I recently returned from a trip to Bangkok working with the United Nations (UN). I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with people from across Asia-Pacific talking about all things engagement.
Day one was spent learning/listening to some of the New York staff sharing the work they are doing, bringing more engagement with civil society organisations into the UN.
Day two was me, someone with lots of engagement experience but the scale of the UN was new to me. The good news was that it only took about an hour on day one for me to know why I was there and that what I had to share was going to be well received. With in that first hour, I saw we all had something in common.
There were people from Thailand, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia and beyond, who were all working on projects from HIV prevention to building IT capacity in poorer communities, the one thing we all had in common was PEOPLE. We all dealt with, relied on and needed other people for our work to be successful.
Yes, there are some cultural nuances to appreciate but once I started talking about my engagement experiences with PEOPLE and the learning about why and how engagement planning and delivery works, any differences about scale, culture or nationality made little to no difference.
It was very affirming to be in a room with people not just from other countries but living and working in those countries and to hear them express similar frustrations to any other engagement professional:
How do we get people interested?
How do we make the process fair and transparent?
How do we get people in the organisation to work more closely with an engagement approach?
Affirming not because they had frustrations but affirming of the fact that people across the globe have more in common than our difference. That is the take out I wanted to share. At times big or small projects can seem complicated and even impenetrable but it is at these moments that we could bring it back to the fundamental fact – that any project is about PEOPLE.
Which means there are some basics we can always come back to:
What is the relationship I want to have with the people I want to engage with? AND what relationship do they want with me?
Am I holding on to power too tightly and/or have I given too much away?
Am I working in reaction to defensive things others have said and/or have I been talking from a defensiveness?
Am I being transparent and open about what I do and don't know?
How much time have I spent deeply understanding the others and/or how much time have I spent trying to convince them I am right?
Engagement is more than a transacted deal. We can build infrastructure, health systems, emergency response programs and national, state or local plans but long before and well after the ‘project’ will be the PEOPLE who help make it happen or use it into the future.
With thanks to my new found colleagues in the UN who are living that message right around the world.