Stakeholder Engagement is Still Critically Important to Get – But Harder To Do

We have new ideas and experience with how to get it done.
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Here at Bergmeyer, we have a long history of using stakeholder engagement as a central part of our design approach. Getting information about these groups' needs and opinions is often the first step in a meaningful and collaborative design process.

While our college and university clients usually have more diverse communities of stakeholders – From students and faculty to facilities and operations departments and capital expense folks, and sometimes even neighbors and the general public – all of our clients have end-users or "target markets" that aren't part of the design teams, but on whom they rely for financial success. We challenge ourselves to first focus on understanding the end-user – the customers, students, employees, visitors, residents – as part of the process in delivering on our clients’ vision.

Traditionally, stakeholder engagement has relied on bringing groups of people together for interactive work sessions in large conference rooms. While this is obviously impractical during a pandemic, more importantly, this type of forum puts public speaking pressure on participants and can feel exclusive to people who aren't part of a visibly empowered cultural group. So how do we fix this? Based on our stakeholder input experience, we've come up with the following recommendations for adapting this critical process while recognizing some "truths" about what doesn't change.

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Be Communal
Our recent project at Mount Holyoke College was the culmination of the community’s vision. As a campus, they made a decision to change over to a consolidated dining program, moving away from their traditional residential dining setup that marked a significant cultural shift. Our task was to navigate between the groups that both supported and opposed the decision, helping to move the stakeholder discussions from “if” to “how” dining should be centralized. A large part of our design assignment was to translate the tradition and sense of community while improving on convenience, efficiency, and physical and dietary accommodation. This was no small feat, as the residential model was a beloved tradition with Alumnae, who held most of the seats on the Board of Trustees.

  • During the feasibility study phase, we engaged our core client team, faculty and staff, and students through a variety of means, each with the goal of allowing different communities to contribute equitably.
  • To encourage participation from all students, we created a passive community engagement display, which graphically conveyed the ‘why’ behind our initial design thinking (Campus goals) and included a range of inspirational images for students to react to.
  • We left this display (unattended) in the student center, along with post-it notes for them to add their unfiltered opinions.
  • When the Board of Trustees approved the Schematic Design, they more importantly also approved another communication opportunity with the students and staff via a series of community forums.
  • The community forums set the stage for the next level of stakeholder engagement.

The new series of forums were grouped by area of focus, where we not only shared our design progress but also shared insights into the overall process and outlined the anticipated design and construction schedule. They allowed us to address the many concerns about cultural changes and how the construction would impact the campus.

To supplement our roundtable discussions, and to reach perspectives of those not at the table, we worked with the College to create several online/anonymous feedback channels, including an FAQ Google Doc, Pinterest Boards, and a project website with progress updates and the renderings keyed into an interactive floor plan. We continue to use this inclusive and flexible approach for our other projects, across client types and markets.

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Be Agile
Use the technology! Shift your mindset from virtual presence as an undesirable but necessary alternative to a big 3-day in-person meeting agenda, to seeing it as an opportunity for increased participation. Keep it simple though. Nobody wants to have to download and familiarize themselves with a new software just to join your meeting, and you don’t want your time together with them taken up by technology issues.

  • At this point in 2020, most people are already using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meets and are comfortable participating via these platforms.
  • It's also a good idea to task an individual on the design team to help run the meetings, such as muting participants who have background noise, fielding questions in the chat, etc.
  • When looking for new digital tools to re-create the brainstorming and fluidity necessary for productive work sessions, look for options that can plug into existing programs. For example, Miro and Hoylu are whiteboard platforms that can be used within Microsoft Teams, while Bluebeam is a collaborative PDF editing tool that can read and integrate into Revit.
  • It goes without saying that the design team should do a dry run/rehearsal using these tools to ensure a smooth meeting cadence and archive detached versions as appropriate.

Now more than ever, it is critical to show up for a stakeholder meeting with a clear agenda, cohesive materials, and explicit opportunities for feedback identified. In some cases, this may mean asking stakeholders to complete a survey or collect their thoughts on specific areas ahead of time to be confident and forthcoming while participating in the exercises. As an added bonus – getting familiar with the technology now will allow for increased participation post-COVID without needing to travel to the same location. Everyone wants to reduce their carbon footprint, and this is a nudge in the right direction!

