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  • Writer's pictureMathew Stewart

How to bring stakeholders along the engagement / project journey

If you want to bring stakeholders along the journey with you, I would recommend utilising a 2-3 stage engagement process where more detailed proposals/solutions are gradually introduced as you move through each engagement/project stage.

How to start discussions with your stakeholders

It is important to start discussions with stakeholders on a positive note, initial stakeholder interactions will likely set the tone for the rest of the project. As a general rule, the more information you present stakeholders upfront, the more likely they are to oppose the project. As such a well-planned project/engagement process ensures that only the essential project decisions are made, and you are not too far down the road to solutions, before you start discussions with your stakeholders.

In keeping with this, during the first round of engagement, you should start conversations with stakeholders at the most basic level and don’t propose any detailed solutions (e.g. don’t put forward any proposed design solutions). You can use this approach for pretty much any project, but as an example, you could start a streetscape enhancement project with the following questions:

1. What do you like about Kauri Road? What do you want to keep the same?

2. What do think would make Kauri Road even better?

Starting the engagement process with broad

questions has many benefits

Benefit 1: It is a low risk way to build relationships with your stakeholders and community. You are not proposing any specific changes/designs yet, so there’s limited scope for people to get upset.

Benefit 2: It gives people an unconstrained opportunity to share their views about the direction of the project (in the streetscape example, what they like about, and think could be improved on, their local street). In my experience people enjoy engaging in this manner.

Benefit 3: It provides a wealth of information to help develop design options. The designs can then incorporate things that stakeholders want that may not have otherwise been included.

Benefit 4: During the second stage of engagement you can change the rhetoric from “we think this design is good because….”, to “you told us you wanted xxxx, so we included it”, “you told us you didn’t want xxxx, so we left it out”. This is a very powerful shift in language as people tend to get sick of being told what the council (etc) think is best. This change in language can improve people’s perception of the project and also reduce vocal opposition.

Benefit 5: It highlights elements of your designs that are likely to be opposed by stakeholders. You may be able to predict some of them, but it may throw up a few surprises. Understanding these concerns has many benefits:

  • You can amend your designs to minimise the things people don’t like, before stakeholders even see them. This prevents stakeholder concerns playing out in the public arena.

  • If you still want to include these elements in your design(s), you can have an informed discussion with your organisation's decision makers as to whether they support their inclusion (noting the likely opposition). Getting senior managers and elected members to make the tough calls now is great as they take responsibility for the decision and will be more likely to stand by it during the next phase of engagement.

  • If you choose to include design elements that people dislike, then you can gather evidence and formulate key messages for the second stage of engagement that appeases these concerns. For example, in the streetscape enhancement project, if people said they would oppose parking removal you could do pedestrian intercept surveys to find out if people would be more or less likely to visit the street if it was upgraded, but parking was removed.

Please note:

  • During the second phase of engagement it is important to try and release 2-3 plausible design options for feedback. This smooths out the strength of any opposition as most people will like (or not totally hate) at least one of your designs. It’s also beneficial as you may find that a particular element of a less favoured design was very popular, and so you can integrate that into the final design.

  • The third phase of engagement can focus on specific details of the design. You could also limit feedback to key stakeholders, such as business owners along the street. You could ask questions such as “what type of plants should we use?”, “what types of seats should we install?”, “what colour pavement should we go with?”. Providing options for key stakeholders to select from at this stage of the project is a good way to help them feel like genuine contributors (if they don’t already feel this way). In effect, by providing a range of options that the project team are comfortable with (e.g. different seat types), you can delegate the responsibility to select the favoured option to your key stakeholders.

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