Engagement

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to. Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

Walking away might happen because the outcomes which are being worked towards (the what) are just not compelling enough.  Or it might be because the process of how the collaboration is working (high level governance, day-to-day secretariat work, speed and complexity of decision-making) doesn't suit them.  Or it might be because the other collaborators (the who) make too uneasy a team - perhaps there's a fundamental clash of values or identity.

What this tells you, then, is that decisions about these three threads (the what, the who and the how) are shared.  No one party can impose their preference on the other(s).

So sometimes there's a need to compromise, if the prize is worth it

Some outcomes that one organisation wants to achieve may depend on it helping others to deliver their own outcomes first or at the same time (the what).  This may mean that some collaborative work doesn’t easily fit into the first organisation’s priorities, processes and systems.  This is the main reason why collaboration depends on great internal working too - see future post.

You can't force collaboration

Organisations which the initiators or collaborators would really like to involve, can decline to get involved (the who).  You may need to go into persuasion and listening mode, asking "what would it take, for your organisation to collaborate?" or "what do you want to achieve, that this emerging work could help take forward?" or "how would it need to be organised and run, for your organisation to be happy with getting involved?"

Helping your team share decisions

The big challenge in sharing decisions is knowing how much decision-making authority you have within your own organisation.  Let me explain why.  There will almost certainly be some tension between what your organisation wants and what your collaborators want.  Even if it's just over process matters like how far in advance to send around pre-meeting reading, or whether to have formal Terms of Reference for a steering group.  So the people 'in the room' doing the negotiating need to be clear about their organisation's ‘bottom lines’ and preferences, and clear about their own mandate to commit it to things (including things which don’t directly deliver their own organisation's objectives).

You or your team need to be confident that the people the report to are happy with the ways things are progressing.

And if you or your team are involved in  working out the process (e.g. planning wider stakeholder engagement, planning and running meetings, project planning), they need to do this in conjunction with collaborators’ organisations.

If your organisation has rigid annual planning and budget-setting processes, there may be a tension because it will not be in control of the pace that the collaboration moves at, so there will be quite a lot of uncertainty to take into account when doing that internal planning and budgeting.

Keep an eye out for the impact of your own internal systems such as authorisation or reporting procedures - are they getting in the way of collaborative work?  Who do you need to talk to, to sort this out?

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Working collaboratively: world premiere!

So it's here! A mere nine months after first being contacted by Nick Bellorini of DōSustainability, my e-book on collaboration is out!

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging on some of the things that really struck me about writing it and that I'm still chewing over.  In the meantime, I just wanted to let you know that it's out there, and you, dear reader, can get it with 15% off if you use the code PWP15 when you order it. See more here.

It's an e-book - and here's something cool for the dematerialisation and sharing economy geeks: you can rent it for 48 hours, just like a film!  Since it's supposed to be a 90 minute read, that should work just fine.

Thanks!

And I couldn't have done it without the wonderful colleagues, clients, peers, critics, fellow explorers and tea-makers who helped out.

Andrew Acland, Cath Beaver, Craig Bennett, Fiona Bowles, Cath Brooks, Signe Bruun Jensen, Ken Caplan, Niamh Carey, Lindsey Colbourne, Stephanie Draper, Lindsay Evans, James Farrell, Chris Grieve, Michael Guthrie, Charlotte Millar, Paula Orr, Helena Poldervaart, Chris Pomfret, Jonathon Porritt, Keith Richards, Clare Twigger-Ross, Neil Verlander, Lynn Wetenhall; others at the Environment Agency; people who have been involved in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach in England in particular in the Lower Lee, Tidal Thames and Brent; and others who joined in with an InterAct Networks peer learning day on collaboration.

Leadership teams for collaboration

"Who will make sure it doesn't fall over?"

This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.

It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value - and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be - what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?

If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over.  Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?

Luxurious reading time

I've been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It's been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference.  I found some great academic papers, including "Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice" by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash.  This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call 'critical variables' which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.

It's worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on 'collaborative governance', which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).

Leadership as a critical variable

Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables.  They say:

"Although 'unassisted' negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit."

