Building a project brief through collaboration: The challenges of Higher Education projects
Collaboration with stakeholders is critical for successful briefing on any type of project. However, on higher education projects this group is supplemented by a multitude of end user groups whose interests must also be considered during the design process. This goes beyond the project funder and estates team, to include academics and representatives of the wider student body. With so many people consulted, accountability and transparency are crucial. In this article I discuss the considerations when putting together a complex engagement process.
Define the challenge. Make sure you understand the design problem first, because an overview of the project will help frame who needs to be consulted and why. Very often RIBA Stage 0 is used to set this out as an initial strategic project brief and KPIs.
Define the process. Bespoke consultation plans will set the parameters of the engagement and help avoid misunderstandings later. These plans identify who is to be consulted (including the weight of their influence), the purpose of each consultation and the dates of meetings. Any rules and protocols should be clearly set out in a formal communication strategy.
Identify the design or stakeholder champion. This person (or persons) will champion wider organisational support and promote the project with the ultimate decision makers. They will be high-level in an organisation and ideally involved from start to finish. With their role in place, the process will run smoother.
Assign an experienced person to run the process. The person assigned to lead and run the workshops must find the common denominator across a wide group of interests and priorities. Stakeholders bring ideas and information – this person must ensure consensus is reached efficiently, and conflict is avoided. They will need support in this role from others who provide workshop materials and record the outcomes.
Bring everyone onboard. Collaboration always works best when there is a common vision and shared project ownership. Everybody must understand the purpose, including the project’s more pragmatic goals. They must know that they will be consulted, and their inputs are materially influencing the design.
Give everyone a voice. When you’re working closely with others, you must manage the group dynamic to ensure maximum opportunity for feedback. Ensure that the loudest voices in the room don’t dominate. To access people with busy schedules, consider online consultation and surveys. Ensure that all interested parties are informed about what is happening throughout relevant milestones of the project.
Show empathy. Avoid a blame culture. Focus on finding constructive solutions and work through concerns together when tabled. When at an impasse, focus on shared priorities that allow the discussion and design to move forward.
Bring in specialists when needed. Learning and teaching spaces have evolved quickly, both in terms of their functional layout and digital/technological requirements. These trends need to be understood, both at a briefing and design level. If this knowledge is not within the current team, employ those that can help.
Be flexible. Be prepared to make changes when something not working, especially when conflict arises, or the engagement becomes stale.
Capture lessons learnt. Every briefing process should build on what has been learnt from other collaborative endeavours. Ask your client to share their experiences, so that the process builds on what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
By Simon England, Associate Design Manager