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Regardless of whether your stakeholder engagement is conducted in-person or in outer space, design teams also need diversity of expertise to put your stakeholder feedback into context effectively. Pictured here is one of Bergmeyer’s meetings building up to our firm’s rebrand.

Be Purposeful
Sometimes stakeholder groups aren’t naturally occurring. User groups are not monolithic. The creation of purposeful stakeholder groups can give the design team an opportunity to put people in more diverse teams and drive more productive feedback. Everybody wants to be heard.

  • As designers, it is in the interest of our projects’ success to seek out diverse voices and build trust that those voices are being heard.
  • Regardless of whether your stakeholder engagement is conducted in-person, on Zoom, or in outer space, design teams also need diversity of expertise to effectively put your stakeholder feedback into context.
  • Accordingly, the design team needs to trust each other, and not let ego or expertise get in the way of listening to the group. There is a lot of information to be synthesized, and the focus needs to remain on achieving the best outcome.

For our own Bergmeyer rebranding, our internal design team engaged the rest of the company (as the stakeholders) in very intentional groupings, with focused topics of discussion. The focus groups were small, consisting of 4-6 people. Each represented different areas of practice, a range of tenure at the firm, and a range of ages/stages in our careers. Because each group had an explicit designation, we were able to engage in meaningful dialogue about how we see ourselves and how to best represent that outwardly. This approach kept a forward momentum, allowed us all to feel like we had a hand in the process, and created a shared vision for the future of our organization.

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Bergmeyer recently designed wayfinding graphics for the sixty-nine distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Our understanding of the client, their concerns, and their business needs resulted in a reopening experience that was safe yet authentic to their brand.

Be Diligent
Many of our clients hire us to help them with shifting their market position. Their survival and growth depend on attracting new customers while retaining their "core markets." During the stakeholder engagement process, a meeting's agenda and intent must always align with an organization's long-term strategic plans.

  • Know your audience. Be intentional in developing an engagement session that stimulates participation within each particular group.
  • Know their brand. Understanding the values of the brand you are collaborating with creates more substantial connections.
  • The resulting trust between the team and the client only improves the process towards successfully meeting (and exceeding) the project goals.

While this thoughtful approach applies to all of our markets, it's incredibly important to the higher education clients my team supports. For example, efforts to increase enrollment, design dining halls, and housing to meet community needs, or advance diversity goals by appealing to a new demographic require research and stakeholder feedback to help drive the path to a design solution.

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Getting a new building – such as Endicott College's student residence hall, Standish Hall – completed on time and on budget means managing many variables, including stakeholder and student input. The college needed a new 295-bed residence hall for their upperclassmen, which had to meet student expectations as a modern, state-of-the-art facility, with exciting common spaces and study lounges. And it had to be ready for move-in within 12 months.

Be Visual
Hey, we’re design professionals! We communicate with images! Our engagement process leverages our Revit model, complimented with sketches, existing photos, inspirations, and rendered panoramic views/walkthroughs to facilitate the stakeholder discussions from our very early meetings through construction. While it’s important to not be too realistic/literal too soon, accessible visualization assists stakeholders not fluent in reading floor plans and gives them equal footing to provide their unique viewpoints, which is after all the point of engaging them.

Additionally, sending a PDF version of the presentation deck, or granting access to a virtual collaborative white space to attendees after the meeting, goes a long way. Give stakeholders the time (3-5 days) and space to process what they heard and saw regarding the big ideas during the work session and, upon closer inspection, let them react to some of the specifics. It is our job as designers to give them the tools and the stage to meaningfully contribute, and to be receptive to the feedback we get. Clear, high-quality presentation materials are critical instruments to make this happen.

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Featured are a conceptual visualization, design development rendering, and professional photo of one of the completed rooms from our work with The Boston Beer Company on the Samuel Adams Boston Tap Room.

COVID restrictions have challenged us all to experiment with new ways of working. They have also given us an opportunity to learn new tools, be more adaptable, and create new channels for communicating. At Bergmeyer, we have been able to adjust to the new demands of this more remote period, and we continue to build upon our experiences to better serve our current and future clients, regardless of where they are on a map.