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A Dialogic Approach to Stakeholder Engagement – Enabling a health system to deepen relationships, learning and performance using high-tech, high-touch engagements.

Image banner of medical and consumer hands forming a heart

With Druga Rajendran, Sequoia Group, Singapore.

The pandemic has disrupted the world in many unforeseen ways; overturning existing ways of being, doing and thinking. Workplaces have been one of the hardest hit with employees working remotely for an extended period of time, devoid of connection, and community. This coupled with social distancing and everchanging guidelines on group gatherings have made engagement practically unsafe and unlawful. Yet the need to engage, has only increased with rising cases of mental health breakdowns, burnout, mission-drift and ultimately disengagement – most evident from the great resignation phenomenon. These systemic and often complex shifts have heralded the need for a different approach to restoring the health and well-being of individuals and organisations. Thus began Sequoia’s inquiry into how we might help transform organisations into places worthy of stakeholders commitment using high-tech high-touch engagements.

What is a high-tech, high-touch engagement?

This case is centred on an organisation’s experience of engaging its internal stakeholders toward co-creating a future vision. We will unpack the engagement design – which uses a blend of technology enabled platforms and high-touch processes to engage high, wide and deep within the organisation. This case study may be useful for you if you are looking for ways to scale your engagement without losing the human touch or bring people together in building shared vision.

What is a dialogic approach?

A dialogic approach focuses on building understanding and deepening insight through inquiry and dialogue. Combined with the constructionist principle that the future is socially constructed through webs of human connections, a dialogic approach to stakeholder engagement adopts an invitational tone and inside-out perspective to inquiry, dialogue and change. This approach is also based on the fundamental belief that people and organisations are free-to-will and meaning-seeking living, entities with infinite regenerative potential. Dialogic stakeholder engagement is also in-line with several IAP2’s core values including the principle; participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

Context of Stakeholder Engagement

Sequoia was engaged by a healthcare client on the frontline of fighting COVID-19 in Singapore. Staff were burnt out physically, mentally and emotionally having been on the frontline for 18 months with little respite. They were constantly in a reactive and adaptive mode responding to crises which left little energy for regenerative work. To ensure business continuity, team members were split up and rostered to either work from home or the hospital leaving them limited opportunities to connect outside out of completing tasks. Yet everyone exercised quiet leadership and hunkered down to do their part in keeping Singapore safe from COVID-19. This sustained lack of engagement and interaction took a toll on the organisation’s overall health and well-being. Morale, psychological safety and trust amongst staff was at an all-time low. Yet leaders were facing time pressure to accelerate and transform the organisation to meet emerging needs.

#1 Principle: It begins with shifting the conversation from Diagnosis to Discovery 

From problem-orientation to possibility-orientation. Sequoia was invited to support this health system in taking stock of the organisation’s successes in battling COVID-19 and to re-energise and renew staff’s commitment to the organisation’s purpose. With the current vision having come to pass, it was also time for the health system to invert the camera onto themselves and reflect on their collective aspirations for the future. While the exercise of thinking about future possibilities was exciting, we also observed that the system plagued by fatigue and cynicism was languishing. Using Appreciative inquiry as an engagement method, we invited senior leaders to co-discover high-point moments, assets and aspirations for the organisation’s future. Using this process, we were able to engage one-third of the organisation, collecting over 100 inspiring stories. Each leader interviewed 2 staff and this process was cascaded down the hierarchy. Staff interviewed each other in-person (when it was safe) or virtually. They submitted a summary of these interviews via a survey-platform.

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Diagram 1: Appreciative Inquiry Process

#2 Principle: Shifting the process from Intervention to Invitation

Staff exhibited willingness to partake in the interview process and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to connect outside of work conversations to talk about the future. The process was intentionally designed for them to engage across boundaries. Through learning about each other’s work, they developed a greater appreciation for the whole system. The movement generated energy, positive affect and social bonding among staff, as it offered them an opportunity to celebrate wins and acknowledge each other’s contributions. Participation was always encouraged but neither mandated nor tracked. As process facilitators, we synthesized themes and patterns and reflected back the positive core of the organisation, complementing the client’s existing understanding of their deficits and problems. This exercise of discovery culminated in a retreat where senior leaders used the data in dialoguing about the new vision. In place of telling and selling the vision, there was now a desire to engage and enroll staff in building shared vision. However, the leaders were concerned about level of readiness in the larger system.

#3 Principle: Shifting the action mode from Motivation to Activation

In this phase we were challenged to creatively achieve the dual outcomes of engaging a larger group of stakeholders and activating their aspirations in co-creating the organisation’s future. We found our answer in an online crowd-sourcing tool called Synthetron. We assessed Synthetron to be a good fit in enabling openness in the system and to hear the voices from the margins. Leveraging this technology, we designed an hour-long online moderated dialogue via a text-only platform, going high-wide and deep with staff from all levels of the organisations. Participants came online to engage in a conversation, share their ideas, build on each other’s ideas and rate all comments. Within the hour we generated a list of insights
called Synthetrons which are highly rated comments reflecting areas of consensus.

Participants co-envisioned the future through a series of vision questions. We were happy to note that there was much vision-alignment between leaders and staff on the ground. The data helped us validate the level of acceptance for the refreshed vision. The platform also offered a more equitable share of voice and psychological safety owing to a feature that allows participants to engage anonymously. We leveraged this feature to inquire about barriers (mindsets, structures, processes) that might get in the way of achieving this desired future. Staff also discussed what they needed from their leaders to better learn, collaborate and perform their work. To meet management’s need for data triangulation, we did a segment analysis of all the points discussed (in verbatim!). This data was presented in the following management retreat, where leaders addressed barriers and needs.

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Diagram 2: Process of high-tech engagement

#4 Principle: Shifting the outcome from Inspiration to Aspiration

The dialogic approach looks at designing open-ended, emergent and co-creative conversations for people to actively participate and take ownership for decisions that impact them. This redistributes power away from structure to people and ensures sustainability of outcomes. When an engagement is designed to inspire, the emotion is often fleeting and short-lived, leaving us to re-engage continuously to keep momentum. However, when a process is charted to aspire, it often reaches into individuals’ inner source of drive and purpose. Much like that, staff who went through this process experienced an enlightened self-interest and desire to contribute to the organisation’s long-term future. This was only possible because of the willingness of the system and its people to engage in inquiry. As they say, human systems move in the direction of the questions that they most frequently ask!

In summary, these were some of our key takeaways:

  • People commit to what they help create. Equip them with tools like Appreciative Inquiry to own the engagement process. Instead of us interviewing staff, we encouraged leaders to do the inquiry with their staff. This allowed relationship building. Always consider how you can enable discovery, invitation, activation and aspiration to create outcomes that sustain long beyond your presence in the system.
  • Be purpose-driven – platforms are just enablers. We must always place purpose at the centre of engagement and leverage tools that will aid in the achievement of the purpose. We must not let platforms and processes dictate the engagement
  • Future of stakeholder engagement is hybrid – this allows greater inclusivity and representation. Think about how you can design your engagement process to balance tech and touch, especially if you need to scale your engagement.