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Strategies for a Successful Engagement Process

Planner Laura Wheaton leads an engagement session for Ohio State University's Framework 3.0

As planners and designers, we hope our work results in places of enduring value. And our definition of “enduring value” must be amalgamated with the definitions of our clients, their communities, and the stakeholders who will live and work in those places. We have to listen to and learn from many voices who will be affected by the project to know exactly who and what we are designing for. In other words, we have to engage.  

Developing an engaged planning process is far more than throwing together a bunch of questions into an online survey. It requires careful consideration and facilitation. Successful engagement not only informs our work, but it also incorporates additional collaborators in a way where they are invested and have ownership of the resulting design or plan. Through that shared understanding we achieve a better alignment of resources for our clients and their communities.  

Each stakeholder engagement is an opportunity to nurture the relationship between that stakeholder and the client. We create an inclusive setting for engagement and gather information about the project in a way that respects the past and present of the relationship as well as the long-term success of the client’s facilities. For longer engagements such as forums or workshops, that could involve designing an experience for the stakeholder participant which starts with sharing initial reactions and evolves into ideation and envisioning possible futures. Stakeholders should leave an engagement opportunity feeling valued and heard.  

A campus engagement session for the Ohio State University Framework 3.0 plan
A campus engagement session for The Ohio State University Framework 3.0 plan

An engagement plan is a strategy that incorporates an understanding of the types of potential stakeholders, known information needs, and the historical context between an institution and its stakeholders. It outlines a framework of layered methodologies for outreach. The layers are important. With more layers we ensure fewer people “miss out” on the opportunity to participate. Individual layers—individual engagement methodologies—can be defined by attributes such as: 

  • Qualitative / Quantitative 
  • Synchronous / Asynchronous 
  • In-person / Remote / Hybrid 
  • Individual / Small Group / Large Group 
  • Listening / Reviewing / Collaborating 

We develop our engagement plans in concert with our clients. They know their community. With their understanding and expertise working with their own stakeholders, together we can identify the best ways to engage.

Intercept interviews are one methodology we use to meet people where they are instead of asking them to come to a meeting or click a link. With our clients we can determine where and when is the right place to set up our poster or table. It could be in the lobby of a rec center, by a popular bus stop, or even out next to a busy sidewalk. In this way we give stakeholders the opportunity to happen upon the process in addition to more traditional focus groups and surveys.  

Laura Wheaton guides a poster session for Towson University students
Laura Wheaton and Gerrard Allam guide a poster session for Towson University students
Public Engagement – Campus Stakeholders, Community Members, and Sporadic Users

Stakeholders know they have been heard when they can see their ideas and input reflected back to them. Sharing back is critical. Once stakeholders engage and contribute to a design process, they feel ownership. They want to know what’s next. Engagement plans must include multiple opportunities for stakeholders to see not just their input but everyone’s input. This doesn’t have to be complicated and can be accomplished by something as simple as making a previously recorded webinar available online.

Sharing back provides an opportunity for participants to validate and clarify both quantitative and qualitative data. It also manages expectations when people can see the totality of input that was received. For this reason, we often use the same questions and wording across multiple methodologies to make it easier to compare and combine results. This also allows common themes to be identified more easily, simplifying the design and decision-making process.  

An engagement session for The Ohio State University Framework 3.0 plan
Empowering Confident Decision-Making

We consider engagement with our client teams as thoughtfully as we consider engagement with their communities. Engagement with our client teams is usually designed around a specific goal: facilitating the ideation and development of options and enabling a confident decision-making process. Throughout our many projects, we’ve learned a few best practices that can empower client teams:  

  • Ensure they have the needed information. Research and data-gathering is crucial for gathering relevant qualitative and quantitative information, which should be presented in a way that is easily understood and applied.  
  • Consider who is in the room. Gather all relevant leaders, experts, and influencers and understand the decision-making hierarchy of the client institution. More than one meeting may be needed for a given decision, but with the right people in each one you can streamline that process.  
  • Help decision-makers feel empowered. Leave time to allow clients to digest new information. Cultivate a spirit of collaboration with interactive activities and encouraging voices. And lastly – consider blood sugar!  Well-timed cookies or snack breaks can be beneficial for keeping energy levels steady.  

Engagement is an opportunity to develop a shared definition of success for a project or plan. Through well-designed and well-executed processes, we gather qualitative and quantitative data based on the lived experience and expertise of a variety of project stakeholders. We analyze, synthesize, and share back these findings in ways that are easily understood and applied to development of the project. And we facilitate confident decision-making towards the creation of places of enduring value.  

Laura Wheaton is an architect and planner and a winner of the 2024 AIA Young Architects Award

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