A strategic planning or visioning exercise should be a time of hope and opportunity for any company or organization. A successful process will engage staff and stakeholders to better inform decision making and to communicate relevant information along the way. But what form does that engagement take? How do we actually ensure consulting is meaningful and not just an empty exercise that undermines trust in a workplace?
It is simply not good enough to talk to a few leaders, hold some meetings and half-heartedly request written input. Instead, meaningful consultation requires you to support the people involved in the process, to use appropriate mechanisms for engagement and to actually act on what is heard. Meaningful consultation does not allow for simply going through the motions.
The basis of meaningful consultation is good faith, that you are entering into the process with the honest intention to solicit opinions and act upon what you hear. Key to good faith is respecting those people you choose to engage by carefully listening to and considering an individual's opinion, expertise and life experiences.
How can you improve the consultation process in your organization to make it more meaningful? Here are a few tips:
1. Embrace meaningful consultation. Before starting a planning process, restructuring exercise or program launch, ensure your leadership team is on board with undertaking meaningful consultation and how you will practically implement the results. Have an honest discussion about whether you are willing to give up your current thinking if a contrary direction emerges. Set down some markers on your process so you can measure how the accessibility of your consultation.
2. Choose participants wisely. Involving a wide variety of vested parties will provide a diversity of perspectives, which will better inform the process. Spend some time at the beginning to identify who should be consulted and how you will engage with them. What resources are needed to support their engagement? One-on-one interviews and off-site retreats might not be realistic for all participants. Planning in advance ensures you do not miss anyone or raise unrealistic expectations. Establishing who must be consulted with and who you want to consult is a good starting point for prioritizing your participants.
3. Support participants. Plan in advance what level of engagement you expect from different audiences, as this will help you assess appropriate support for active participation. An evening focus group with volunteers might just require pizza and a thank you. If you expect a manager to solicit department feedback and lead parts of the process what don't you expect from them this year? How can you lighten their regular work load or provide additional resources to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed?
4. Use different tools. Just as different people learn in different ways, we all communicate differently as well. Some people won't express their views in a large group but will write pages in a survey. By providing different methods for people to submit their ideas, you will increase participation and the credibility of the process. Online feedback, brainstorming, word association, group discussions and one-on-one interviews provide different avenues for people to express themselves.
5. Identify change leaders vs. cheer leaders. People leading a meaningful consultation need to be good listeners and know how to solicit input from participants. Nothing undermines the process more than a change leader who acts like a cheer leader for a particular approach - staff are pretty savvy at differentiating the two.
The Oxford Dictionary defines consultation first as the action or process of formally consulting or discussing and second a meeting with an expert in order to seek their advice. Meaningful consultation takes these definitions a step further, requiring you to increase access to discussions and input and act on the information you receive.
For a consultation to be successful, you must commit to careful recordkeeping, a proper synthesis of the information you receive and also a strategic weighting of this information. However, this investment does pay off, as a meaningful consultation process conducted with staff and stakeholders will not only create a better end product or program, it will also help invigorate participants, build stronger teams and increase commitment to the organization.
Bruce Cox has over thirty years experience in the not-for-profit sector and is a principal with Strategic Management Group (SMG), focusing on organization development.