What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership?  Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator?  Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?

Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators.  It's worth quoting at some length here:

"Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust."

This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain 'above the fray' - a facilitator or mediator.

"Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong "organic" leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process."

An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful 'organic' leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note "an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership."

Policy framework for collaboration

I'm also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach.  I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and 'host' or 'lead' collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments.  The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.

One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.

There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.

One of the phrases used in Defra's presentation was 'independent host' and another was 'facilitator'.  It's not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases.  I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom?  Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker?  If so, how will this be resourced?

I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash's honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed.  Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.

Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.

Do-ing it together

Have you come across - new e-publishers who are bringing out a series of 90 minute reads on key sustainability topics?  I particularly liked Anne Augustine's First 100 Days on the Job, for new sustainability leads. Now I've been asked to write a slim volume on collaboration for the great people at Dō.  I'm very excited about this - and I want to do it collaboratively.

So tell me: what are your favourite examples of successful sustainability collaborations?

Collaboration: doing together what you can't do alone; doing together what you both/all want to do; sharing the decision-making about what you do and how you do it.

Post a comment here, or email me.

Thanks, collaborators!

Holding nested tensions - doing and waiting

Many strands of work at the moment share a theme of putting in place the conditions for collaboration, and then waiting for something to happen.

The work

I'm working with a colleague to train people from a large state body to pilot a collaborative approach to delivering one of their legal duties.  There is pressure - from managers who don't quite get it - to have clear timetables and plans, for action to be delivered.  But while you can call on hierarchy and processes to get the job done within your own organisation, you can't tell collaborators what to do. And collaboration relies on genuinely compelling outcomes which are shared by more than one party. You can't magic those out of the air.  Our client organisation is in a position to be very clear about its own 'compelling outcomes' on the basis of a technical evidence base and legal duties.  Whether there are potential collaborators out there who share any of those compelling outcomes is one of the early questions which needs exploration.

Another strand of work is a multi-stakeholder initiative (it's hard to know how to describe it) where the convenors are using all of the good practice they know to bring people together in a spirit of enquiry and good will, to discover whether there are collaborations waiting to emerge. Participants share a sense that the current system of which they are a part is not sustainable. They may not agree about the bits which are problematic or what a sustainable version would look like.  Some of them are more natural bedfellows than others.

I'm in a curious ambiguous role as a participant in this initiative, and a 'friend of the process'.  Do I have a role as supporting the convenors? Am I in a privileged observer role, able to spot what's getting in the way and then leaving them to do something about it? Or might I choose to take more ownership and responsibility, doing something about the process myself?  (Let alone doing something about the system which we are there to change.)

Metaphors to understand the delicacy

I'm struggling to find metaphors to help explain the difference between project planning, and planning for (and then stewarding) collaborative emergence.

If you've looked after toddlers, you'll know the phenomenon of two children playing quite happily side by side, but with no interaction.  No matter how skillfully the grown-up coaxes, if they aren't ready to play together it's not going to happen.

Perhaps it's also like growing particularly temperamental plants, like orchids.  Sometimes it just doesn't work out.

Or internet dating. You set criteria and find lots of potential matches.  Everything looks promising.  And then the magic is either there or it's not. You can't make it happen through an act of will.

Or nursing a sick person: you intervene and you comfort. Sometimes it's enough to just sit next to their bed while their body gets on with doing something about the illness.

Collaboration for system change

All of these possible analogies imply someone outside of the process who is trying to get others to 'play nicely' (except the dating one). This seems unsatisfactory. Collaboration comes because the collaborators both really want to accomplish something which they can't do by themselves.  Layer on to that the unknowability of system level change, and sometimes it will take a lot of discussion, exploration and false-starts to find action which people take together which they hypothesise will lead to the right kind of change.

How do you know if you're using your time well?

This question arises in different guises.

In the large state-funded body, where the people running the collaborative experiments are very new to this way of working, there is a need to justify the way they are working to their own line managers, and to the team who are holding the experiment in the middle. At some point in the future, evaluation and the main external 'client' will want to know too.

