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.

An inspiration for blogging

According to the Blog Herald, last July there were approximately 70 million bloggers in the world, and 400,000 in Canada. One can only imagine how many there are today.

So what brings Stormy Lake so late to the party? Perhaps the real question, is who told us about the party, showed us how easy it is to get there, and has been that friend we cling to when we don’t know anyone else.

For us this friend, and our inspiration, is Joseph Thornley. Joe is one of those people who sits quietly in a group, but when he speaks the room stops to listen. He is a passionate advocate for the role of social media, and he makes it both interesting and uncomplicated. Can’t ask for much more than that.

A couple of weeks ago, Joe gave a seminar to Alberta Education that was an hands-on introduction to social media. It was not a lecture or even a workshop, but a lab session. We set up delicious accounts, and signed up to twitter. And he took us onto WordPress and posted a blog right in front of us, with a photo of the group.

Perhaps the ground-shifting moment came for me when I was playing around with twitter. I have been a Lance Armstrong fan since he won his first Tour de France. I watched his press conference, live on the Internet, when he announced his return to competitive racing. Twitter showed that he was tweeting, so I signed up to follow Lance. His latest post was written on his bike in the middle of a race in the Tour Down Under!

A short while later, this post came up on my screen:

Knock on the door just now – anti doping control.

What business are we in?

It sounds like a question for which we should have one of those snappy elevator answers, but it has proven to be surprisingly hard to define. This is what we currently say:

Increasingly, the challenges we face are interdependent and complex. The wealth of diversity that surrounds us requires that we think and plan in diverse ways, connect in new and deeper ways, and work together to generate new ideas.

Stormy Lake embraces complex, delicious problems, deliberatively bringing different experts and perspectives together and exploring the seams of our knowledge. We bring new tools and new understanding to face the complex challenges and opportunities that we face.

For this reason, Stormy Lake is a sense-making organization.

Research, facilitation and consultation are our information-gathering tools. Strategic & communications planning, innovation and application are the outcomes. Sense-making is the black box – the deep thinking and search for meaning that grounds and defines the core issues, explores the opportunities and makes it simple, clear and easy to move forward.

The kinds of problems we solve are often marketing-related problems, but we also touch public policy and business strategy. We don’t do purely technical problems – just problems that somehwere have people involved.

Very few other businesses do what we do. Lots do research, but they don’t use as many different expert perspectives. Many use experts, but  don’t dig as deep into what the core problem is, and what are the fundamental reasons why this problem exists. We have found only a handful of similar organizations around the world, including Kanso in Italy. Kanso describes themselves as a customer experience and innovation consulting firm. Perhaps their purer focus on customers is necessary for clarity.

If the elevator is a very long ride, then we have lots of time to explain – but we are still challenged to fit what we do into a short sentence.