At last, a new website!

As active blogging seems not to be a corporate strength, we have developed a website that profiles some of our favourite work. Come visit us here.


Three principles of government relations

Every wondered how government relations works? I have, until someone recently outlined the three principles of government relations:

  1. Stay in with the outs.
  2. Exploit the inevitable.
  3. Don’t get between the dog and the tree.

At first I laughed, but then as I thought about it, pretty good advice.

Principles of Engagement

I had the opportunity this past spring and summer to have a modest role in MLA Fred Horne’s public consultation about a new Alberta Health Act. Towards the end of the report some principles for ongoing public engagement were recommended.

These principles should be the cornerstone of any engagement initiative and qualitative research project, and they are principles that underlie Stormy Lake’s approach to engagement, research and even client relationships.

Principles are that engagement should always be

Timely – Involving people at a point in the process where their input management can be most effective.

Meaningful – Important issues are identified and discussed. Outcomes of engagement are used in meaningful ways.

Appropriate – Engagement is designed to suit the issue and the audience. Engagement is managed responsibly.

Transparent – The intent and objectives will be clearly communicated, objectives will be realistic, and how the people’s input will be incorporated  will be clearly stated and reported.

These principles require a two-way dialogue, not a one-way search for opinion. They also require a longer-term commitment to engagement.

I have used engagement and research together a lot in this post, and that is deliberate. Qualitative research usually is managed as a below the radar, almost guerilla approach to gathering insights. In most situations, research can be better managed an implemented as an open system, where every qualitative research opportunity also is an opportunity for engagement – with customers, with stakeholders and within your own organization.

A final note – I first started working on this post before all of the Alberta Health controversy hit the media. And, to be honest, it did cross my mind to not publish this post. But controversies have a way of overshadowing good work, and Fred’s work was excellent. It deserves to be talked about.

Visualization and educational reform

You’ve probably heard of Sir Ken Robinson and his spectacular TED talks. There is a new video on YouTube that has animated his most recent talk.

This video is amazing for a couple of reasons. First, it speaks to the heart of educational reform. I was involved in Inspiring Education (at whose website I first spotted this video), and these ideas of reform are being explored in Alberta in very important ways.

Second, this talk speaks to the heart of being a parent of children who view the world in fundamentally different ways. What might be the best educational approach for our children is something we wrestle with every day.

From a completely different tangent, the third way this video is amazing is the way that it visualizes and strengthens an already powerful talk. As we deal with increasingly larger amounts of data (trivial, essential and everything in-between), visualization will be how we make sense of it.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do:

Dialogic Research

For quite a while I have been concerned that traditional research tools are insufficient for the types of interesting problems we are being asked to solve. The challenge has been captured by William Isaacs:

Neither the enormous challenges human beings face today, nor the wonderful promise of the future on whose threshold we seem to be poised, can be reached unless human beings learn to think together in a new way.

This has lead to us developing a new form of research that is a synthesis of three disciplines: qualitative research, public consultation and facilitation. It is a process of genuine interaction through which we listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what we learn.

Traditional research has been a closed system. The research “expert” usually is contracted to gather information and develop insights.  Random participants are carefully selected and lead through a very structured process of discussing rational and emotional thoughts, triggers and stories. And, to be honest, some very excellent research has been conducted this way.

But the world is changing and research needs to become an open system:

  • The ownership of a brand is moving from the marketer to the customer. It’s not what you say about your brand anymore – it’s what consumers are saying about your brand.
  • Peer-to-peer marketing is essential. And much of this is open and user-generated. Structured word-of-mouth strategies where we recruit, motivate and satisfy networks of advocates for organization.
  • Brand engagement is critical to build brand uniqueness. This requires creating communities of customers who are deeply engaged with brand.
  • Brands needs to engage the internal and the external community for longer-term success.
  • As audiences evolve to include more and more Aboriginal and immigrant populations, traditional closed research processes are not the best methods to gather insights. Open, dialogic processes are more effective, and more respectful.

We are calling this type of research Dialogic Research. Our approach has been heavily influenced by some of the leading-edge work in Deliberative Democracy being done by America Speaks and Janette Hartz-Karp.

Not every project is suited to Dialogic Research, but it is ideally suited for projects that

  • Are complex or multi-faceted
  • Have a number of key stakeholders with very distinct points-of-view
  • Are deeply exploring new areas of knowledge
  • Focused on new products or services
  • Are launching a new brand

While Dialogic Research has more logistics to resolve in the early stages, it is proving to be tremendously powerful.

The most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting. (Rick Smyre)

Facing Risk or Uncertainty

Just found this fabulous post in the Atlantic Monthly blog

…risk “describes a situation where you have a sense of the range and likelihood of possible outcomes. Uncertainty describes a situation where it’s not even clear what might happen, let alone how likely the possible outcomes are.” Risk is an everyday part of business. But a deep recession ups the ante of unknowns so high that instead of calculated risks, managers are faced with actual uncertainty. And like sailors facing a dark, unpredictable storm, the typical response is to batten down the hatches, reef the sails, and just try to ride it out.

You can read the full post by Lane Wallace here.

Is the recession over?

“Has the recession ended?” is a question I have been wondering about as news reports focus on climbing energy prices, and the upwards movement of the TSX index. As a news junkie, I have found a few blogs and individuals who have some great insights.

Most recently, I’ve added Atlantic Monthly to my Google Reader. There has been a tremendous discussion from a number of interesting perspectives. Here is what I have been distilling:

  • Lane Wallace directs us to an Op-ed in the May 21 eidtion of the New York Times by Daniel Gilbert (who is, by the way, my favourite social psychologist):

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

People got tired of reading about economic gloom and doom, so the media were happy to play up indications that the worst was over.

I make no predictions. The burden of my argument is that the instability of the economy makes predictions about the recovery from a depression perilous.

  • Mark Thoma argues that there will be a long, drawn out recovery to the recession because consumer spending cannot go back to pre-recession levels. Debt leverage was unsustainable.
  • The Seattle Times Jon Talton asks “What if Starbucks is an artifact of an economy that’s not coming back?”
  • Richard Florida (who also deserves credit blogging about the above two issues) says

One of the most powerful, though least understood, effects of economic crises is their ability to alter global talent flows. Economic history shows that major economic crises like the current, can and frequently do produce considerable alterations in global flows of talent – particularly high-skill, highly inventive, and highly entrepreneurial immigrants.

So what does this all add up to?

We don’t know if the recession is over, or if it is not. This uncertainty is making things worse. And we will never go back to where we were before.

All of this reinforces our belief that we need better tools to be able to plan for a world that is changing in unexpected ways.