Levels of Engagement

In 2006, as a part of a research project, Christina Comeau worked with two interns to assess whether we might be able to accurately “measure” the level of engagement required to accurately address individual situations or challenges. Over the course of much analysis and testing, we have been able to discern ten “levels” of engagement types – from Level 1 – sending an email – through to Level 10 – working with a complex adaptive system.

If you work with Viviane, she will recommend an ideal level of engagement, given the particulars of your challenge or situation. And here, for your consideration, are the ten levels.

The levels exist in five ‘bands’, based on the considerations listed below the table.

Complex Adaptive System
Level 10 - Complex Adaptive System
This method is best used when faced with challenging situations that may still be highly conceptual or undefined but that need immediate attention. When faced with these types of complex situations, this method focuses on building relationships while drawing on organizational values and culture. It is an very good approach to invite full participation by a diverse group of stakeholders.

Typical Outcome: Innovative solutions are identified and discussed. If sufficient time is allowed all initiatives discovered during the session can be prioritized, leadership identified and plans put in place.

Limitations: Stakeholders need to be diverse and key decision makers need to be present. Stakeholders must be committed for a fixed period of time(1-3 days).

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • When there is a need to get the “whole system” involved
    • There is a large number of stakeholders to engage; 20 to 500+ stakeholders
    • A new vision needs to be identified or broadly understood.
    • Ground-breaking solutions required
    • There is a need to overcome reluctance or resistance by the stakeholders

Breakthrough Thinking Solutions
Level 9 - Breakthrough Thinking Solutions
Breakthrough Thinking is a structured problem solving process that engages key stakeholders to generate solutions that may have been otherwise unattainable. It works best when trying to solve complex challenges that may span a large organization or multiple organizations.

Typical Outcome: The invention of a “net new” approach or solution that makes innovative use of internal and external components to design a breakthrough solution.

Limitation: Highly trained specialist(s) required to provide rigor in guiding the participants through a collaborative process of complex problem solving using proven algorithms for invention.  The participants should be very familiar with the business and most of the factors that impact upon it.  Participants must be willing to commit the time and significant effort required by this method.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • The organizational vision is undergoing change, but there is a common understanding of the main strategic objectives.
    • The need to arrive at an “out of the box” solution is high
    • Much more than incremental improvement to the status quo is required
    • A dedicated group of stakeholders are available to collaborate on the work

Exploratory Workshops – Comprehensive Alignment
Level 8 - Exploratory Workshops – Comprehensive Alignment
This method works well when faced with complex situations that contain an element of ambiguity. Complex situations are characterized as nonlinear, dynamic and adaptive. This method produces optimum results when there are a variety of engaged stakeholders that represent different areas of the organization and there is a high need for change.

Typical Outcome: Workshop specialists can lead participants to try new ways of thinking and working that allow participants to adapt to the complex situations they are faced with.

Limitation: Exploratory Workshops require skilled specialists to guide the process.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • Vision needs to be redefined, but there is a specific objective in mind
    • Large number of stakeholders, 25 – 75
    • Need a fundamental improvement to an existing system
    • Stakeholders need to be coordinated and aligned
    • The solution is more a matter of organization and planning than breakthrough

Guided Workshops – Structured Delivery
Level 7 - Guided Workshops – Structured Delivery
A Guided Workshop is delivered by one or more persons who are adept in a particular work process appropriate to the task at hand. The guided workshop is similar to meetings in that a wide variety of approaches and processes are included in this method. It differs from a meeting because it is led by a specialist, makes use of a particular work process that is specific to the work to be accomplished and is suitable for a larger number of stakeholders than most meeting formats.


Typical Outcome: This structured process can be informative or teach new skills  that relate to a specific goal or objective of the organization.

Limitation: There is little opportunity to address divergent issues if they fall outside the matters focused on by the workshop format.  This method is not ideal when dealing with resistance to change or trying to solve a complex problem whose solution has previously eluded the organization.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • Vision needs to be redefined or refreshed
    • 10-25 stakeholders.
    • Initiative needs to create noteworthy improvements to an existing system
    • Need improved ability to execute current and future initiatives

Open Dialogue – Direction Finding
Level 6 - Open Dialogue – Direction Finding
This method works well when there are no immediate goals or targets to be reached, but a general topic that needs to be explored by a diverse group. It is a process of discussion where all participants are responsible to bring up any issues or thoughts they have related to the discussion topic. Dialogue and open communication are the main objectives.


Typical Outcome: This method of collaboration promotes synergy and cooperation among participants. It can be very effective in removing uncertainty or conflict within an organization when the cause may been lack of communication or inter-personal issues.