In the system-level initiative, the hosting body needs to know that funds and staff time are being well used, and all the participants will be making daily choices about whether to be active or whether to sit on the sidelines.

I ran a workshop for a well-known NGO some years ago, helping them to shape their internal monitoring and assessment process so that it would be fit for keeping an eye on complex emergent system change.  We had a fascinating day, but it was hard to come to conclusions about KPIs or management information to gather which would be meaningful in helping the team decide what to do, or in helping the organisation decide whether to keep an area of work going.  So much would come down to professional judgement, trust and even intuition.

And the question arises for individual change agents, as I have seen over the course of all my work in independent practice: am I doing the right things? is change happening fast enough, far enough, deep enough, wide enough?  This is one of the four tensions which were explored in my paper for the EABIS Colloquium in 2008.

Frameworks, checklists, dance moves

In the training, we are using some great frameworks and checklists to help conceptualise the choices and possibilities which stakeholders are faced with, when exploring collaboration.

We have a spectrum of collaborative working, from information sharing to full mainstreaming of the shared compelling outcome in both (all) the collaborating organisations.

We have a two-by-two matrix plotting whether, for a given compelling outcome, the organisation in question can accomplish it alone or can only do it with others; against whether there are any 'others' who want to collaborate to achieve that outcome.

We have guidance on what to think about when setting up a 'holding group' to keep an overview of the collaborative work.

At some point this will come into the public domain and I'll add links.

And we also know, from experience and the writings of others, that sometimes all you can do is put in place the conditions, hold a process lightly and then wait.  (Or stumble forward.)

"Engaging Emergence" - first impressions

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Peggy Holman's new book, Engaging Emergence. Many readers will know Peggy as one of the authors of The Change Handbook, along with Tom Devane and Steven Cady. I read it in bursts, and every chapter has something comforting and challenging in it. Peggy asks

"What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better?"

There's so much anger, fear and grief in conversations about ecosystem collapse.  I'd love it if that negative emotion could be composted into the fertile soil where new things grow.  There are positive reframings of disturbance and disruption.

I relished the permission she gives to let go of the things which bore or scare us, but which we do out of a misplaced sense of duty, and to embrace the aspects of the system which we are really interested in:

"Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service."

I am developing some training on collaboration at the moment, and this exhortation to hold what's important to you, whilst also deeply hearing what's important to other people will become a theme, I'm sure.

Collaborative writing

An interesting footnote on why I was sent a copy: Peggy wrote the book as a blog, and invited anyone who wanted to post comments.  Because I interacted with this, I was offered a copy.  Fascinating peer review process and marketing wheeze rolled up together.  The blog (now inactive) is here and the list of all those who helped out is here.

http://strategicengagement.webs.com/

What's up for grabs?

Spurred on by discussions over at the Involve blog, I want to share a really useful framework for those of you who are thinking about engaging stakeholders or (sections of) the public while you decide what to do about something. At the start, discussions within the organisation which is asking for input need to establish clarity about what's alread fixed, what's completely open and what there are some preferences about but where there is room for change.


Pie Chart: Lindsey Colbourne

Not negotiable - At the start of your engagement process it is likely that what's decided (and thus not negotiable) may be at the level of overall objectives, and timescales.  For example, a Government department may have a policy objective and a legal deadline to meet.   A local council may know that it wants to revamp a local park, and have a potential funding source whose criteria it needs to meet.

Negotiable - You may have some existing preferences, ideas or initiatives which have been piloted and could be rolled out.  There may be some technical information which will inform the decision or be used to assess options.  There may be criteria which you are bound to, or want to use, but haven't yet applied to the options.

Open - There will be aspects of the decision which you have no preference about and where the decisions can in effect (even if not in law or within your organisation's own rules) be delegated to others.

Remember that you will also have decided-negotiable-open aspects to your engagement process - the people you talk to, the points at which you engage them, the methods and channels which are used.

The conversation you have internally with your team about what goes in each slice of the pie can often be dramatically useful: flushing out assumptions which have hitherto been hidden, and exposing disagreements within the team in the safety of your planning conversations rather than in the less forgiving gaze of stakeholders.

