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How Might We be more inclusive and authentic in our stakeholder engagements?

Stakeholder engagement is now the norm for most businesses when addressing broad-scope problems that affect their users or customers. But how robust are these processes? Are we going broad enough? Is the community we’re consulting empowered and enabled to truly help inform a solution designed for them?

The intention of collaborative design methodologies is to establish designers, customers, and invested stakeholders as equally valued, trusted, and empowered co-creators of the solution being designed. In practice, things rarely shake out that egalitarian. Budget constraints, short-term (get in, get out) project models, impersonal recruitment methods, and entrenched co-design activities make it so community participation in these types of kaupapa often feels extractive, demanding, and disappointing.

The existence of this challenge does not suggest organisations eliminate customers and community members from their design processes. On the contrary, co-creating with a diverse and representative set of stakeholder groups is essential to any robust participatory design approach. Teams that seek genuine, enthusiastic and frequent participation from members of customer community groups (e.g. cultural, interest, religious, and disability groups) need to be willing to do the work properly to provide value to both parties.

There are three important steps to consider: 

Step 1: Take the time (and money) to establish a genuine relationship

Budget for relationship-building, mana acknowledgement and kaupapa formation

Many approaches underestimate the time it takes to develop trust between an organisation and members of a community that may or may not be well-served by that organisation. Ensure your project allows for at least one session designed to get to know key community members and begin a conversation around the problem space only when everyone is comfortable.

If your project team already holds professional or personal ties to the communities you wish to involve, then ensure that person plays a major role in the project especially concerning introductions and relationship-building sessions. For example, when we created a toolkit of citizen personas for a New Zealand government agency, we relied on a combination of personal networks, community partnerships formed through the agency, and new relationships built through our investment in time spent. Once you have developed a solid relationship with community representatives, they can be immensely helpful in finding more community members to participate in the project in opportunity identification, co-design, and customer feedback stages.

Do your research

Before you approach a community or its members hoping for engagement with the issues your team is looking to address, it is important that everyone on your team have a basic level of understanding about what makes this community what it is.

  • Tikanga: What are the procedural rules of engagement in this community? How does one engage respectfully and with honour in this community?
  • Terminology: How do members of the community refer to themselves? What are accepted ways of abbreviating common terms? What are popular jargon terms?
  • Values: What common values bring members of this community together? How do the values of your organisation and those of this community align? How do your personal values align?
  • Challenges & goals: What challenges do people in this community tend to face? Do they share common or collective goals? What is the historical relationship between your community and members of this community?
  • Ways of working: How do members of this community currently design and decide on solutions to issues they face? For example, many indigenous communities have their own design models, methodologies, modules, and tools. Assuming indigenous stakeholders will be happy to design using popular Silicon Valley-inspired approaches could lead the project into uncomfortable and counterproductive territory. Instead, take the time to co-create the agendas and toolsets for design sessions and prototype feedback with your community stakeholders.


Step 2: Be relentless in your commitment to create the outcomes you nominate together

Empower your community partners to co-determine your target outcomes

The commercial drivers of your project may not necessarily align with the outcomes your community partners wish to achieve. It is therefore extremely important to ensure there is time allowed to co-determine the scope and target outcomes of the current project. Failure to honour and design for the desired outcomes of community stakeholders is a sure way to lose trust and involvement from these stakeholders in the future.

Follow through to show progress against those outcomes

It is not always possible to immediately achieve every target outcome you create alongside your community partners, but it is important to keep everyone informed of the initiative’s progress over time and the planned next steps of the process. Community participants have invested their time, effort, and often their vulnerability in the co-creation of the solution.

Step 3: Protect and nurture the relationship

Set realistic expectations

It’s not always possible for every participatory design project to progress from opportunity identification, to co-design, to prototyping, and through to implementation. Many projects simply stop at opportunity identification (e.g. strategy work and market research). It’s important to be realistic and transparent about the likelihood of a participant’s involvement to affect the current state, otherwise they may feel their efforts were a waste of time.

Be responsive

Provide a clear channel for community participants to stay engaged and ask questions. Be prepared and willing to steer an idea in a different direction in response to feedback you hear from participants. After all, that’s why you’ve chosen a participatory design approach in the first place!

Provide feedback and updates

An obvious way to keep your participants involved and informed is to send out summary and follow-up communications after a touchpoint/session. You may also want to create an external-friendly set of final deliverables that can be shared with community (and other) stakeholders in the project. For most projects where we get to design a prototype solution, we take this solution to our customer (and community) partners for feedback and steering before we deliver a final product. 

Invest in the long-term

The final important way to keep community participants from feeling as if your approach is extractive and transactional is to invest in the long-term relationship between your organisation and their community. Ensure your organisation has someone who is assigned to “own” the relationship. This should be someone who can see to it that representatives of the community feel happy to participate in the future because they see the value to them and their community by doing so. This aspect is often overlooked and can result in burned bridges, mistrust, and inefficiencies when looking to work with these community groups in the future.


There are many more ways that organisations could better foster an empowering relationship with their community stakeholders during the solution design process, but most of them boil down to two things:

  • You must be willing to be collaborative and not just consultative
  • You must invest in maintaining long-term, reciprocal relationships.

For more information on Rutherford Consulting’s Participatory Design Model,l reach out to Eamon O’Rourke.

It all starts with a conversation over coffee.  Let’s meet.

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