The Engagement Playbook

We have been working with one of our clients for over a year now, helping them execute on their vision for engagement with their more important stakeholder groups. A public school district, they have successfully managed to motivate over half of their 6,000 students to participate actively in a district-wide initiative to drive the creation of online content and the participation within peer networks with the objectives of improving digital literacy and moving students into a new approach to assessment and learning.

We hear the term “engagement” frequently with our clients, in many different contexts – employee engagement, client engagement, stakeholder engagement, citizen engagement – and those contexts are all only unique in that the target of the engagement objective is different (with, arguably, different perspective, needs, etc.). However, it always boils down to the same objective – to encourage and sustain ongoing participation in whatever that organisation’s key activities happen to be, for the purposes of furthering a particular outcome or strategy.

Engagement strategies are often lumpy – we recognize a need or opportunity for improvement, spend time thinking about or studying the “engagees” , and then launch a campaign to bolster participation or the development of sustainable communities within our organisation’s ecosystem.

Upon observing successful engagement campaigns in various sectors, it is my conclusion that there are a number of common foundational practices that contribute to success, beyond just a stroke of luck and good judgment on the right day. I suggest that any engagement program has a better chance of success if it has paid mind to these following principles.

  • Have a champion. Depending on the organisation within which the program is being delivered, it needs a champion. Not necessarily an executive champion, but one with influence and reach, who can speak with passion about the initiative and appeal to a wide variety of perspectives. This is your path-clearer, and your advisor, as well as your cheerleader and your defender.
  • Have a common platform. If we are to take make it as easy as possible for our intended participants to contribute, we need to make the way in which they contribute consistent. This way, they are speaking the same language, meeting in the same way, creating with the same tools, etc. and they focus their participation on the content, rather than the delivery tool. Nothing dilutes a participatory initiative like being side tracked by the process or the technology.
  • Have a reason. It is critical that you know why you are embarking on this initiative. Too often I hear organisations talking about the need for “engagement” yet they haven’t even figured out what problem they are solving or which strategy is being bolstered by this initiative. It sounds like the right thing to do but they have yet to define it. As a result, it becomes exceedingly difficult to recognize when/if they have even gotten there.
  • Have a context. Within the example listed above, the school district sought to achieve improved student engagement, which would manifest itself in a number of different ways. However, they knew in order to make it work, they needed to introduce the initiative within a program that was already understood and could be packaged up with some “reality”. The context in this case was “digital literacy” and blogging was a natural fit. Students, parents, teachers and administrators all understood it and the rationale.
  • Integrate with existing work. Everyone is busy. We are all maxed out. We can barely keep our focus on the task list at hand, much less introduce new tasks that, although we subscribe to the reasons why, still cause us to do something more, or new. If we can meet our participants where they currently “live” and offer rewards for engaging behaviour that translate into doing their existing work better, we have a more compelling reason for participating in a community, or as an advisor, or doing something more to contribute because there is something they get back.
  • Make it easy. Net new work needs to be highly justified. Even if you think it’s not net new, it probably is. Figure out how to make it simple to access networks and communities and to participate in those, contributing knowledge and questions or advice and guidance.
  • Know your audience. Clearly, every participant group will be slightly different, and will require different communications tactics, different motivators, different timing and different levels of interaction from your engagement champions and support team. If you’ve identified your objectives, figure out how they align with theirs. Know where they work, how they work, what they do best/most often/least often, what they complain about, what they dream about, how tolerant they are to change, etc. You may need to adjust your approach over and over again as you work through these groups, but that’s just the way it is, as long as it’s people receiving the message, and that are expected to respond.

I’m curious as to your experiences and thoughts on the approach to engagement I have listed above. This is work in progress and, as always, is a composite problem with many varied inputs. Yours is valued and welcome, as we seek to improve these approaches.

The Change Formula – Start at the Top?