The pie slices shift over time

At the start of the process, it's likely that the 'decided' slice is slimmer than the other two.  As the process unfolds, things usually shift from 'open' to 'negotiable' and from 'negotiable' to 'decided'. Principles and assessment criteria get agreed. Ways of working are negotiated. Working groups or consultation processes are established. Exploratory conversations crystalise into options which get fleshed out and then assessed. Some options get discarded and others emerge as front-runners.

Sometimes, things can move in the other direction: when opposition is so strong that you have to think again, or when new information emerges which shows that ways forward which had seemed marginal are now much more likely to work.  In extreme circumstances, this may lead to the initiative being abandoned altogether. The debacle over England's publicly-owned forests is an example of this.

Tell people what's 'up for grabs'

There's no point asking people what you should do about something if you have already made up your mind.

By all means ask for feedback which will help you communicate your decisions more clearly. Understanding people's concerns and aspirations means you can address them directly in your explanations about why you have made a particular decision and how to expect to implement and review it.

Do people the simple courtesy of letting them know which aspects of situation you are most keen to get their feedback and ideas about - which information will most helpful in informing the decision, the dilemmas you'd like to think through with them, the innovative ideas you'd like to test out.

That way, everyone's time is spent where it can make the most difference.

Simples.

Thanks to...

Acknowledgements to Lindsey Colbourne and others at the late lamented Sustainable Development Commission, InterAct Networks, Sciencewise-ERC and the Environment Agency who have been developing and working with this framework over the last few years.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration - some headline sources

This blog entry is written for a very specific reason: I've just advised a group of people to look at my blog for initial sources on multi-stakeholder collaboration... but reviewing the blog I realise that it'll be quite hard to find the things I mean, and some of them I haven't even written about yet! So, especially for them - and for you, dear other readers - here's a quick brain dump of key sources and ideas which I think form a good set of starting points, mostly from my own experience.  Which means that if you have other great resources to tell people about, please do post them in the comments box.

Examples

There are some really interesting examples from the UK of the Environment Agency spending quite a lot of time and resources thoughtfully engaging in conversations with communities and other stakeholders when considering flood defences and coastal erosion risk.  For example, Shaldon and Medmerry [transparency alert - I worked on the Medmerry project] where engagement with stakeholders was carefully planned so that people could influence the decisions which the project team was making as the plans developed. Both schemes are ongoing.  See for example this report from the UK's Sustainable Development Commission which includes Shaldon as an example, and this short case study from the Environment Agency on Shaldon.  A search using 'environment agency', shaldon, stakeholder and 'liaison group' will bring up other interesting views on the engagement approach and its success.There's a bit more about the EA's ground-breaking work in this area in this article on DAD/EDD.

Another place-specific collaborative approach is described in this article "Human Systems Intervention And The Natural Step" by Jenny Sardone & Magdalena Szpala, first published in AMED's Organisations and People journal. I believe that it's not available electronically, but I'm trying to chase down an e-version so I can link to it.

Much better known are the FSC and the MSC - now well-established multi-stakeholder organisations which tried to 'get the whole system in the room' to work out credible consensus-based criteria for what might be considered sustainable management of forest and marine resources.  They have had varying degrees of success over the years in getting buy-in from all the different interests (environmental, social, economic). I wrote about the MSC a few years ago, an article called plenty more fish in the sea.   Current examples include WWF-UK's Tasting the Future, Forum for the Future's work on tourism, and CPSL's work on both climate and insurance. Some of these have crystalised into organisations, others are more fluid than that: fellow travellers collaborating with intention.

Theories, techniques and patterns

Fascinating to ponder on what the circumstances are which bring about authentic whole-system engagement, and what you have to do to get the right people in the room in the first place, and then to keep up the momentum. The best resource I know of at the moment on this is Peggy Holman's Engaging Emergence.  But I'm sure there are lots of others: please help me collect them by posting your favourites in the comments box.

