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Engagement

Posted on Wed, 2020-03-25 10:26 by SPACE

Engagement – It’s so good to talk – Sept 2018

Thought Piece: “engagement” seems to be the new buzz word of management but what does it entail? Is it quite so easy to deliver?

Sometimes the English language (and, I suspect, any other language) is inadequate. What is meant by “engagement”, that word which is increasingly used as the panacea for all ills, from Regional Planning to Workplace Consultancy, not to mention Brexit and Palestine along the way? The word itself is bland, possibly intentionally so, suggesting little more than a process; but behind it lies potential for doing things differently or for laying up a barrier of cynicism and disappointment. We need to approach it with caution.

Dig a little and this innocent word carries intentions and expectations that call for doing things in a different way to what designers and consultants are accustomed. It calls for designers and consultants (and bosses) to rethink what they have been trained to do: to deliver elegant presentations which explain what is, in their wisdom, best for their users/their staff. In other words, it calls for a break with the kind of top-down “we know what is good for you” attitude which “experts”, with some justification, feel they are entitled to propose. “Engagement” can herald therefore a new presumption whereby the users’ perspective is not just valid but necessary in coming to an effective conclusion. At its most extreme the presumption is captured in the growing belief in what is known as “co-design”, a process which sits uncomfortably with traditional designers, not to mention project managers. It sets ambitions which are difficult to combine with an increasingly time and budget-constrained environment, and yet holds out a promise for something ambitious and exciting.

With ambitions come potential failures and, embarking upon a process of engagement, carries the possibility of building up expectations that cannot be fulfilled, of complicating an already complex process of design, of falling short and leaving a legacy of disappointment and cynicism. What is contained in this concept therefore and is there a way of widening the design debate without losing control of it?

At its simplest “engagement” implies embarking upon a journey of consultation, of appreciating that there is a valid users’ point of view, or at least an argument that, excluded from the decision-making process, the user is hardly likely to be sympathetic to what are inevitable compromises that need to be taken in coming to a conclusion.

So far, so innocent. Why be secretive if one has nothing to hide and if one genuinely believes (as in the case of workplace redesign, for instance) that what is being proposed is genuinely in the users’ best interests? The caution lies perhaps in the fact that the negotiations are seldom simple, that there is a fine line between opening up an issue for general debate and losing control, between carefully managing a process and becoming a ‘control freak’, between meeting objectives of time and cost and pursuing an illusive ‘best’ answer. In the world of workplace consultancy where a cohort of users, ‘the organisation’, are ultimately being asked to behave differently it would seem axiomatic that these same users are included on this journey of change, if not in actively working out the new direction, then at least in getting used to the idea that things are going to be different – appreciating that the process of change is not just a rational ‘coming to terms’, but an emotional journey as well, and one that takes time.

Thus, in an optimistic world, and one where there is at least a little time to approach the subject cautiously, there might be a period where the designers or consultants are listening, possibly explaining, and generally airing the pros and cons of what is being proposed, debating to the benefit of all parties, what the future might entail. As such this ‘engagement’ is more of a conversation than a negotiation, something that is approached with open-mindedness and a belief that somewhere lies a way forward which can genuinely be to the benefit of all parties. Successfully managed what can result is that all-important “buy-in”, that which predisposes users to see the situation positively, helping it to work, rather than bridling at the mildest shortcoming.

Seldom however is the world quite so simple. There might not be time to approach the subject of change quite so gently; almost inevitably there will be those situations where change poses a genuine threat, and ‘en route’ there are all the pitfalls of management speak which can quickly render the concept meaningless or, even worse, engender the wearied cynicism that can undermine the communication process before it has even started.

It is useful therefore to stop and think what this process is indeed trying to achieve. Why try to consult in the first place? Is it because one is merely trying to shift the blame? The kind of “Don’t come complaining to me now, after all it was your decision”. Or is it going through the motions of discussion so that the statutory process of consultation has at least been ticked off the list? Why attempt to extend the design team? Heaven knows it is difficult enough to come to a balanced decision with even a limited number of (educated) participants? Being positive however, it must be that one believes that this type of scrutiny does in fact lead to a better solution.

If the proposition is relatively clear then the ‘engagement’ itself might be simple, but difficulties arise where the parties are multiple and priorities conflicting. In such situations ‘consultation’ suggests a power struggle with an outcome of winners and losers, witness Brexit and the acrimony that has already accrued.