Most of the work I do involves business transformation, which inevitably involves change. For many, it’s their kryptonite. Whether or not they recognise the value of, and even participate in the events leading to the change, when the rubber hits the road, more often than not change is stalled due to one (or more) of the following conditions:

  • Lack of buy-in from the immediate group that needs to implement and practice the change.
  • No one has time to do things differently. Disruption requires overhead, even if the participants have spent x days in workshops inventing the plan for change.
  • Change doesn’t have a plan or objectives.
  • The tools or decisions required to progress do not exist.
  • There is no support from leaders/influencers/rule-makers.
  • There is no supporting community.

Roughly every excuse fits into one of those categories. John Moore (@JohnFMoore), one of (in my opinion) the more relevant Open Government/Gov 2.0 writers in the movement today, posted tonight a short opinion piece on change in the Open Government movement, related to discussion around the next US Depty CTO. John suggests that the change required to see sustainable progress in the Open Government movement requires support from leadership. He’s partially right, and it’s a discussion I hear over and over again, whether related to Open Government or any other initiative that is synonymous with change.

I have long held the opinion that sustainable change requires movement and progress on both levels. Without leadership buy-in and support to clear the way and create an environment that permits and enables change, transformational efforts are unlikely to be successful. However, just as important is what I often refer to as ‘guerrilla warfare’ – small, incremental grassroots activities that demonstrate success at the micro level and demonstrate to those that are most likely to be affected by the change that it is achievable and is worth the effort and is relevant to them.

Far too often I have seen programs in place because there was a document circulated that outlines the leadership team’s strategic plan for a program or business unit, including initiatives that may very well resonate with the employees who are meant to deliver said programs but without involvement in the planning process, this employee group struggles to find its way in the program, and are left just implementing yet another directive.Speaking of social capabilities including alignment and trust… these are not perceived to exist in the top-down scenario and limit the longevity of the program.

Now, of course, organic bottom-up programs will often reach a limitation without the eventual support of the leadership, and it is appropriate for this group to pick up and support those initiatives that reach this threshold, or any others for that matter. But, timing of that lifecycle is important.

It is my belief that the recipe for success (or the best chance for success) involves organically grown initiatives that bubble up from the folks who have their hands dirty in the business of the organisation, whether that is public sector or otherwise, that are monitored and measured informally by the leadership through continual and open dialogue with the folks designing and driving the programs.

When it becomes clear that the initiative has traction and is generating interest or results, it is appropriate for the leadership to step in to help clear the path to support further growth and sustainability. These programs may become embedded within greater organisational initiatives, or become a foundation for new strategies. Of course, in order for this to happen, organisations need the foundations in place to ensure this flow and lifecycle can be perpetuated.

In case you haven’t guessed, this foundation includes appropriate communication and collaboration tools, innovation programs and tools, engaged employees, trust relationships and alignment of objectives. These are not achieved singularly in a top-down or bottom-up environment, but in a middle ground where the two meet.

I believe this is where the open government movement is at now. Much groundswell at the line level, bubbling up. Leadership should be well aware at this point that there is extensive interest and engagement with its staff and customers (citizens), and should be preparing for enabling these initiatives to reach maturity.

To illustrate the concept, I had these two pieces created for a presentation I did recently and thought they were a great visual representation of where much of the public sector is still at in terms of open government, and where we need to be. One of the most significant changes I see is the role of the leadership, from orator to path-clearer.

I welcome your perspective.

Life before social capabilities:


And utopia:


(Images by the insanely talented Kevin Langdale)



“Collaborate” Is An Action Word


It used to be my favorite word. It was new and fresh and epitomized everything that I thought could help all our workers’ woes. Then someone in HotBusinessNewsDaily got wind of it and all of a sudden it became synonymous with “meeting” or “fileshare” or “telephone call” or “survey”.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor”. I would argue that collaboration is defined by the richness of the interaction among members of a team or between two parties working to deliver an end result. Collaboration requires some kind of rich dialogue and intertwined effort, not just a project plan with some tasks for you and tasks for me. That’s just called a group effort.

I have been working with a group that is redesigning some of their core business activities, and we’ve been in a room together for 3 full days now, cozy and busy, with each team member expected to contribute in meaningful ways, and remain engaged throughout the process.

