Core Design Principles 2.0

This is the fourth installment of my walk through the new book, Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, by Dr.’s Paul W. B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steven C. Hayes, from Context Press, 2019. My aim is to discuss the book, chapter by chapter, as a sort of summary and review for folks who don’t know what Prosocial is or don’t have time to pick the book up and read it themselves right now. Credit for anything enlightening should go to the authors, here – I’m no Prosocial expert. See links below for earlier posts.

I hope that some introduction to the information in this book inspires people to give it a read. The lessons and practices in this book will apply to anyone interested in improving collaboration and equity in their communities or organizations, large or small.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In my previous post, we considered ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ the deficits inherent to top-down and free-market regulation systems, and the concept of ‘Homo Economicus,’ a person solely focused on self-interest at the lowest cost irrespective of the effects of their behavior on others in their community.

In Chapter 3, we find how the authors take Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Core Design Principles (CDP’s) and apply them to groups (and groups of groups) for their improvement. Below, you’ll find a list of the 8 CDP’s and their corresponding ‘ProSocial’-ized descriptions. The book includes more detailed and helpful information, which I won’t include here, but include Key Values, Behaviors, Outcomes, Assessment Questions, Planning Questions, and Example Methods for incorporating the Principles with any group.

Core Design Principle (ProSocial version)Description and Example
1. Clearly Defined BoundariesThe group has a clearly articulated identity and purpose. This is the foundation for CDP’s 2-6, which aim to balance individual- and group-interests. It requires that the group continually reflect on its purpose as a guideline for daily action. 
2. Proportional Equivalence Between Benefits and CostsContributions to the group, and benefits of membership, are equitable among members. This starts with clarifying the costs and benefits to each member, and is strengthened and maintained by building channels communication skills and norms so that members can assert their own needs and consider multiple perspectives. 
3. Collective Choice ArrangementsDecision-making is fair and inclusive, so that those affected by the decision have input in making it. A formal process for making decisions based on consent of group-members is a starting point, here. 
4. MonitoringAgreed-upon behaviors are monitored by members of the group. Meetings, progress-reporting, and role-swapping are examples. 
5. Graduated SanctionsHelpful and unhelpful behaviors are promptly addressed, so that unhelpful behaviors do not persist, and helpful behaviors are rewarded accordingly.Starting with a ‘shared intent’ to monitor behaviors within the group, and determination of agreed-upon consequences, will guide a group toward this. 
6. Conflict Resolution MechanismsConflicts are resolved in a way that is considered fast and fair by all members.Some examples for implementing include development of listening and assertiveness skills for members, and creation of a trusted mediator or judicial committee, and process for escalating sanctions if needed. 
7. Minimal Recognition of Rights to OrganizeAuthority of members and sub-groups to self-govern. The group should have built-in structures for avoiding interference from others outside the context of their needs and abilities. 
8. Polycentric GovernanceThe group applies principles 1-7 to relate collaboratively with other groups, in service of their mission and goals.

The Core Design Principles as a Multilevel Framework

When properly applied to any group, Ostrom’s CDP’s will improve cooperation and equity across members of the group. However, most groups do not operate in a vacuum. Rather, they require interactions with other groups to achieve desired outcomes. The ProSocial approach addresses this need for group-to-group cooperation to prevent different groups from working at cross-purposes.

“A forward-thinking organization will be considering not only how their members interact with each other, but also how they interact with other related organizations.”

It is clear why this consideration is necessary for the success of any individual group. Even when individual members work well together, the group itself relies on resources that are needed by other groups. Without this eye toward cooperation, behaviors that benefit a given group can easily subvert the interests of other groups sharing their space and resources. Companies compete for market-share; non-profit organizations rely on funding from similar sources; schools in a given district must share from a pool of support staff; and so on. With this in mind, a forward-thinking organization will be considering not only how their members interact with each other, but also how they interact with other related organizations.

As we saw in the last chapter, the dominating approaches to regulating interactions between groups have been top-down governance and free-market rule. The ProSocial alternative to these approaches applies the CDP’s to inter-group relationships, and provides a framework for building systems that benefit all groups involved.

Auxiliary Design Principles and Exceptions to the Rules

Once we start the work of applying the CDP’s to groups where we operate, we’ll see a couple of realizations emerge. The first is that they are necessary, but not always sufficient on their own. In some cases, auxiliary design principles may need to be adopted for a group to be maximally effective. The ProSocial method leaves room for groups to create and institute their own additional design principles, fitting to the context in which they operate.

“The ProSocial approach recognizes the importance of sensitivity to context.”

The second realization is that there are instances where some of the CDP’s are less relevant, or aren’t necessarily feasible given the needs of the group. For example, the need for timely responses to a natural disaster may mean that inequity or inclusiveness in decision-making cost so much in terms of time that they conflict with the group’s ability to operate effectively. In addition to auxiliary design principles, the ProSocial approach recognizes the importance of sensitivity to context. 

Seeing the Principles as a Whole

We asked the question in an earlier post, “If the Core Design Principles are so intuitive, why aren’t they implemented more widely?” The truth is, creating large-scale changes in an organization and maintaining these practices over time can be an enormous challenge. While they seem sensible on paper, the complexities of human behavior present challenges to starting and maintaining any large initiative.

The next couple of chapters will describe some of the psychology that leads to this difficulty, and follow up with specific methods from the authors for creating the desired changes in groups of any size. 

Want to learn more?

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Also, for an intensive workshop-style training, please check out our event with Dr. Thomas Szabo and Dr. Darnell Lattal, set for January, 2020 near Seattle, WA. Tom was a student in Steve Hayes’ lab when Prosocial emerged and has been conducting Prosocial workshops for ten years. Darnell is former president of Aubrey Daniels International, one of the foremost Organizational Behavior Management firms in the world. She has been practicing for over 40 years.

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