Reflections after a Month in the Engagement World
After a very busy first month, jumping in on several engagement projects with Delaney + Associates, I’ve learned a lot. Here’s a snapshot.
- Engagement projects are always interesting.
I really do mean always. Of course, not every project is going to be relevant to everybody, and neither will every project immediately jump out as the type of game-changing or newsworthy initiative to which you personally might feel inclined to devote your attention. However, the very nature of change and decision making that considers those affected by a project or decision, and then creates a process to engage those affected by it is fundamentally fascinating.
Whether it is a city-wide revamp of the public transit system, or an ongoing provincial initiative to change the culture around healthcare to ensure patients take center stage as partners in their own health, or a city initiative to build new bikeways and pathways, the energy behind all of these changes is compounded when different people with diverse interests engage and participate in the story of that change. I think that is inherently fascinating because, fundamentally, it’s democracy – and that’s pretty amazing to witness.
- Engagement folk put in some long and varied hours.
In order to minimize the barriers that could exist and prevent or make it difficult for different groups of people to participate and engage, those working in this field often work outside of normal office hours, outside of normal office settings, and outside of the box to make it easier for different people to share their input. I have traveled by ferry, taxi, plane and foot on the same day to be at the right place at the right time (full disclosure: I live on Bowen Island and travel by ferry every day, so that is just a slight cheat, but nonetheless it’s true).
Those who work in engagement have a real commitment to hear others and it sometimes makes for some remote and unique sessions at unusual hours, and sometimes multiple sessions in one day. Good, comfortable shoes are essential.
- Real and genuine multi-directional communication is alive and happening.
Maybe there is a certain kind of client who is inclined toward engagement, and maybe that type of client is predisposed more than others to believe in real genuine two-way (and sometimes more than two-way) communication. However, I have been very surprised at just how much our clients have genuinely cared about and responded to the input that participants have contributed.
I fully expected that there would be strong opinions from stakeholders; for example, where a change interrupted the normal flow of someone’s day-to-day routine. What I didn’t anticipate is how eagerly these concerns would be listened to. The wellbeing of stakeholders as a whole, and the difficult work of trying to manage competing interests, is at the very core of these projects.
Getting it right instead of getting it done, doing the messy work of listening, and listening more, and asking questions and revising is what I’ve witnessed.
- Online engagement surveys and tools are amazing.
I can’t believe I just wrote that. I’m a people person. I love in-person events. I’m not super gregarious, but I truly believe that a face-to-face meeting is worth more than an email, and coming into this field of work, you would find me assigning a much heavier value to a workshop than any kind of online interaction. However, watching thousands of responses roll in, and patterns take shape in those responses, really is a different kind of energy that just could not be harnessed in person without an amazing amount of time and resources. To have the right online engagement tools at your disposal, in conjunction with in-person sessions, adds a whole other dimension to the process of listening.
- I still love a good old-fashioned workshop.
I love their inevitable evolution. I love to watch people with different perspectives get together. I love to watch them learn from each other. I love it when real change seems afoot. I even love to watch when individuals cannot get to that place where they learn from each other. I love the diversity. I love people and their ideas and their passion.
Even when people are upset, I love that they care enough to show up for something. I love that they care about changes and that they value themselves enough to contribute. I love connection and relationships – even the suggestion of it and the promise that it holds to work towards something better.
So, I’ve articled at a big law firm, I’ve been a notary public, I’ve worked in publishing, and in the film industry in Vancouver. I had my own professional development company for a several years, and I worked programming continuing legal education courses for a broad range of professionals, government officials and First Nations. I’ve lived in Canada’s biggest cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – and on a quirky little island of 3,500 for the past 10 years.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve had a lot of different professional experiences in a lot of different settings. They have all been positive in their own way, but I’ve realized that I love being that person who comes in to see new situations and new people how all the pieces fit (or don’t fit) together.
I love to learn, listen and analyze, and I’ve found myself in a line of work that involves interesting changes, people who are dedicated to listening and doing the messy work to move toward better decisions. Plus, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for what new tools and technology can achieve in combination with those traditional techniques that will always be a part of communications and engagement.