I have purposely kept the working groups small and cross-functional to ensure ongoing dialogue and the best chance for participation from all attendees. I have seen them diving into some very challenging activities and rolling up their sleeves to persevere. Perhaps most interesting, though, has been the level of inquiry and dialogue among the group members.

Many times I would look around the room and see two individuals, or three or four, grabbing pens and sketching out ideas on a flip chart and drawing over each other’s work to build a common understanding of a problem or solution. They are thrilled with the progress they have made thus far, and so am I.

These team members were collaborating by dictionary definitions – building a shared understanding of a challenge, and producing a deliverable that will address the challenge. By my definitions, they were collaborating because they were actively engaging with each other, creating rich and intertwined dialogue around their challenges and solutions, and they were building something together, actively.

I want to take back my word, and reintroduce a rich and meaningful definition of collaborate. I want to show how true collaboration differs from facilitating interaction among others. And I want to stop focusing on the wrong details – I don’t care how many times you met with someone or how many diagrams you created. I want to hear tidbits and stories about how you built a model for your business where workers are encouraged to get up and draw, and write and explain in an ad hoc fashion, and invite other workers to engage with them and share the efforts in ways that capitalize on the skills of the team members.

Please tell me some stories of how you or your team has practiced true collaboration and have some great war stories and narratives. Let me know why this did or did not work for you.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

OpenGovWest BC – What Now?

I’m just on my way home from OpenGovWest BC in Victoria – a 1-day event that brought together an impressive attendee roster representing provincial, local and federal government, citizens, private sector, special interest, students, and probably a few more that I am missing.

I believe that at least a portion of the attendees will become the growing core group of open government/gov2.0 practitioners locally and farther. The fact that the event was sold out with a growing wait list speaks to the interest in the community for learning more about what this whole concept means to the individual stakeholder groups, and also how they may find new interpretations and contributions that add relevance and value to their own particular cross-sections of interest.

The undertone of everything that was addressed during the day was innovation, because we’re sort of still at the experimentation stage of the growth curve and any new initiatives will require innovative practices, policies and attitudes.

In my lightning talk presentation (note to self: lightning talks are really freaking hard), I spoke about how the great ideas we have around implementing open government – whatever our interpretation of it is – will likely only reach limited bounds of their potential if we can’t sort out all the human stuff that makes up 80% of the barriers that workers encounter. Whether these are political, physical or attitudinal barriers, they are often predicated on emotional attributes such as fear, pride, insecurity, and blame.

I had the opportunity to host a cafe table following the presentations, and I found it interesting that the participants at the table with me had trouble identifying specifically what the barriers were to them achieving their vision of open government. When asked to envision what the desired state looked like, they felt they could not define it because it was impossible. Of course it is concerning that the vision seems so far out of reach and just something to wish for.

The bigger concern is that these are the folks with the ideas, and motivation, but they are unable to even define what is standing in their way because they feel it is too overwhelming and complex and systemic, with so many interdependent and intertwined factors ranging from tools to policy to leadership to community.

When a challenge is perceived to be this broad and this deep, very few individuals will get any further as they don’t feel they can, or don’t have the will to try and overcome this Goliath. Completely understandable, particularly in the worst situations where any attempt could threaten their livelihood (and these exist in spades, unfortunately).

Conferences and meetings like this are great venues to give those folks with the desire and inclination to realize that breaking off bite-sized pieces of the problem is possible and counts… a lot. Progress can be achieved through hacking the status quo, participating in supporting communities and engaging the very individuals who have created barriers, or who can help remove them.

Sometimes covert operations are appropriate to demonstrate the validity of a concept that may never move past the proposal phase. Sometimes a collaborative effort will result in much greater progress than going it alone. If we provide every interested participant with the inspiration of digestible success and a community of cheerleaders and seasoned veterans, I’d be willing to bet we see the velocity of success increase.

