that are shared across scenarios

Participants work as a single group to assemble the shared structure of their action scenarios

Participants discuss the “significant improvement” that comes from adding in individual non-shared action options

Process continues until all “significant improvements” have been added into the shared plan

4.  Action plans are resource loaded (options are identified for unavailable resources)

5.  Time schedules are added into action plan (time and cost tradeoffs are balanced)

6.  Design management team delivers a complete document of all of the group’s ideas and decisions – along with a graphic summary of the fully integrated, resource-loaded and time sequenced action plan – to each participant at the close of the session

7.  Participants define options for updating the action plan during project implementation cycles

Very few folks are currently even attempting to construct systems views with live audiences, and of those who are trying this far fewer can actually achieve closure on a systems analysis project within a tightly forecast time frame.  Our sweet spot is in guiding a discussion so that groups are prepared to co-create a systems view, and then allowing them to consider this systems view BEFORE they set priorities.  SDD saves time, resources, and group confidence by helping groups set their priorities with authentic systems thinking.



Experiments have just begun using online platforms to support aspects of SDD projects. The coordination platform of choice for preparation phases of sessions is a wiki (a multi-author website which accommodates a range of access control).  Each individual SDD session is now supported with a task-oriented wiki to 1) enhance coordination between the design management team and project sponsors, 2) provide a “sign in” point for project participants, 3) present warm-up or preparatory materials, 4) sustain cohesion among participants between project phases and between projects.  A more aggressive use of the wiki includes gathering up responses to triggering questions (idea generation) and preliminary clarification.  Dialogic design does depend profoundly upon dialogue, so one can appreciate the limitation that a text-only environment imposes on this design process.  Experiments are underway to evaluate “simulated” gathering through the Second Life platform (where individuals participate through avatars who mingle in shared spaces in an artificial environment).  The online technology reduces costs (largely by saving participants travel time and substituting some synchronous exchanges with some asynchronous post-and-reply tasks.  Through a combination of voice over internet (VoI) and screen sharing software, we have managed the pair wise relationship evaluation task of structured dialogic design with promising results (see  This prototype application involved 15 active participants and several observers located in Canada, United States, Mexico, England, Germany, Cyprus, South Africa, Australia, and Japan.  Our point is that this international collaborative design session would not have been possible at all without the use of Internet tools.  Successes that we have experienced in applications of online SDD have involved experienced SDD participants, and for this reason while we are optimistic about the potential for improved technology to extend the reach of online SDD into new audiences we are cautions about predicting the general utility of this approach.


Interactive Management (an ancestor of SDD) was employed early on as a descriptive methodology for technological problems.  In contrast, SDD is social, participatory, and consensual.  It was learned from practice that the methodology needs to be open to intentions, intuition, and individual expression.  This shift was made clear by Christakis and Shearer (1997).  They integrated Habermas’ theory of communicative action within IM, as a way to overcome the complexities inherent in participatory group planning.

Communicative action instilled a fundamental shift in emphasis, toward the “emancipatory intent” (Habermas, 1987), an orientation to bring about change in social power distribution through linguistic process. Thus SDD addresses both intention and objective fact.  It is both powerful and liberating because it provides a prescriptive reflection of intentions that are informed largely, but not dogmatically, by fact.

The well-validated descriptive methodology inherent in SDD finds higher value as a powerful prescriptive tool.  The key metric for assessing the power of a prescriptive tool is the extent to which its recommendations are implemented, and the extent to which those implemented recommendations do lead to the desired end result.  The track record has been exceptionally good.

ISM software (academic freeware)

DOS Download  

Interpretive Structural Modeling (ISM) software and a companion user manual  was released in 1998 as freeware by Professor John Warfield of George Mason University (emeritus), the father of Generic Design. ISM is an enabling technology for Interactive Management and a core element of both RCM and CS_I software.

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