When ego and turf protection gets in the way

When turf and ego gets in the way article banner

Opinion piece from Nicole Walton, Aurecon

Human Centred Design or User Centred Design has been a commonly used term for many years now. A simple google search uncovers multiple definitions often referring to the concept as a problem-solving technique, an element of behavioural science or an approach to interactive systems development. The commonality is that all definitions are centred around involving a human perspective. In my mind, Human Centred Design is, in its most simple form, the concept of engaging with the people who are impacted by a change in the design of that change.

Often when we think of Human Centred Design we think of engaging with external users; community engagement. It seems that too often we forget that a strategy for internal engagement is equally as important and as complex as that for external – community engagement.

If you embrace the challenge of engaging with those on the inside, the outcomes can be extraordinarily satisfying and measurably better for business. Complex projects are invariably driven by time and budget. Projects will take less time and the risk of program delays will be lowered if you engage early and iterate the engagement as you bring the insights of the key stakeholders into the design thinking. An integrated internal engagement approach that is interdependent with the project design and delivery, (not just a ‘tick the box’ or the ‘fluffy stuff’ on the side) can easily save time and money. Collaborative internal user engagement will short-circuit the time it could take to determine project priorities, criteria for decision making, weighting of that criteria and allocation of risk. And if you think you know all that already without speaking to the people who will be impacted by the change you are planning, you are heading for less than ideal business outcomes.

Another more intangible benefit to internal engagement is the development of change ambassadors.  Large or complex projects that lead to a change in policy or asset management or systems or structure often come with the need for internal behaviour change; a new way of doing things. A good internal engagement program can not only assist in determining the project approach, criteria, weighting and risk management, but, using John Kotter’s change model words, it can also help to build the sense of urgency and establish the ‘guiding coalition’ for the change, thus starting the change process where it should start; at the very beginning of the project.

In community and stakeholder engagement, our business, our clients and our project teams most commonly look to engagement professionals for designing and developing the approach to external engagement. Too often, the role of internal stakeholder engagement is seen as the remit of the project manager; considering the job done with a quick conversation or email. This is a flawed approach and one that can cost a project time and money and deliver less back to the business.

For reasons that are often either ego or territory-protecting driven, internal engagement can be more challenging and more political than engaging with the outside world. Internal stakeholder (user) needs are often contradictory and rarely do the priorities of one internal group, department or discipline match those of another. This should be expected as each team will look at a problem with a different lens. This diversity should be embraced rather than avoided and we should also accept that often trade-offs are required. It is this considered and multi-discipline approach to project delivery that ensures the best outcomes for a business.

Clearly all projects should be driven by their objectives but what if the initial objectives don’t consider the needs of one internal stakeholder group. Or, when exploring the objectives, a wider group recognises a dependency or a need for something to occur before this project in order to extract the most value from the project. I have seen the situation many times over where a project originates in one part of the business and that part of the business has spent significant time working up the business case to get the funding to ignite their initiative. The thought of taking their ‘baby’ beyond the core team, to get the opinions and insights of others, often makes the most collaborative person hesitate. It is at this point that a team must remind themselves that their project must be aligned to company strategy or, in the public sector, to benefit society as a whole. With this big picture mindset, why would you not involve all the people who may be able to offer insights or considerations that would ensure the project delivers the best possible outcomes.

In the public sector, internal stakeholder engagement becomes even more complex because the layers are numerous. At the very top of the spectrum is cross-government agency collaboration. It is rare yet the social outcomes of precinct planning versus road planning or rail planning in isolation are arguably far greater. The same can be said for developing an approach to community service delivery versus housing or licensing for example. We are seeing some great cross-agency initiatives in this space but there is room to improve.

In resources and other asset heavy industries, there are always more than one group of users who will have needs and insights related to the priorities and the opportunities for that asset or those facilities that are being redevelopment.

In Policy development, engagement beyond the policy team to those within the organisation or agencies who will be impacted by the policy is essential.

We must also remember that tools such as the IAP2 spectrum are equally as valuable in internal stakeholder engagement as they are for external audiences. Not all internal stakeholders need to be consulted or collaborated with, some would benefit simply from being informed. The primary message here is that the strategy for internal engagement is equally as important and as complex as that for external community engagement.

Finally, let’s also not use the current COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse for not engaging. In fact, the last month has proven that going forward we can save time, money and carbon emissions by not having to run workshops around the country and even the world. With the online collaboration platforms available (I’ve used Mural but I believe MS Whiteboard and Miro are also good choices), collaboration between teams has never been more accessible. The key principles for online workshopping are the same as offline workshopping. Firstly, ensure the objectives and desired outcomes of the session are well defined before you plan the approach and determine the delivery platform. Secondly, online workshopping requires strong facilitation to ensure each participant can contribute.

Businesses and Executives who are driving projects and initiates to deliver on company strategy should mandate considered, authentic and objective internal engagement if they want to achieve best for business outcomes.

Nicole Walton
Director, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement
Western Australia and Northern Territory
Aurecon