There are already local self-organized groups focused on open government in existence, there is a collaborative blog at where interested participants can converge and post, the #ogwbc hash tag and I suspect we will see a few more venues surface shortly.

Reach out to each other…. Today. Communicate, collaborate, innovate. Trust each other, find others with common interests to align yourselves with and engage your coworkers, leaders, customers, experts, stakeholders, vendors.

Finally, leave a comment about what you’re planning to do next… Here, on, in the #ogwbc twitter stream, or on your favorite speaker’s blog.

Thank you to the amazing organizing team for a very successful event. The appropriate audience, appropriate speakers, excellent content and engaged participants resulted in enough dialogue to convince me we’re ready for some action.

Presentations can be found here:

OpenGovWest BC on Justin TV

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Getting Ready for OpenGovWest BC – Nov. 10, 2010

Only a few more days until OpenGovWest BC goes down in Victoria and I gotta say, I’m pretty excited. There’s a fantastic lineup of keynotes and presenters (humbled to be presenting alongside them), a sold-out attendee list and a group of really amazing, motivated people showing their passion for building this young community of public sector stakeholders.

I became involved with the conference organising committee a few months ago when they were entering the final push to get all the logistics and planning sorted in order to make this a memorable event, and things have come a long way in the last few weeks. I am particularly excited to have many members of the core group of active open gov and CPS renewal advocates in the room together. I imagine there will be some pretty energetic conversations ensuing.

My take on, and interest in open government lies in the assessment of how ready the public service is to build and sustain a culture of ‘open’ with external and internal stakeholders. While we can dream up every flavour of initiative that would qualify, they won’t be sustainable if the organization responsible is not aligned and engaged with similar approaches.

A systemic focus on availability, accessibility, relevance and trust is a good start, but these are not changes that you throw a system at and see recognizable improvements upon implementation. This is the really hard, really down-and-dirty work that requires prolonged commitments and grassroots initiatives, gutting the status quo and turning policy and directives, processes and protocol on their respective heads. It requires engaged staff who are long-term investors, and it requires Nick Charney’s brand of collaboration, predicated on action.

I encourage all of the attendees to jump in and get actively involved with the discussions and activities, form relationships with co-participants and engage with the presenters. Read Walter Schwabe’s advice on how to make it a successful event for you and the rest of the attendees, and then have fun.

I’m so looking forward to learning and absorbing everything on Wednesday and am really, really excited by the overwhelming response this event has gotten. Thanks to the organizing committee and sponsors for their support and tireless effort. I predict it’s going to be inspiring.

Learning How To Learn

There was a recent post highlighted on GovLoop entitled “You’re So Dumb!”: The Next Generation” by Bill Brantley, which focuses on the ongoing generational demise as told by our forefathers (at any given time), and the continued lament that the knowledge and skills of which we are so proud are not being retained by the youth following us. Every generation has felt that the younger one is lazy or uninterested, disrespectful and blasphemous.

The Millenial generation, which is currently emerging in our workplaces, is no different. They are tagged as oblivious, flighty and self-indulgent. I disagree. I believe this generation, like every one before, is reinventing the worker and the workplace and bringing the demands of its social priorities into the realm of necessity – not because its members are lazy, selfish or egotistical, but because they have grown up with a focus on, and comfort with communities and personal interaction.

Gone are the days where a child sits quietly with hands folded, waiting to be spoken to. Nor are we likely to see kids hesitant to express themselves or show their emotions. This generation has resulted from the adjustments our own has made as we try to accomodate the learnings we had as children. The cycle perpetuates forever.

The point of the GovLoop article is to discuss knowledge transfer and retention. Once again we come to realise that knowledge management and retention is achieved largely through soft skills and healthy human relationships as opposed to rigid process and technologies (which, for the record, do help but don’t get us all the way there). I believe that on the part of the Millenials, there is a willingess to consider and learn existing skills and processes for the sake of constructive evaluation, but this is a generation that is not afraid to change and make change. However, it does leave this younger group at risk of bypassing the evaluation process entirely in favour of leaping to the change.

