Clarity of Purpose – Streams of Engagement Framework


In a recent Art of Hosting post, as well as in his blog, my friend and colleague Tenneson Woolf is inquiring into questions that invite real energy and focus into the purpose of a project, especially at the start of community or organizational engagement, and also to guide such initiatives once they are underway to ensure the original intent is not lost. He remarks that often there is a rush to ‘jump in’, overlooking this vital first step, and this may lead to stuckness later on.

When it comes to stressing the importance of being clear on purpose, I love Toke Paludan Moeller’s wonderful quote: “Clarity of purpose is a sweet weapon against confusion”. This reflects my own experience that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will lead you there, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself lost, confused, frustrated, and de-energized in the process. The single most important task in the initial phase of engagement contracting is to clarify the ‘why’ of coming together, along with the ‘what’ of desired outcomes and deliverables.

In this regard, yet more of my friends have been grappling with the same issue at the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. The result is a wonderful resource developed by Sandy Heierbacher, ED of NCDD (presented in October 2005 with Tonya Gonzalez at Study Circles – now Everday Democracy national conference) and Jan Elliott (presented at the Facing Complex Issues Together Canadian Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation), entitled: NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework. Intended to assist in the process of clarifying purpose and the alignment of methods to serve that purpose, this free downloadable resource is a series of two charts that categorize the D&D field into four streams based on intention or purpose:

  • Exploration – people learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue – and perhaps also come up with innovative ideas.
  • Conflict Transformation – poor relations or a specific conflict among individuals or groups is tackled.
  • Decision Making – solutions are generated and evaluated, a decision or policy is impacted, and public knowledge of an issue is improved.
  • Collaborative Action – people tackle complex problems and take responsibility for solutions they come up with.

The framework shows which of the most well-known methods (e.g., Cafe, Dialogue, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, Study Circles, and so on) have proven themselves effective in which streams. The second chart goes into more detail about 23 dialogue and deliberation methods, and includes information such as group size, meeting type and how participants are selected.

The Streams of Engagement framework was featured in the May 2006 issue of IAP2’s Participation Quarterly publication, was featured in a book published by the United Nations Development Programme called Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners, and is also described in Sandy Heierbacher’s chapter on D&D in the 2nd Edition of The Change Handbook. It has also been used by numerous D&D practitioners to help community leaders and public managers understand their options. The resource can be downloaded free in the following formats as:
  • A 9-page PDF resource
  • A comic graphic representation of the 4 main purposes, and
  • NCDD is in the process of developing a beginner’s toolkit around this.

Author: myriamlaberge

M.A. (Economics), Certified Professional Facilitator Founder & Managing Director