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March 2022

Tools & Tips: The guiding principles of co-creation

In this Tools & Tips, we will introduce and explain the Five Guiding Principles of co-creation. Much like the Ten Commandments, they aim to offer a paradigm for success, and were developed based on years of trial and error. We hope to show that co-creation is not a fad or buzzword, nor an art: it’s a profession. A way of working that can be taught, learned, and applied; a paradigm that can be easily understood, powered by a set of exercises that can be trained and used. It is an intuitive way to generate new value, based on a solid foundation. Although the principles apply universally to all types of co-creation, we will bring them to life specifically within the context of expert co-creation.

We call them principles, because they are building blocks of a paradigm. Not so much an opinion or dogma of how you “should” do it, more in the systemic sense of physics: this is how things work. They have no hierarchy as such (all equally important) but do have a pleasantly logical sequence, so they offer a great narrative backbone to ambitious projects. Let’s dive into it!

1. Inspire to Participate – how to frame, structure and present your purpose

Many ambitious innovators overlook this point, taking for granted that whatever captivates them, will be of great interest to others too. Sadly, of course, this is not the case. This is why formulating your co-creation challenge into an answerable question that is interesting, inspiring to others: is a crucial step in the strategic innovation process. You will need (and learn) to stay close to your own ideas and drive, whilst at the same time empathizing with others. There are three main development stages of creating a great and compelling “challenge” – as to be used in co-creation workshops.

  • Define a strategic challenge – Formulate a challenge that is to the point, clearly connects to selected strategic themes, and captures the audience’s imagination.

  • Frame the problem –  Make the challenge explicit by formulating How Might We… questions.

  • Create a challenge presentation –  Create a visually appealing, simply worded presentation that conveys your challenge.

2. Select the Best – who to involve, how to find and engage them

So why is this principle called Select the Best? Simply because the quality of your experts is the single most defining factor for the quality of your outputs. The quality of your experts is the single most defining factor for the quality of your outputs.

The art of co-creation depends on finding and involving the smartest people that aren’t already working in your team, and getting them on board. The best team will get you the best results. A winning co-creation team connects skills, perspectives and experience from a variety of perspectives and roles – and combines coworkers, stakeholders and other experts. Connecting is the art of finding those best experts and getting them on your team.


Principle 3: Trust the process

Many readers will recognize this scenario. You received an invitation to a brainstorm session, felt intrigued or compelled to go… and regretted it.

Here are some classic session downers: it is unclear why you are there, you start – or end – way late, other participants don’t show up, moderators follow a program that is only clear to them, there is no time for breaks and some people leave early. The moderators burn up most of the time presenting dull slides. Oh, and the session is held in a stuffy, windowless meeting room. Hard to get excited, right? Fortunately, a simple set of steps can help to avoid frustration and ensure energy: set up your own standard workshop blueprint that you can fine-tune over time, or search the web for useful tools.

4. Raise the Bar – how to turn good ideas into solid gold

It is now our job to create a safe space and bolster optimistic confidence that we will establish a fresh new perspective. To do so, we will need to break down what we’ve learned, possibly even let go of some strongly held assumptions and somehow reassemble the pieces in such a way that it allows us to Raise the bar, to formulate a new narrative of logic, consequence and progress.

This involves the creative process of constructing a new logical structure from scratch. How? With these four steps:

  • Reflect – Go over your notes and ask yourself (or each other): What did we see, hear, learn? What stood out? What triggered us, got us thinking?

  • Construct – Formulate your logic by selecting and combining components, like building logic from Legos. In this phase, we want to create “concepts”.

  • Validate (& Improve) – Get feedback to validate and enrich your ideas.

  • Strategize – Translate your ideas into a strategy. What does your solution entail, in terms of next steps? Who needs to do what, in which sequence?

5. Lead the Change – about you and your role in making impact

Principle 5 is primarily the insight, mantra, or simple truth that no change happens without leaders. And that, until you appoint somebody else, you are it. Here are some pointers and tips to help you “channel your inner Elon Musk”.

  • Fill the seats: As a leader, it is useful to consider various roles within the project and delegate them to appropriate team members. We use 5 roles: The inspirator, The connector, The Moderator, The Strategist and The General.

  • State your case: Getting strategy into people’s heads requires making choices and explaining why they fit with the new storyline. Get ready to repeat a clear and compelling story (over and over and over).

  • Claim your space: You’ve ‘mastered’ the topic and formulated a strong, purpose-led road ahead, so now you need the Autonomy to make it happen. You’ve Mastered the topic and formulated a strong, purpose-led road ahead, so now you need the Autonomy to make it happen. This is why we recommend you involve some senior stakeholders in Principle 3 (Trust the Process). This is the time to call in their support.

  • Unlock your coalition: There are libraries full of theories on “How to make friends and influence people”, but what we’d like to emphasize (once more) is that the very simplest way to proceed is often very effective: make your story accessible, invite people to follow and make it easy to join in.

So, these are our five co-creation rockstars.  Now you know what to do, you should probably just get out there and do it. Feel free to reach out to us if you are in despair or delight. We do not expect you to master all these principles from day one. It has taken us fifteen years to get to this point. We do think that you will enjoy a very steep learning curve, however. And once you have experienced the goosebumps of true co-creation, there is simply no going back to normal brainstorming.

Want to read more about the Five Guiding Principles of co-creation? Or are you looking for a step-by-step guide towards impact, filled with practical co-creation tips and inspirational case examples? Check out our book ‘Collaborate or Die’, available here.

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