Limitation: Open Dialogue usually does not result in specific action in the short term.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • The vision is being discussed and open to proposed changes.
    • There are an array of stakeholders; this process can accommodate large or small numbers
    • There is a trained collaborator available to coach participants through the process
    • There is a need for improved understanding and commitment among stakeholders

Facilitated Meeting
Level 5 - Facilitated Meeting
This approach to collaboration involves a facilitator, who may or may not be a neutral party, to assist the discussion process. Typically, an agenda or work plan informs participants of the issues to be addressed and provides direction for the facilitator. The facilitator encourages balanced participation among the parties present at the meeting. Probing questions are often posed to explore all aspects of the issues presented for discussion in the agenda. This approach is often applied in situations where heated issues are to be discussed and a decision needs to be made.

Typical Outcome: Balanced participation among all parties present at the meeting.

Limitation: It can be useful to employ a neutral person as the facilitator, although their lack of familiarity with the subject may limit the process. This method may also be restricted by the agenda, as important issues can be marginalized if the convener was not aware of the issue before hand.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • Vision is being reinforced
    • Meeting is agenda driven, with fewer than 20 participants
    • The objective is improvements to the existing system
    • There is a real need for collaboration; leadership is ready to coach stakeholders through the process

Face to Face Meeting / Conference
Level 4 - Face to Face Meeting / Conference
These are our most familiar methods of conducting face to face business. A key characteristic of this level of collaboration is driven by a meeting agenda or a conference program that is decided upon in advance by a convening authority. In a meeting, a chairperson leads the proceedings whereas in a conference the participants are responsible to seek out where they wish to participate.

Typical Outcome: Meetings can be an effective method of discussing routine activities or clarifying direction, particularly when there is a need to cover a fixed list of issues in a limited time.  Conferences are best suited to a learning based outcome focused on producing information to participants.

Limitation: The structure of this type of collaboration is not ideal when there is a need to engage stakeholders concerning a new initiative or to select and refine new ideas.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • Vision is reasonably clear and ready to be reviewed if need be
    • Agenda driven meetings with few stakeholders (less than 15)
    • Objective is minor improvements to current system or approach
    • Little collaboration is needed, some convincing and providing direction is the main purpose

Remote Web / Video Conference
Level 3 - Remote Web / Video Conference
Remote web or video conferences are real-time methods that facilitate greater understanding of messages by allowing the use of voice, imagery, text or other multi-media techniques. Depending on the amount of technology in use, participants may use group “white boarding” or other techniques to exchange ideas and evolve the value of information being developed through collaboration.
Typical Outcome: Exchange of significant amounts of  information including some collaborative evolution of ideas or decisions.


Technical: All participants must have access to appropriate technology.     Costs include maintenance and bandwidth charges.
Personal: The limitations of time and the absence of subtle “face-to-face”   dynamics have an impact on how much can be achieved.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

    • Vision is very clear and ready to be reviewed if need be
    • Collaboration is limited to small group of stakeholders, 2-7
    • Activity is routine but important. Best if not urgent or highly complex
    • Spelling out what needs to be done is the principal objective and only minor issues need to be resolved

Telephone Call / Teleconference
Level 2 - Telephone Call / Teleconference
This is a remote and effective way to communicate with one person or a small group of people in real time. The key advantage is the ability to have an active dialogue without the co-location of all the participants.

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Typical Outcome:  Information and requests can be transferred promptly and easily; it has the advantage over email that minor misunderstandings can be clarified in real time.

Limitation: The lack of visual cues increases the chances of miscommunication. In a busy environment the convener may not know if the participants are engaged in the conversation or have migrated to other tasks while “listening in.”

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method

    • Vision is very clear and has been well communicated
    • Small group of stakeholders (2-4)
    • Functional solution or approach needed
    • A minimum amount of collaboration needed to refine specifics
    • All stakeholders have the necessary skill sets to execute solution

EMail & Online Dialogue
Level 1 - Correspondence / Email
This is a remote method of communication and collaboration, in that there is no face to face interaction. Electronic-mail messages are delivered almost instantaneously, however other forms of correspondence may take longer to reach the recipient(s).  In both cases, the time for the recipient(s) to respond can vary greatly.


Typical Outcome: An exchange of basic information or the giving of simple direction.

Limitation: The use of undefined terms or the absence of subtle cues present during face to face conversation can increase the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Factors indicating appropriateness of this method:

  • Vision is very clear and has been previously well communicated
  • Small group of stakeholders. Although mass emails can be issued, typically one would not expect a large volume of responses or ongoing exchange of information to clarify issues. This is the primary means of collaboration.
  • Task is routine – functional solution or approach is needed
  • All stakeholders have the necessary skill sets to execute the solution

Other things to consider:

  • The higher the level, the more ability you have to resolve complex situations and innovate.
  • The higher the level, the greater the breadth of transformation possible.
  • Levels 1-3 work for individual engagement.
  • Levels 2-7 work for team engagement.
  • Levels 5-10 work for organizational engagement.
  • Levels 1-3 require standard communications skills.
  • Level 4 also requires managerial and organizational skills.
  • Level 5-7 also require specialized collaboration and facilitation skills and techniques.
  • Levels 8-10 require the assistance of experts in complexity.