How does engagement fit with project management?

“Isn’t engagement just good project management?”

It was like a beer poking the beehive really.

Last week we were asked this question by a curious project manager in a district health board.

And the question interested us because we started Business Lab with a strong emphasis on project management.

Over time, that focus has shifted to engagement as we saw how a focus on project management meant the right people were not getting involved.

We kept seeing good ideas and beautiful strategies go nowhere because decision-makers had failed to involve the people whose behaviour they wanted to influence, support or change.

As a project manager, you’ll usually come across the term “community engagement” when you first start working on projects that impact a lot of people.

And you’ll start thinking:

  • What is community and stakeholder engagement?

  • Who counts as “the community”? Who is a “stakeholder”?

  • How do I squeeze engagement into my project timelines?

  • How does this fit with my project management structure?

This article aims to answer the last of those questions. Our aim is to get you thinking about how engagement relates to project management. There might not be an easy answer to these questions but we hope to spark some thinking that you can apply to the projects you’re working on.

How do community engagement and project management fit together?

I am sorry to say that this is a tough question to answer. And the answer probably changes depending on who you ask.

How do engagement and project management fit together - three ways of thinking about it - Business Lab

For project managers, the answer might be “A”.

How+do+engagement+and+project+management+fit+together - Option A

Project managers view community engagement as something you do to ensure the success of your project. It’s part of your project management efforts.

If your project requires your decision-makers to understand users’ needs, you engage with them. If your project would benefit from other organisations and people being involved in implementation, then you engage with them.

“The project” is at all times the arbiter of truth. Your fallback question is always: “What will help us deliver our project outcomes on time and within budget?”

Many project managers look at community engagement as “a bit fluffy” and something you do primarily to risks to your project.

And this is probably the dominating view of how engagement relates to project management.

I was reminded of this dominant worldview when reading about the 2018 International Association of Public Participation’s Core Values Award, which went to the Northern Corridor improvements with NZ Transport Agency.

A key lesson from that project was “how important it is that your project sponsor values engagement, and ensures that as an engagement manager you have a place at the senior management table.” It was “invaluable” to have engagement entrenched in other managers' roles.

In other words, engagement played a key role in supporting the project’s objectives. The project objectives were the touchstone.

We have to remember, after all, that community engagement is still an emerging profession and discipline.

This recent blog post from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) looks back just 20 years ago to when IAP2 developed its first training offering.

At that time, the usual practice was focused on a “neutralize the opposition” or “get-them-to-agree-with-you” approach. “Too little... was based on a central notion that the public had something valuable to contribute or that public participation was essential to making better, more sustainable decisions.”

For community engagement professionals, the answer might be “B”.


Community engagement professionals believe we need to do more than just deliver a project.

It’s also about relationship building and capacity-building - outcomes that may not help you achieve the immediate project outcomes.

You want to leave the system in a better place that when you started, so you are guided by more than just the project outcomes. You also want to ensure the effort you put into engagement continues once the formal project is “done”.

“The people” and “the community” are your arbiter of truth. Your fallback question is something like: “Are we involving a diversity of people in a way that suits them?”

Project management, therefore, is something you do to ensure your community engagement runs on time and under budget.

Or perhaps the answer is actually “C”?

How+do+engagement+and+project+management+fit+together - C

Project management and community engagement have different starting points; they have different purposes; they have different theoretical foundations.

So perhaps when we are figuring out how they fit together, we should give them equal weighting?

Project management asks you make something happen as quickly and cheaply as you can. The focus is often on efficiency and sticking to budget. Once the project is complete, you move onto the next project.

Community engagement has broader purposes. Yes, it’s about helping decision-makers to implement a project without a front-page PR disaster. But it’s also about leaving the system in a better place than when you started. It’s about improving the strength of relationships and the skills of people affected by the project.

Perhaps we need an equal balance of both.

Okay, but how does engagement fit within my project structure?

It all comes back to the purpose of your engagement.

Are you simply trying to get richer information to your decision-makers about the wants and needs of people who will be affected?

If that’s the case, you’re probably just informing or consulting. And you can probably get away with engagement being part of your existing project management structure.

How do engagement and project management fit together - inforgraphic showing Inform and Consult

Or, are you wanting to more deeply involve affected people in the project?

Perhaps you want them to be involved in making the project happen. If that’s the case, you’re looking at involving, collaborating or empowering affected people.

How do engagement and project management fit together - involving/collaborating/empowering

In this case, you would certainly benefit from having a stronger mechanism for engagement within your project management structure. A reference group of some kind will help you design an engagement process and to adapt that process as you go - in line with their feedback and direction.

And you might want to start your project or process by asking deep questions about the people you are trying to help. After all, you’ll not only want your project to be a success, but you’ll want to leave the system in a better place once you’re done.

So at the outset you might ask questions like:

  • Who exactly are we trying to help here?

  • What are their hopes/wants/needs?

  • What do we know about the web of relationships right now?

  • What do we know about how the system serves them?

  • How might we build their capacity through this process?

How can you action this in your project?

Now that you better understand how community engagement fits within your project, what should you do next?

If you feel you’re ready to move forward with your engagement, we recommend as a minimum you:

  • complete a stakeholder analysis

  • confirm internally what level of engagement your organisation’s leadership is comfortable with. You don’t want to talk about “engagement” and “empowerment” when actually your decision-makers just want to consult.

If you want some help setting your engagement up for success, we have a fixed-price engagement design service that will help you set a water-tight engagement strategy. We’ll ask the hard questions to ensure you’re well set up to engage and know how engagement fits with your project structure.

And we would love to know your view. Do you think engagement is just part of good project management? Or does it start from such a different perspective that it’s like comparing apples with car tyres? Drop us a line and share your thoughts.


Set your project us for success

As this article illustrates, there are many factors to think through when you’re designing your engagement process. With one of our fixed-price engagement design options, you’ll work through the key questions up front so you don’t drop the ball later.