Favourite techniques which can help include World Cafe, Open Space Technology and Future Search. I've blogged about the first big Tasting the Future meeting here, which combined a number of techniques.

SDC resources on collaboration, dialogue, engagement

Since its demise, it's really hard to find the engagement resources on the SDC's website. So here are some direct links to some of them:

  • SDC's response to National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement (2008)
  • Final report on the SDC's Supplier Obligation stakeholder and public engagement process "Household Energy from 2011", with a description of process and findings.  There are links to other documents about this process here. [Transparency alert - I worked on the Supplier Obligation project.]
  • An independent evaluation report about the SDC's Engagement in Tidal Power process, which brought together stakeholders and the public to think about criteria and issues in harnessing power from the tides.
  • The groundbreaking and really rather wonderful (for process geeks) guidance on designing engagement, published by the SDC but drawing on pioneering work done by InterAct Networks (Lindsey Colbourne, Lynn Wetenhall, Jeff Bishop, Richard Harris and others) and developed through practitioners at the Environment Agency among others. This work continues, for example through work Sciencewise-ERC has done with DECC.
  • Some specific gems from this guidance include 'engagement and the policy making cycle' and a 'typology of engagement' and some definitions of different kinds of engagement. [More transparency - I work regularly with Sciencewise-ERC and as of 2011 am a Director of InterAct Networks]

Add your wisdom

This has been a very rapid post, and most of the examples and ideas are those which I'm personally familiar with. There must be lots of others, including some great compilation resources. Please use the comments space to link to your favourites and to critique what I've posted here.

 

How planned does engagement need to be, to be helpful to the 'convenor'?

The latest Sciencewise Bulletin asks whether constructive dialogue is possible online.

"One of the key problems in online deliberation [is] that it can result in a game of who can shout the loudest. We’ve all seen discussion threads which end in name calling, usually around a few contentious issues which had nothing to do with the original topic. It is this tendency which lies behind ‘Godwin's Law' which proposes that as an internet discussion thread grows longer, it also grows angrier and the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler approaches."

Colleagues from the field of 'virtual facilitation' have been adding to the debate, including on the Sciencewise-ERC Forum, considering the role of anonymity versus seeing the other contributors as real people (for example by inviting them to add a photo to their profile) and also the usefulness of active moderation.

I am working with some national government clients at the moment, helping them to plan their engagement with stakeholders around a couple of different policy-related decisions coming up later in 2011.  I stress how useful it is to be clear what they, as the 'decision makers' want to get from the engagement process.  How they can identify the stakeholders they should be in touch with, and phase the conversations so that they get information and opinions at a time when they can influence the decision-making process.

For example, some things will be decided early on, and other things can only be decided later.  There's not so much use in asking people about things which have already been decided!

But an open on-line dialogue is less easily controlled or structured by the facilitators.  Anyone with internet access can join in, and you may not know if they are who they say they are.  This lack of control makes organisers nervous.  Should it?

If it is true that "for some people, conflict is simply a source of recreation", then online dialogue could "get out of hand".  This is one of the learnings from the list of "What online communities can teach the Public Conversations Project", posted on the Public Conversations blog, by Deborah Elizabeth Finn.

What are the implications for on-line dialogue?

My experience is almost entirely in bounded, organised and above all, face-to-face engagement.  I confess to some anxiety myself about open on-line engagement - how do the relevant decision-makers make sense of the inputs? How do they steer conversations back to the issues which are yet to be decided?

Your thoughts are very welcome, here or on the Sciencewise Forum.

Good for your skin, your figure and the planet!

If you're trying to get fashion-crazy teens and young people interested in climate change, it makes sense to start where they are.  And that's what Global Cool have done, in their Eighteen Degrees of Inspiration campaign. But isn't it superficial, missing the point, and above all not going to get the scale of change we need at a systemic level?

Well, according to Chris Rose's VBCOP theory, starting where people are and eliciting changed behaviour for non-'green' reasons is the most effective way to build up political space for systemic change.

Want to know more?

I've written about this in the environmentalist, and you can read that article here.

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?

