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Greater gain, Collaboration accomplishes more than individual efforts

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Jackson – Solutions to natural resource problems are not easy, and Steve Smutko, UW professor and Spicer Chair, noted that collaboration enables situations that maximize winnings for everyone.

“All my work focuses on the idea that collaboration is negotiation,” Smutko explained. “What is it that we need to have, so each party who comes to the table with an objective can have their needs met?”

Smutko, who presented during the 2013 Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Annual Convention on Nov. 21 in Jackson, added “When we have complex problems, collaboration may be the only way to crack tough issues.”

Types of problems

There are three types of problems, Smutko explained.

The first type is simple and occurs when parties understand the problem and has a good idea as to what the solutions can be.

“We have experts and professionals who can solve those problems,” said Smutko. “Generally speaking, we elect people or appoint people to solve those problems.”

A type two problem, he said, is one where the problem is generally understood, but there are a myriad of solutions possible.

“In a type two policy situation, it is a matter of trying to find a solution,” Smutko explained. “Governments do this all the time and appoint task forces to start to look at the problem.”

“For the most part, natural resource problems fall into the type three situations,” he continued. “That is where we know the problem, but we don’t necessarily agree the problem or the problem is ambiguous.”

When all parties are not in agreement as to what the problem is, there is uncertainty in the problem or there is scientific uncertainty, Smutko noted that the issue becomes much more difficult.

Coming to the table

“When we start to talk about a type three problem, everyone comes to the table thinking about it in a different way,” Smutko said. “If everyone is trying to solve a different problem, we won’t find a common solution.”

He further added that the stakeholders who should be involved in solving type three problems come with a different perception.

“To solve these problems, there needs to be a lot of good discussion,” he commented. “Any decision that a sole decision-maker comes to will be wrong according to some proportion of the stakeholders, so collaboration works in this type of situation.”

In collaborating, stakeholders work together for a solution, rather than having one dictated to them.


Natural resource problems additionally hold complexities not seen in other arenas.

In managing natural resources, Smutko commented that considerations don’t revolve around a single issue but rather are multi-faceted.

“Stakeholders have conflicting value orientations, and everything we do has an effect on something else – including the social, economic and cultural aspects of the resource,” Smutko said.

He continued, “The issues we deal with in natural resource management span years and affect the people in the next generation.”

Smutko added that many times, decisions made collaboratively in natural resource management are precedent-setting actions with high stakes.

“The issues are also oriented around science and technology, so there is a heavy demand on the people who are talking about and discussing these issues,” he said. “Oftentimes, we also deal with uncertainty, and that is tricky.”

“We need adaptive leaders who understand these problems and are willing to engage in the complexities,” Smutko said. “There are certainly high stakes.”


“Collaboration,” Smutko said, “is simply negotiation among the parities. A successful negotiation results in a happy buyer and happy seller.”

He further noted that negotiations are often seen as a zero-sum game, where one party must lose for the other to profit. However, collaboration should be a positive-sum game, where all stakeholders can see benefits.

“Through collaboration, we are attempting to create something that we didn’t have before,” Smutko explained. “We are trying to create value.”

By collaborating, Smutko noted that benefits can be created that would not otherwise be possible. 

“If we take the time, begin to understand the other parties and what they need and understand the science, we can begin to create something we hadn’t been able to do before.”


“When we look at collaboration, we are interested in two things,” Smutko said. “One is the importance of the outcome, and the other is the importance of relationships.”

If one party is competitive and focused only on what they want without regard to the relationships, Smutko said, “We are just going to get what we need and move on.”

However, if the relationships are important, he added that collaboration can provide the opportunity for mutual gain through communication by negotiating.

“The purpose of collaboration is not so much to reach an agreement,” Smutko commented. “It is to discover if, by working together, we can achieve our interests in a way that is more fulfilling than by working separately.”

Look for more information from Smutko on collaboration in next week’s Roundup. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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