We can do our Millenials and future generations a great service by focusing efforts on the type of education they receive to arm them with the practical and human skills that will allow  them to traverse the culture of the generation before them, extract knowledge and value from this generation’s experience, and apply their own brand of efficiency or quality improvements. They need to learn how to learn.

I don’t worry so much about the curriculum that my son and daughter will absorb over the years that they will be in public education. I am more concerned that my children learn how to communicate, to relate to others, to listen and speak with passion and focus. My kids will grow up knowing how to connect to others that might know facts or fiction to help them along, and this will help them when they ultimately become contributing members of our workforce.

The newer generation of workers will likely reinvent themselves over and over again at an increasingly rapid pace. They will become more focused on their personal brands than on the brands of their organisation. If our employers want to retain workers that are productive and high-performing, they need to be able to appeal to individual interests, desires, demands, needs and ambitions. Human resource professionals will be managing a handful of individuals rather than an army of classified, categorised, faceless numbers. They will need to figure out how  to valuate a personal brand and attract workers that are driven by more than money or benefits.

Who is responsible, though, for protecting and perpetuating the knowledge that resides in the hearts and minds of the vastly retiring workforce? I argue it’s the upcoming generation of workers. They need to have exceptional skills to extract and recognise the value of what their senior peers pass down, but also how to keep abreast of upcoming trends, tools and policies that will affect how they evolve their craft.

Can we teach these skills or do they come ingrained? Should standard curriculum take a back seat to foundational life skills, or social capabilities?

Renaissance Workers – The Pragmatic Visionary

I was having a conversation with an associate/friend/public service advocate and we were talking about what it would take to make progress within his current work environment – how could his employer (or his fellow employees) help progress the vision and strategy of the organisation, when that progress kept getting caught up in black holes of policy, fear, empire-building and the great unknown?

I described to him what I felt was one piece of that puzzle – individuals with influence (whether at the top or the bottom) that were both pragmatic and visionary. Then I stopped for a second, looked at what I had written and laughed, thinking I had just created an oxymoron – “pragmatic visionary”. However, upon further thought I realised that this indeed what is required for progress and success in his particular environment, and in many others I encounter these days.

How does an individual become both pragmatic and visionary? Doesn’t one cancel the other? Can one person be both in the same role? Well, of course. We’re just not used to thinking that way. Typically, we associate “visionary” with blue sky, innovation, the future state. Conversely, pragmatism is rooted in strong operational foundations, association with the practical, steady-handed realism.

In reality, the twain do meet. I thought harder about it and realised that many of the folks I associated with the more successful change programs, informal or otherwise, were exactly this new breed of worker – pragmatic visionaries. Caught neither in the minutia of operations or the headiness of vision, these individuals have struck a chord of balance that resides somewhere in between, incorporating the grand ideas into routinized process, and injecting some reality into the wild blue yonder.

Just “thinking big” is not enough to be successful. Just delivering on schedule is also not enough.This is more than just a practical project manager that finds the recipe for implementation. This is a role that is savvy enough to cherry pick the business wins and understand the values of all interested parties to create a formula that strikes the right chord with everyone and threatens noone.

The mature skills that these individuals have in common include most, if not all of the social capabilities that we have discussed. They are all great communicators (and, paired with some experience in the field, great negotiators), they collaborate without fear, they constantly seek out new and innovative ways to approach a problem, they trust each other and their partners, they are actively engaged with each other and other communities of practice/clients/partners, and their own objectives are aligned with their peers and those of the organisation for which they work.

The pragmatic visionary is the ‘Renaissance Man’ of the workplace – skilled with an arsenal of tools and tactics to maneuver the soft side of any organisation, gluing together all the pieces whether they be floating above in lofty clouds, or firmly anchored in the ground by heavy chains. Given that these elements are reality for most organisations, these personalities are rapidly becoming the only link to an organisation becoming agile and flexible while figuring out how to remove those chains.

Have you met a pragmatic visionary? How were they able to achieve what others couldn’t? How did they reach this level of maturity? What was their role “on paper” in the organisation?