Planning Stakeholder Engagement, Part 3: Interpreting Your Results

Considering the results from your stakeholder engagement sessions is perhaps the most tricky part of this process for my clients. We can cover a lot of ground in a short time during facilitation sessions, which are key to the Deep Listening phase of our methodology. People can give a lot of feedback and say a variety of different things to shape your project. So, how do you interpret these results?

In my experience, pulling out the themes that emerge from groups proves to be an effective starting point. Themes, as opposed to the specific details people share, provide an overall sense of direction to shape the engagement campaign you want to create. If we are reviewing a process, for example, or even specific creative imagery, someone in the group might make a negative comment. Negative comments tend to impact clients to a disproportionate extent, even when the general feedback is positive. This is why themes are so important. By identifying the overall themes that emerge, you are better equipped to consider participant feedback in perspective.

One exception, though, is that sometimes there is a comment that is extremely insightful. It might be a point or insight we had not considered. Sometimes a single insight is worth the entire series of engagements alone! 

We identify themes in a few ways. Sometimes I record and transcribe engagement sessions, but this can be an expensive option. A more effective option is to have a note taker in the room who can actively summarize the comments. These notes provide a basis to sort and analyze themes after-the-fact. It’s very difficult to facilitate and take notes at the same time, as the roles are very different. (One thing you should determine beforehand is whether to attribute comments by name in the notes or not. We usually do so we can clarify later what a person meant, but then strip them out later once we have reviewed the comments.) We make special note of any insights that seem to challenge the current orthodoxy or give rise to new opportunities. We try to ensure our clients understand that an individual’s comments do not reflect the entire group. 

For me, this is the biggest challenge. Clients hear what they want to hear, and it is up to me as the facilitator to try to step them away from their own biases and actually hear what is being said. This may sound obvious, but it is a real concern. Putting aside your own assumptions and ideas about what “should” be the case is critical.

The second way is through a questionnaire or survey that people answer either during or after the session. This can provide, depending on how many people you are engaging, a quantitative answer. Usually it is too small a sample to be considered representative. Still, this can be effective if it is a small group, such as a board or staff.

A third method is that a number of exercises practiced during the session can provide concrete results. For example, having stakeholders identify issues with the particular information architecture can lead to a revised plan. Or, in branding exercises, there can be a powerful alignment within the group around specific terms that then can be carried forward. As a facilitator, I work hard to make sure that I consider a combination of concrete results from a group with a broader selection of feedback.

Thinking through the results is the fruit that comes to bear from the engagement process. Stakeholder engagement is a very necessary part of our methodology of Deep Listening. By listening deeply we can uncover root causes, motivations, and expected behaviors that lend themselves to building any kind of future endeavors.

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