It seems to me that the distinction is brought most sharply into focus when critical mass is needed to make a behaviour viable.  Want to buy more locally-produced food?  A farmers’ market or a local veggie box scheme needs a critical mass of producers and customers to be viable.  Setting up a lift share scheme?  You’re going to need more than two members.  Freecycling?  Hackney Freecycle has over 17,000 members (yes, really) generating about 1,500 messages about free stuff for giving and taking a month.

Now this kind of critical mass isn’t going to be important for all the behaviours you want to change, which is probably why the distinctions isn’t so clear in some of the descriptions.  But where it is, then special attention needs to be given to recruiting the mass.

  • How will you make it as widely-known as possible?
  • How will you make it simple for people to let you know they’re up for it?
  • How will you make it easy to store information about a pool of people and then ‘activate’ them you have enough mass to start things?
  • And how will you use their good ideas and information to shape the system, so that it works for enough of them?

There’s a virtuous circle which can come into play here.  This was brought home to me by a stakeholder engagement planning meeting which I ran last week with a community organisation which has been awarded substantial funding through the Low Carbon Communities Challenge.  We did a quick brainstorm of all the non-carbon related ‘social capital’ in their village – the formal and informal organisations which bring people together and build a sense of community.  The population is about 2,000 and the group came up with over thirty formal groups, clubs or regular events (one for every 67 people!) and a host of informal groupings.  Active community organisations build community channels and hubs for conversation.  Members will have more connection with each other, and more trust, than people who are merely residents of the same place.  So a critical mass of ‘warm’ people is much easier to find.

I was bowled over by how many active societies there are, and we all felt very positive about the potential for drawing on this wonderful resource for the low-carbon activities the group has planned.

Actions we take which help build community – in our neighbourhoods or workplaces – all add to the web of interconnections which form fertile soil for future behaviour change.

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?

Who can help me influence them? Mapping the players and pressures in a system of behaviour

Strands of work on stakeholder engagement and behaviour change have been woven together in a couple of different pieces of work I’ve been doing with public sector clients recently.  I’ve ended up developing some new frameworks and adapting some existing ones to help people clarify their aims and plan their campaigns. If you want to influence someone to change their behaviour, there are models and approaches which can help.  For example, the six sources of influence help you identify the right messages and pay attention to the surrounding context which supports and enables – or discourages and gets in the way of – the desired behaviour.

When you are working for a public body (the NHS, a Government department) and you are trying to influence the behaviour of people who you have at best a distant relationship with (mothers, or people who buys cars) then you will go through a multi-stage process:

  1. Should we be trying to encourage this behaviour change, which we see as desirable?

  2. If yes, what role(s) should we be playing (legislator, educator, convenor, funder etc)?

  3. If yes, what are the most effective ways of influencing the behaviour?

Should we encourage this behaviour change?

Given current discussions about social engineering, this question is important.  It might seem entirely obvious and uncontroversial to us that wanting to promote energy efficiency that more efficient light bulbs should be promoted.  So obvious that we don’t stop to consider possible unintended consequences or misunderstandings.

So an important early stage is to engage stakeholders in helping to inform the decision about whether to encourage a particular behaviour change at all.   For this, classic stakeholder identification and mapping techniques (e.g. see figure 1 in this paper from WWF) will help ensure that you hear from more than the usual suspects.

Stakeholders can share perspectives about the policy goals, identify which behaviours might help to achieve them, and whether action to encourage those behaviours is a good idea.

What role should we be playing?

Some public bodies draft new legislation and regulations, others deliver services.  Some enforce regulations and others provide advice and public education.  Some bring other organisations together, convening conversations and partnerships.  Others commission and fund research.  There are lots of roles that public sector organisations could play in a given situation.  Which role or roles make the most sense, in meeting the policy aim in question?

Listening to the views of stakeholders in relation to that question is enormously helpful.  And those stakeholders may be professionals who work in that field of expertise - but removed from the coal face - or they may be practitioners on the ground whose direct experience can bring a dose of reality to the conversations.

