5DL Tools: Project Design and Community Charrettes™


We are often asked why we remain a small firm, given that our projects are often national or multinational in scale. There are many reasons, but at least three closely interrelated reasons are particularly important.

One is that we don’t want to become “teachers.” The new learning science has made it clear that there is not really any such thing as “teaching;” there is only learning and the facilitation of learning. The importance attached to teaching in contemporary education reflects only social power dynamics, not how people actually learn. Almost all aspects of traditional teaching—lectures, formal assessments, time-based credentialing and promotion, and more—have been shown to inhibit learning more than advance it. By staying small, we preclude bringing in-house enough domain expertise that we would ever be tempted to “teach” anything. Instead, we can remain committed to facilitating the learning of others by engaging them with domain experts in ways that maximize their learning, instead of maximizing the status, power, and income of the teacher.

Another is that the diversity of our projects and the sheer scale at which we work argue against, not for, any attempt on our part to become the world’s experts at the problems we solve. Fully understanding national and global-scale problems requires understanding the resources, objectives, constraints, and incentives of every important stakeholder in those problems. Bringing all those insights in-house would be impossible for any moderately complex challenge—and our challenges tend to start at “moderately complex” and grow more complicated from there. Staying small precludes hiring large numbers of domain experts, which prevents us from developing the hubris of believing that we “own” the correct or only answers to any of the challenges we address.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if we could own the understandings of the problems we tackle, we could never own the solutions. Our decades of experience have confirmed repeatedly that “all of us is smarter than any of us.” Time and again, we’ve seen the brilliant, breakthrough solution to a problem come, not from some global expert deeply engaged with the topic—and certainly not from us!—but from some peripheral or marginal stakeholder who understands the problem deeply and also is free to view it through new eyes and make impasse-cutting connections between knowledge domains.

A deep understanding of learning science has taught us that success in human development requires the inversion of many traditional relationships. Here are just three:

  • We don’t teach, we coach and facilitate, because optimal learning requires that the learner be primary and autonomous.
  • We don’t redesign organizations, we coach realignments, because optimal organizational structuring requires the intentionality of organizational participants.
  • We don’t design projects, we facilitate design by those who ‘own’ the problem and its solution.

This final insight brings us to our favorite design tool, the Community Charrette™. (Charrette is a term for a collaborative design process originally attributed to 19th Century French architects. Its rich history is readily available in Wikipedia.)

A Community Charrette is a carefully structured, carefully facilitated community process aimed at designing a key-stakeholder-affirmed strategy and developing agreement around an effective implementation plan for overcoming a shared challenge or shared set of related challenges requiring human development. The “community” is the community of stakeholders in the shared challenge. Over the past fifteen years and more, we have refined our methodologies over hundreds of Charrettes, learning how to facilitate even the most diverse and conflictual groups of stakeholders to come to a common understanding of a problem and a shared agreement about how best to overcome it. The process requires goodwill (though mechanisms exist for controlling bad actors) and some level of shared interest in finding a solution. Everything else comes from the synergies unleashed when a diverse group of people comes together to analyze and deliberate about a shared challenge.

Our Community Charrette differs primarily in detail from other charrette approaches. At heart, like all charrettes, it’s a collaborative problem-solving process among a community of individuals having a shared purpose. However, our version generalizes and extends each of the charrette’s “3-C” core concepts—collaboration, community, and critique (shared problem-solving)—to degrees and ends seldom imagined by earlier charrette leaders and participants.

We’ve optimized our process over time for the intangibles of the human development challenges we tackle, which introduces some differences from a charrette focused on designing, say, a tangible object such as a building. We’ve also optimized for scale. Traditional charrettes involve relatively small numbers of people who occupy a single space. We’ve delivered Community Charrettes at global scale, engaging together thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations across multiple time-zones, nations, and continents. Also, most charrettes produce a single kind of design; originally, a building blueprint. Our approach has been adapted to deliver a wide variety of designs, from course designs, to strategic master human development plans, to funding portfolio algorithms, to social-infrastructure laws, regulations, and policies.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve developed a portfolio of strategies for engaging constructively together the many, diverse stakeholders and world-views one tends to find in human development challenges. Traditional charrettes are monocultural: the participants are all architects or representatives of some other, single discipline with a shared world-view. By contrast, participants in large-scale human development come from every corner of society and every sort of specialized discipline. They don’t necessarily share world-views or even a common definition of the problem they face; for example, what teachers see as a resource problem, government funders may see as a performance problem, what parents see as a child development issue, policy makers may see as an economic development issue, and so on. These perspectives usually don’t align together naturally to support a shared problem definition and solution: they must be coaxed, nudged, and occasionally shoved into a useful and mutually valuable engagement. Our Community Charrette toolbox contains many techniques and tactics for aligning the most intractably different of perspectives.

The Community Charrette allows us to stay small and still solve huge problems. It gives us tools to bring together the “all of us” who are smarter than any of us at fiveDlearning and organize those people in ways that produce good solutions on which most or all of them can agree. Because of our well-earned confidence in the Charrette process, we can afford not to be the world’s experts in each new, large challenge we engage. When a client engages us to solve a problem they’ve found to be intractable, we know the solution exists somewhere in that client’s stakeholder universe. Our job isn’t to invent the solution; it’s to find it and to engage the rest of the stakeholders with it in the most ROI-maximizing way.

Over time, we at fiveDlearning have accomplished some extraordinary results in terms of scope, scale, and impact. But the secret to fiveDlearning’s success is that “we” did almost none of this. What we did was provide all the tools and techniques needed to support those who faced a shared problem in organizing themselves to identify and implement a good solution.  That’s our “secret sauce,” and that’s why it’s both possible and desirable for us to stay small and carefully focused on playing our specific, distinctive roles as clarifiers and facilitators in the challenges of human development.




We welcome your thoughts and comments below. Interested in learning more? Please drop us a note at info@fivedlearning.com.