transmit receive collaborate

What are your 'engagement aims'?

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

I love helping teams plan their engagement at an early stage of their thinking.  It's often done in a workshop, and we end up with an excellently solid shared understanding of what their engagement process is for, which then guide choices about methods, sequencing, aims for individual elements of the process and which stakeholders to engage.

One of the hardest disciplines to stick to - and yet one of the most useful - is to get really clear about the (multiple) engagement aims.

Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.

The triangle helps the team get clear about:

  • What they need to transmit to people outside the team - more everyday words like 'tell', 'educate', 'raise awareness', 'inspire', 'persuade' also fit under this heading. 
  • What they need to receive from people outside the team - 'ask', 'insight', 'research' which might include both objective facts and opinion or preferences.
  • What they need to collaborate with people outside the team, to 'create', 'decide', 'agree', 'develop'.

There are a few more things to note about engagement aims.

Aligned with "what's up for grabs"

Engagement aims should align seamlessly with "what's up for grabs": if you've really already decided there will be a new range of water-efficiency equipment in your stores, don't ask people whether you should start selling it. Tell them you are going to.  Ask them what would make the range successful, or collaborate with them to co-design a promotional partnership.  

If you have preferences about the range (price points, supplier's sustainability credentials) then tell people about these so that their responses can take appropriate account of those criteria.

If you are entirely open-minded about some aspects, then people can have free rein to come up with ideas.

Be clear who is deciding what

If you are asking people for information, ideas, options and so on, make sure that you tell them who is making the final decision, or how it will be made. People very often mistake consultation (a receive activity) for shared decision-making (which sits in the collaborate corner). 

Voting in a local council election is shared decision-making: the number of votes completely determines who wins the seat.  Consultation on a planning application gives members of the public an opportunity to voice their perspective, elected councillors may take those views into account when determining the application.  Once the decision has been made, the planning authority will then tell people what the decision is.

In particular people interpret mechanisms which look like voting, as meaning that decision-making power has been devolved. Hence the grumpiness about Boaty McBoatface.

Consensus is a way of reaching a decision in a collaborative setting (although it is not the only one).  If you are receiving views (and then making the decision yourself) then, while it can be interesting to discover areas of consensus, it is not essential. Understanding the range of views (and the needs and concerns that underlie them) can be as useful.

The aims will change as the process unfolds

Just as the things which are fixed, negotiable and open will change over time, so will the engagement aims.  During an option-creating phase, things are likely to be more collaborative as people co-create possibilities.  You are also likely to want to receive a wide range of views and information.  Once options have been identified, then preferences and feedback are useful, but you may not want to encourage people to come up with entirely new options.  (Of course, if none of your options are acceptable, you may well need to to do this.  In effect you will be going back to being open, rather than having negotiable options.)  And when you've decided on a fixed outcome, tell people. 

Aims for individual activities within the wider process

Some activities are brilliantly suited to tell aims, others to ask aims and some to collaborate aims.  A feedback form on a newsletter is unlikely to elicit a well-worked up option supported by multiple parties.  A focus group isn't a good way of getting your message out. 

Here's a table of appropriate techniques.

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Aims for different stakeholders

Depending on the kind of 'stake' they have, you will want to engage different stakeholders with different levels of intensity and it's highly likely that you will have different engagement aims for different stakeholders or types of stakeholder.

When developing a strategic flood plan, for example, you may want to tell residents and people who work in a particular area that the plan is being developed, how they can keep informed about its progress, what their opportunities are to input and in due course, what you have decided.

You will want to ask landowners, parish and town councillors and those people managing particular businesses, nature reserve, utilities and vital services what their aspirations and needs are over the time period of the plan, and for data about geology, biodiversity, demographics and so on. 

And you will want to collaborate with key decision-makers whose support and active involvement is vital for the success of the strategy - e.g. county council, lead local flood authority and so on. 

Plan and improvise

This kind of strategic, analytical approach shouldn't be seen as a way of tying you down. The engagement plan should be a living thing: not sitting on a shelf gathering dust.  In fact, it gives the team a great foundation of shared understanding of the context and objectives which makes improvising in response to changing circumstances much more successful.



Who shall we engage, and how intensely?

So you've brainstormed a long (long!) list of all the kinds of people and organisations who have a stake in the policy, project, organisation or issue that you are focusing on. This is what we call stakeholder identification.

What do you do next?

Stakeholder analysis

Now there are lots of ways you can analyse your universe of stakeholders, but my absolute favourite, for its conceptual neatness and the way it lends itself to being done by a group, is the impact / influence matrix.

Notice the subtle but important difference between this matrix, and the one most commonly used by PR and communications specialists, which focuses on whether stakeholders are in favour of - or opposed to - your plans.  It would be inappropriate to use this for stakeholder engagement which engages in order to inform decisions, because you will be engaging before you have made up your mind.  And if you haven't decided yet, how can stakeholders have decided whether they agree with you?!

Instead, the matrix helps you to see who needs to be engaged most intensely because they can have a big impact on the success or otherwise of the work, or because the work will have a big impact on them.  It is 'blind' to whether you think the stakeholders are broadly your mates or the forces of darkness.

Map as a team

Your list is written out on sticky notes - one per note - and the stakeholders have been made as specific as possible: Which team at the local authority? Which residents? Which NGO? Which suppliers in the supply chain?

You have posted up some flip chart paper with the matrix drawn on.

The mapping is ideally done as a team - and that team might even include some stakeholders!  During the mapping, everyone needs to be alert to the risk of placing a particular stakeholder in the 'wrong' place, because you don't want to engage with them.  It's self-defeating, because sooner or later you will need to engage with the most influential stakeholders whether you want to or not.  And sooner is definitely better than later.

You move the notes around until you're all satisfied that you have a good enough map.

Intensity? Transmit, receive, collaborate

When the mapping is complete, then you can discuss the implications: those in the low/low quadrant probably just need to be informed about what's happening (transmit).  Those in the diagonal band encompassing both the high / low quadrants need to be asked what they know, what they think and what they feel about how things are now, how they might be in the future and they ways of getting from here to there (receive).  NB those in the bottom right corner - highly impacted on but not influential.  Vulnerable and powerless.  Pay particular attention to their views, make a big effort to hear them, and help them gain in influence if you can.

Those in the 'high/high' corner are the ones you need to work most closely with (collaborate), sharing the job of making sense of how things are now, co-creating options for the future, collaborating to make it happen.  Because if they are not on board, you won't be able to design and implement the work.

Prioritise and plan

Now you are in a position to plan your engagement, knowing which stakeholders need mostly to be told, mostly to be listened to or mostly to be collaborated with.

Review and revise

Watch out for people and organisations moving over time.  Very often the people in bottom right are the unorganised 'public'. They might be residents or consumers.  If they get organised, or their cause is taken up by the media, a celebrity or a campaign group then their influence is likely to increase.

Those in the top left are potentially influential but unlikely to get involved because there's not so much in it for them.  Your engagement plan might include helping them to see why their input is useful, and piquing their interest.

So stay alert to changes and alter your engagement plan accordingly.

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.