A great example of this is the Low Carbon Communities Challenge, launched on Monday 8th February.  It will (amongst other things) draw on the experiences and insights of 22 communities which are being funded to install energy efficiency kit and renewable energy equipment en masse in their areas.  They’ll also be encouraging people to adopt low-carbon behaviours.  Each community will be doing something different, guided by its particular circumstances and enthusiasms.  Excitingly, each community will also be asked to identify the barriers to and enablers of progress, in particular what government could do differently to make this kind of low-carbon push as successful as possible across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I'm delighted to be a facilitator on this project.

What are the best ways of influencing this behaviour?

A cool analysis of the system of players and pressures which lead to the current patterns of behaviour is a good starting point, and involving a team (including some stakeholders) will help ensure that the picture built up is rich and complete.

In a workshop a few weeks ago, we used the classic ‘pestle’ headings to brainstorm the pressures and players which influence a particular behaviour which my client is interested in changing.  Let’s say that the behaviour is keeping one’s car well-maintained, so that it runs as fuel-efficiently as possible.  Specific behaviours include keeping the tyre pressure optimum, and removing the roof box when it’s not needed.

In the workshop, people identified players and pressures and wrote them on post-its, sticking them up under the headings of Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legislative, Environmental and Other.  The headings and team-work both help to ensure that no aspect of the system is forgotten.

Once that was done, we stood back and looked at the results, and pictures were taken on a camera phone.  Then I invited people to bring the post-its to a big blank sheet of paper, and to begin mapping the relationships between the players and pressures, starting with “the most interesting” element of the system.  [The idea of asking for ‘the most interesting’ came from a book about coaching which I’ve been reading.]

One post-it was brought to the empty map, and was soon followed by others.  Lines of connection were drawn, and amid the chaos some patterns emerged.  Most importantly, the team realised that these behaviours were more like DIY and home maintenance than like ‘eco’ behaviours, so when targeting different audiences they should seek our market research which segments people according to things which are relevant to that kind of behaviour, rather than segmentations which have been developed with an environmental purpose in mind.

Mapping stakeholders for behaviour change

This brought us smoothly to looking at which stakeholders to engage as a priority, to add muscle to the campaign to  influence people to adopt (or reinforce) the desired behaviours.

Many of these stakeholders were ‘players’ identified in the earlier exercise.  Some were organisations and people who the team thought of as the system was being mapped.

As a variation on classic impact /influence matrix, and building on the ‘who can help me’ matrix which I use with organisational SD change champions, is this diagram.

Brainstormed onto post-its, stakeholders are then mapped according to the team’s view about their influence and attitude.

You then overlay the coloured ‘zones’ onto the matrix, and these are linked to typologies of engagement like the ladder of engagement.

The people and organisations which are the highest priority to engage with, are those who are highly influential and have the strongest opinions (for and against) the desired behaviour change.  In-depth engagement which involves them directly in designing and implementing the behaviour campaign will be important.

Those in the ‘enhanced’ zones need to be involved and their opinions and information sought.

Those in the ‘standard’ zone can be engaged with a lighter touch – perhaps limited to informing them about the campaign and the desired behaviour.

The workshops helped these clients to identify new stakeholders, reprioritise them, and consider more strategically who to engage and to what purpose.

Real-life facilitation : dancing with ‘preparation’ and ‘responsiveness’

With detailed preparation and planning, it can be tempting to think that the design job is over once the workshop begins. Of course, that’s not the case. As a facilitator said “people interpret questions in such different ways” and “once you’ve asked the question, it belongs to the group.” So how can you combine preparation and responsiveness?

What is the job of a river?

The latest 'engaging people' column has just been published in the environmentalist, and it's about ecosystem services and stakeholder engagement. It was a lot of fun writing this article with the erudite and ebullient Mark Everard, who I first met when working with The Natural Step.  Mark is one of that rare - but thankfully increasing - breed of technical experts who really understand the importance and value of stakeholder engagement. 

The article explores engaging people in using an ecosystems services approach to understand places, problems and solutions.

It was great to compare experiences of running stakeholder workshops which are either centred on ecosystems services, or included a nod to that way of thinking.