In developing a more successful approach there are possibly clues to be drawn from the process of design itself. What can be hugely satisfying with design is to be confronted with something that looks impossible, with conflicting priorities and several different stakeholders and then gradually work towards an agreed solution, a conclusion which has experienced ups and downs, dead-ends and disappointments and then ended up with something that all parties recognise is better than what was first proposed - and even better when various parties feel they can each lay claim to the eventual breakthrough.

As always there is possibly that balance to be struck, or at least that responsibility of careful management to be perfected which allows all concerns to be aired in a way that encourages creative of design itself. What can be hugely satisfying with design is to be confronted with something that looks impossible, with conflicting priorities and several different stakeholders and then gradually work towards an agreed solution, a conclusion which has experienced ups and downs, dead-ends and disappointments and then ended up with something that all parties recognise is better than what was first proposed - and even better when various parties feel they can each lay claim to the eventual breakthrough.

As always there is possibly that balance to be struck, or at least that responsibility of careful management to be perfected which allows all concerns to be aired in a way that encourages creative thinking without letting expectations run wild. At the very least one has to accept that it is good to talk! Unexpressed concerns can only fester, openly expressed different points of view can lead to more creative solutions, mutual respect always helps. And troubles shared can sometimes become troubles halved.

What does this approach entail?

  • Having an open mind. There is much that can be said for a designer’s approach to ‘blue sky thinking’, where practicalities are set aside for the time being in favour of “visioning”, seeing what is shared in terms of a long-term ambition.

 

But this is easier said than done, especially when one thinks that one is the expert or has at least dealt with a similar situation before!

  • Having time on your side. Not only is there the need to go over the ground several times but there is the importance of starting early – in other words before different parties have drawn up battle lines or become convinced about the rightness of their own position.
  • Being honest about what is possible. This is back to having an open mind to an extent but suggests also that the ‘engagement’ is not predetermined by lack of budget or opinions at some higher level.

 

What is possibly most difficult is to promise that there is enough time. Almost by definition effective engagement takes time. The concept suggests that the process involves a period of mutual education and that education is not just rational but emotional, and that where compromise is called for this has been fully researched and agreed as inevitable. Too frequently a process is started which cannot then be followed through, where expectations are raised only to be left high and dry, or problems are unearthed, not to be mutually resolved.

Within Politics and even Regional Planning the stakes are high. Thankfully the atmosphere is seldom as charged in the world of workplace consultancy, but some similarities prevail:

  • The fact that the wind has changed as far as user engagement is concerned, people expect to be consulted and younger people even more so. This might be at the level of individuals exercising their democratic rights, as with potentially sceptical union representatives, or at a more creative level with those who are itching to do things their way and who don’t expect or even want the workplace to be the same as it once was.

Such attitudes can potentially become confrontational. The truth of the matter is that in any ‘new’ situation there are going to be conflicting priorities, and these are more easily resolved at a senior executive level. By definition a limited decision-making team can move more quickly and is hopefully more educated in the effects of what is involved, and therefore likely to be more realistic in coming to a conclusion. But similarly, such a group probably constitutes a professional and management elite who might well be out of touch with younger, more contemporary thinking, and are almost inevitably going to favour a management perspective.

An interesting case in point comes in the design of education spaces. Modern theories of learning and teaching favour variety in all its forms, different types of space to suit different types of activity and different types of personality, ‘fun’ spaces that are decidedly ‘non-institutional’, and these points of view are enthusiastically endorsed when it comes to talking to students. But by the time it comes to actually specifying chairs or types of décor, the heavy hand of practicality normally intervenes. How does one manage this amount of variety? How many pots of paint are required to be kept in stock? What are the practicalities of organizing the timetable? Before one knows it, it is the point of view of the “jannie”, if not the lecturers who are loth to change their teaching routine, that win the day.

But is this right? Is it being too radical to suggest that institutes of learning exist to promote learning rather than the convenience of staff? One can see how easily priorities can become distorted and how easily it is to avoid the process of user engagement because it is basically too difficult.

As always there is possibly that balance to be struck, or at least that responsibility of careful management to be perfected which allows all concerns to be aired in a way that encourages creative thinking without letting expectations run wild. At the very least one has to accept that it is good to talk! Unexpressed concerns can only fester, openly expressed different points of view can lead to more creative solutions, mutual respect always helps. And troubles shared can sometimes become troubles halved.

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