How To Avoid The Dreaded Lull

by Christopher Dunne

It happens to every project: some meetings have been held, your existing conditions have been documented and your technical team is ready to roll up their sleeves, lock themselves in a room and emerge with a solution to the problem…in three to six months.

You’re facing The Dreaded Lull, those momentum-killing weeks when you need to press pause on gathering public input while the feedback and data collected are analyzed and incorporated into a report or set of recommendations. It’s only supposed to last a little while but there is the looming possibility that it could drag on for months, a whole season or more. All the excitement generated around the project and the trust you’ve painstakingly built with stakeholders could evaporate in the doldrums of The Lull.

Highland Planning has developed a few approaches to sustaining momentum during this critical portion of any project.

1. Remind People What You’ve Done

While you know how many doors you’ve knocked on, how many meetings you’ve held, how many local events you’ve popped-up at and how many focus groups you’ve convened, the public might not. A newsletter, e-blast and/or social media post just summarizing what’s happened in the project so far and what the next steps will be can go a long way to demonstrating that the project team has listened.

2. Keep Your Core Stakeholders in the Loop 

While your updates during this period might be pretty technical and uninteresting for most members of the public, keeping your core stakeholders apprised of what the project team is working on behind the scenes is a great way to sustain trust. Remember: your core stakeholders, whether they’re public officials, members of an internal committee or local advocates and community leaders, have a constituency they serve. These core stakeholdres value being knowledgeable about the project and having the ability to offer assurance that it is continuing to move forward to their constituents.  Accordingly, they will appreciate being kept in the loop even when the project has faded from the headlines for a time.

3. Give a Preview When Possible

Often while the technical team is still hard at work on their report or recommendations, an outline of what’s to come will already have emerged. In the past, we’ve tried to get creative with laying the groundwork for recommendations or reports. While we try to avoid public meetings that are purely informational at this stage, pop-ups and digital communications are good forums to educate and prepare community members so they have more context and a better understanding once a recommended solution is presented. Even just a quick case study can provide a member of the public with the knowledge of the background and rationale necessary to appreciate a proposed solution that they would have otherwise dismissed out of hand.

Whatever You Do, Keep It Moving

Sometimes the most important conversations during this period are internal: remind your team members that a project in a prolonged lull is potentially an issue. Radio silence and a lack of momentum can create risk. Sometimes that risk can spill over into more tangible issues than public interest and trust, like funding and legal requirements. Some pauses in a project are unavoidable (and may even be welcome). Just make sure you have a strategy for addressing the risk associated when you don’t keep things moving forward.

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