September 2, 2013

Jamie Billingham

Top 5 Reasons to Engage Early

Over the past few years we have had the privilege of being part of hundreds of community engagement processes involving hundreds of thousands of people. One of the big lessons we have learned is the value of early engagement.

Early engagement provides the building blocks for successful long term engagement. Failing to engage key stakeholders early and often, in issues that affect them, results in distrust, lack of community support and at time outright backlash. Here are the top five reasons to engage early:

1. Gain insight

You don’t know what you don’t know and you can’t see what’s hidden from your view. Information silos, intentional and inadvertent, happen in all kinds of organizations and communities. Plans may be quietly incubating to address the same dilemma across multiple sectors within a geographic community. Engage early to prevent redundancy and allow yourself access to formative feedback. The insight gained from early engagement informs strategic partnerships, shift direction or change plans at the beginning of a process.

2. Create buy-in

Creating buy-in through shared vision can only happen when you engage early. Once you have your own vision and goals established it becomes harder to engage in collaborative processes. You can only consult and offer limited choices. This tactic works well with children – Do you want peas or broccoli? If you want adults to buy-in you need to begin with – Are you hungry? What would you like to eat? Early engagement allows parties to come together and collaboratively negotiate the plan. The buy-in or enrollment process provides the time and opportunity to educate stakeholders about options and perspectives they may be missing.

3. Foster active support

No one likes to arrive late to a party. If your stakeholders are important to you don’t make them feel like an afterthought. Take the time to get to know your stakeholders and invite them into the beginning of the process. Send a message that says ”You are important. We respect you.” Those are messages that build strong, lasting relationships.

4. Learn your stakeholder’s language

Each industry has it own language. This allows in-groups to communicate more efficiently. For those on the outside this can cause frustration and confusion. How people frame a problem and the words community members use to describe an issue are the community’s jargon. Engage early so that you can learn and then use the community’s language to build rapport and clearly demonstrate that you understand the issue from their perspective.

5. Build relationships

When you engage stakeholders early in a process you offer them an opportunity to own the problem and the process with you. A sense of ownership and shared responsibility is empowering and energizing. All change processes need champions across sectors and nothing creates champions like ground floor involvement.

What are your building blocks for stakeholder engagement?

Jamie Billingham
Specialties: Learning and Technology, Curriculum and Instructional Design and Development, Leadership, Organizational Learning, Systems Thinking, Group Facilitation.

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