Structuring the Stakeholder Engagement Process to Drive Better Design

As a designer, engaging with all key stakeholders on a given project—the client; the client’s key decision makers, such as facilities and human resources leadership; and real estate professionals involved with a project—may be viewed either as cumbersome and time consuming or as an opportunity to create better outcomes. Embracing the latter in a strategic way often achieves greater consensus for a project throughout the design process. However, in order to make it meaningful to the participants, the client, and the design team, you have to ask the right questions, distinguish definite needs from wants, and ensure that everyone—not just the one with the loudest voice—has an opportunity to participate in the discussion.  

Going beyond Post-its
Similar to the design process, the engagement process needs innovation. Many individuals have participated in an exercise that involves writing on Post-its and moving them around. This remains a valid method, but in my experience with MKThink, the most successful engagements are tailored specifically for clients.

Brainstorming sessions for engagements that I have led at MKThink often start with flipping through the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. We then adapt one of the many exercises for a client’s needs. For example, we recently had a university client that was struggling with the values that students placed on in-unit versus community amenities when considering new housing on a sustainably conscientious campus. To help students prioritize their desires and understand that all decisions are associated with a cost, we came up with a “Design Your Own Apartment” game. Participants were divided into groups of four as if they were roommates and were given an explanation of the base-level apartment and a set amount of points to spend on upgrades. Upgrading the base unit from LEED Gold to higher sustainable standards would cost the most points, followed by in-unit amenities, and finally community amenities. The game enabled great dialogue between stakeholders and allowed them to collectively prioritize their needs. Each participant walked away understanding the value associated with their requests.

Due to the success of this exercise, we are repackaging it to apply to a workplace client’s tenant improvement in order to examine values associated with private office space, communal space, and the desire for different types of individual workspace. The litmus test of a successful engagement is when stakeholders say they enjoyed the exercise so much that they want permission to run it with other groups for greater participation.

The follow-up to the engagement process and the representation of outcomes are as important to the overall design process as engagements themselves. Often, follow-up can be lacking and produce few meaningful results. How often does the dialogue get reported in meeting-minute format with pictures of Post-its or the engagements themselves? How frequent are outcomes shared with participants? Do they see the outcomes integrated into the building design?

Quantifying and sharing the outcomes
I tend to take these two steps after the conclusion of the engagements:

1. Identify quantifiable outcomes, such as votes taken on various scenarios or a prioritized list of identified needs or desired outcomes. Quantifiable data is always of great interest to owners, even if it was gathered through a more qualitative process.

2. Create meaningful infographics that display outcomes, simplify complex issues, and can be reused throughout the design process. Allowing participants to view infographics afterward is also a meaningful way to share findings with them and give them another opportunity to comment. Our clients enjoy the graphics so much that they reuse them in board presentations, marketing communications, and—most importantly—continue to refer to the results throughout the design process.

A good stakeholder engagement process informs design, but a well-designed, facilitated, and communicated engagement process can proactively drive better design.