Mark's experience has been more extensive than mine, and he seems to have witnessed more positive resolutions.  When a farmer asked "what is the job of a river" in the workshop I was running, he gave his own answer: it's to carry water away from farmland as fast as possible.  There wasn't the opportunity to enable a longer conversation which could acknowledge watery multi-tasking, and the benefits people from it.

We all rely on ecosystem services, whether we like it or not.  We all eat food.  We all drink water.  We all breathe air.  Mostly, in a country like the UK, we just don't realise that these are ecosystem services - carrots come from the supermarket, not an ecosystem. 

But it seems to me that some people feel threatened by the weight given to ecosystem services which seem - to them - to be more 'about birds than people'.  Dialogue which enables deeper understanding of our dependence on the natural world is enormously helpful, but in my experience it is hard to engage people in this kind of conversation when they are suspicious that the process it is part of is an excuse for stopping them meeting what they see as their more immediate and direct needs.

So I'm excited to hear about Mark's successes in moving beyond mistrust.

How can wind farm developers win friends?

It won't have escaped your notice that not everyone in the UK loves wind turbines.  So if you're planning to add to our renewable energy capacity, you might want to think about how to involve your neighbours early on. In 2005 my article (pdf) in the environmentalist described some interesting initiatives specifically designed to help those promoting or planning wind energy developments, to engage their stakeholders.

Listen and learn...

Too often, I meet with people who see stakeholder engagement as a more sophisticated way of selling their messages to potential critics. That's not the game I'm in!

Don't bother asking people what they think if you're not willing to change your plans as a result.

This article explains why you need to act in good faith when you're listening to your stakeholders.

Update: November 2010

I've been using a new categorisation recently with good effect, courtesy of Lindsey Colbourne and Sciencewise:

  • transmit - "straight comms" - one way, putting out a message about something which has already been decided or already happened.
  • collaborate - work together to co-create an understanding of the situation, problem, possible solutions, implementation plans and so on.
  • receive - "extractive research" of the kind perfected by social researchers, market researchers etc.

There is absolutely a role for all three, and many processes or even single events will include ways of doing all three.

But if you want buy-in, and want those implementing the outcomes to want to do so, collaboration is the way.  And more fun, IMHO.

Facilitator and blogger Myriam Laberge has explored this a bit too.

And speaking personally about climate change...

There are quite a few courses on offer in the UK to help people speak in public more confidently, knowledgeably and effectively about climate change. This article which I wrote for the environmentalist examines two of them, focusing on the key points that the trainers are trying to get across.

Dinosaur DAD and Enlightened EDD - alternative approaches to involving people

I spend quite a lot of my time working with clients to engage stakeholders around topics related to sustainable development. This might be working with coastal communities to figure out how to respond to rising sea levels.  It might be chewing over new approaches to public transport.  Or it could be examining how the market for supplying domestic energy can be adjusted to reward companies for selling less energy or lower carbon energy.

I also run a lot of training courses for people who want to learn more about stakeholder engagement and to develop their facilitation skills.

DAD / EDD is one of the most useful models I know for helping learners and clients understand the difference between traditional communications - Decide, Announce, Defend (Abandon) - and an approach which engages stakeholders: Engage, Deliberate, Decide.

This article I wrote for the environmentalist, published in February 2009,  explains a bit more.

Plenty more fish in the sea?

Why should environmentalists (in all our various guises) get into stakeholder engagement? Sometimes the problems are just too complex to be solved by one party acting alone.

If you can bring people together in an atmosphere of dialogue (a 'conversation with a center, not sides' as William Isaacs calls it), then the chances of finding that sweet spot where everyone's interests coincide is so much higher.

Now this is a bit like an optical illusion even in principle - the concept slips in and out of focus.  It's even harder in practice.  There are, though, some institutions and processes that get close, and have resulted in some interesting collaborative work.

Take, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council.  It's built on the idea that lots of different people have an interest in the sustainability of fish stocks, even if those interests are driven by different motivations.  It's an example of sustainable development happening because of people working together.

There's more about this in my article for the environmentalist, here (pdf).