The Necessity of Co-Creation

Organizational Transformation

Every few years “the solution” arrives.  The true believers enthusiastically evangelize their networks while the skeptics announce, “there is nothing new here.”  The truth often lies somewhere in the middle.   Given that leadership and management practices have been illustrated and discussed from the beginning of human interaction, it would be surprising to discover an overlooked significant truth.  The more likely explanation is that the current context and challenges have created the right environment for a particular idea to be fruitful at this time. Victor Hugo captured it well: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”


Two approaches that carry the solution label are Lean and Design Thinking.  Both have been around for a while and integrate tools that have been around even longer.  It is easy to skim over the literature and conclude as an organizational leader you never stopped analyzing your operations and environment, looking for creative solutions, and implementing the best ideas.   Organizations can look to investment in R & D, industrial engineering and strategic planning departments as evidence of commitments to continuous improvement and breakthrough ideas.   Additionally, they can point out significant sums paid to consulting organizations to provide missing expertise in these areas.


Like a lot of solutions, Lean and Design Thinking would not have found such a willing audience if past approaches were still effective.  The logic and the tools of past solutions were not the primary problem since the same logic and tools are still being used.  The “what” didn’t change but the “who” did. Previously, the tools and the conclusions they produced were the property of a small group of select experts.  They operated with a mandate to produce the correct answer supported by careful and exacting research.  The end user was often left with a binary choice of implementing the solution or finding different experts.  For a number of years, this approach produced a steady supply of market solutions and increasing levels of efficiencies.


But today everyone realizes that organizations can’t operate with a 1980’s mentality and structure when meeting the challenges of their internal and external environments.  This includes overcoming the timeless leadership struggle between control and empowerment.  Organizational leaders too often send conflicting messages with an enthusiastic introduction of Lean or Design Thinking principles but an inability to truly release the process to others.


A design principle to help leaders avoid controlling the process is “co-creation.”  This requires involving users early in the selection and development of concepts.  This can create discomfort if we are still stuck in the world of experts who deliver to us a finished product ready for feedback and refinement.  For those leading an innovation or efficiency effort this may require deliberately limiting their pursuit of the solution so that others have space to contribute.


The role reversal of expert and user in the development learning process is perhaps more important than anything in the lean or design tool box.  Those who are doing the task or using the product may not have all the information needed for a better product or service but they are certainly critical to the implementation or acceptance phase.   Unfortunately, leaders can sometimes develop the perspective that their customers or their employees are the source of the problem rather than the solution.


This same principle and approach is at the heart of many leadership practices related to engagement and change.  Leaders often struggle with delegation because if can be more feelings dependent (“I will just know when they ready for more responsibility”) than process driven. The tools of Lean and Design thinking can be adopted to many organizational functions where everyone on the team is engaged because the way work is done invites experimentation and continuous learning.   Most of us perform with more passion and excellence when there is greater seamlessness between creation and implementation.