Co-creation is an important strategy for agile change

What makes co-creation such a powerful vehicle for change and is it an approach you should use at all times? I try to answer those questions in the article below.


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Co-creation is an important strategy for agile change

Co-creation in general is about involving all stakeholders in the design of new services, products, business models, processes and organizations. Internal co-creation is a democratic approach in which employees design the future of their organization together with top management instead of following a top-down, command and control approach. It seeks to involve the employees affected by the change.

Many organizations start with internal co-creation to experiment with the approach, before taking the leap to co-creating with external stakeholders. But if you look at co-creation from a change management perspective, then inviting both forms of co-creation are important to create new futures.

There are several reasons why co-creation has become such an important strategy for change. One of the most important arguments for co-creation is that it creates engagement for change. I would even say that co-creation allows your organization to change without really knowing it or emphasizing it. Change is inherent to co-creation. In times where change is a given, co-creation is a capability that moves you forward.

What are the advantages of co-creation?

Let’s look at a few advantages of co-creation to understand it’s role in change management:

  • it’s difficult to monitor and copy by others (because the results are unique to the group of stakeholders you put together), so it gives you more enduring results;
  • with co-creation, different people are involved and engaged in the change, and people who can give input, will be less to non-resistant to the change they helped bring about, making change easier to implement; it will even not feel as change;
  • you address the collective intelligence of your community and use the full potential of people available, instead of the minds of a few people at the top;
  • it creates organizational agility when co-creation becomes a capability, since co-creation is scalable and a management team isn’t.

It’s clear that co-creation can bring enormous opportunities for companies who manage to harness it. It seems easy to do, but it isn’t. There are quite some challenges to take on when choosing for a co-creation approach.

Pitfalls of organizing for co-creation

Co-creation is often started with good intention. The believe is that it might bring a competitive advantage or it can improve employee engagement, so why not try it. It seems to be the modern approach to follow. It’s necessary to prepare well for co-creation, not only in terms of sessions and process, but also in terms of overall framework, criteria and decision making. If not, it might lead you to “co-creation window dressing”:

  • saying you co-create but actually not changing your decision making (and still interfering top-down);
  • doing it to get the advantages, but wanting to take all the credits and results (instead of sharing it);
  • not having a process for co-creation, just doing something, which leads to unclear progress and frustration of participants
  • not taking the necessary time;
  • preferring planning over discovery, leading to too much process and structure, missing out on serendipity and emerging ideas;
  • deep habits and behavior, e.g. years of competition and win-loose attitude between two departments that weighs on the co-creation process;
  • classic performance management and kpi’s that conflict with the co-creation and joined value creation approach.

Co-creation is not just some theatre, a few nice days with lots of fun and energy and great pitches. It’s a collaborative approach that needs a clear reason and understanding why you do it as an organization. It needs to have leaders believing in it, otherwise it will just not work. On top of that, it needs a process and guidance, so developing co-creation capabilities and re-designing your performance management also needs to be part of the approach. It’s serious business, not a game.

What are the main principles of co-creation?

Not having a clear framework and set of criteria for co-creation will lead you to chaos and time loss. Leadership will become more and more convinced that top-down is after all a better approach (“Let’s do it the normal way again, it works better”). Instead of getting better at co-creation, they throw away the whole concept. Working on the framework and thinking of when to apply co-creation (and when not) is a better approach. Apart from that, a few other principles are important to keep in mind:

  • co-creation should create value for all stakeholders involved (a true vision of joined value creation);
  • stakeholders should interact directly with each other (and preferably meet in real life the first times);
  • exploring is key, pushing for fast results will backfire;
  • social technologies support the interaction and learning along the way;
  • experienced facilitators with knowledge of group dynamics keep the journey fluent.

Why is top-down management not the way forward?

Top-down management in which all ideas and decisions are made by a few people at the top doesn’t work anymore. It works in circumstances where the solution is obvious and where one solution can solve a certain issue. These days business and management is about solving a series of wicked problems. With all evolutions and transformations taking place in the world, a few people just don’t have all the necessary knowledge anymore to deal with those changes. Using the collective wisdom in and outside your organization is therefore an important way forward.

Another reason why top-down management is not the way to go anymore has to do with the need to become adaptive as an organization. You need broad change capabilities in your organization, that allow you to react quickly and to avoid resistance to change as much as possible. Top-down management creates resistance to change. People don’t like to be told what to do and they are certainly weary of top-down solutions that miss the point, because the decision makers are too far away from daily reality. Managing change in a top-down environment comes down to resistance management. Most of the time and energy is spent on communication and on meetings to convince people that the change is needed and good for them. It creates negative energy and the feeling that change is very hard.

Top-down management creates resistance to change. But also fake co-creation leads to resistance. People feel it when it’s done to sell them something.

Is co-creation the answer to all business challenges?

No. Co-creation takes time. In moments of crisis, there’s not enough time to find the answers bottom-up. You need immediate and fast solutions that can only get full speed through command and control. The thing is that people accept top-down management if it’s clear that that’s the way a certain challenge is addressed and why it’s better done that way. Nevertheless, after the challenge is solved, a more endurable solution can again be searched for (to avoid the same problems in the future)…. through co-creation.

Don’t make one of the two the default approach. Blending the two approaches, quick top-down decisions  and emerging co-creation, seems to be the answer, but the prerequisite is clarity for the stakeholders what the approach is and why. And when you do co-create, really do it well, prepare it and support it, not something in between. Don’t leave it to chance. For leaders, this means sometimes acting top-down and other times letting go of control, trusting the process and the people involved and accepting that solutions might emerge that don’t come from you and might not be your first choice. Resistance will be your part this time, but these feelings and insights will only help you to understand reactions of employees to change better and help you to overall manage change better.

This post is part of a series, in which I explore 6 elements of Agile Change Design (read cover article here)

or watch the video below.

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