To reimagine teamwork, reframe it as co-creation

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 30, 2023
A green graphic with black text with the inscription 'Create (better) together.'
To reimagine teamwork, reframe it as co-creation
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 30, 2023

How do you make sure your teams are staying customer-centric? How do you know you’re truly meeting stakeholder expectations?

Typically, teams will research customer needs and write a report. From that, they devise a solution. Or, they get a brief from stakeholders (e.g., clients or project sponsors), and deliver against that. It seems pretty straightforward, but in both cases, missing the mark is all too common. 

Co-creation offers an alternative. 

Instead of relying on metrics or reports or second-hand feedback from customers and stakeholders to build a solution on your own, you invite them to create a solution with you. This can work regardless of what “it” might be: a product, a service, a new business model, whatever. 

Co-creation runs counter to the secrecy and silos of traditional companies and product development, and instead pulls all the key stakeholders into the process, resulting in less rework and more immediate impact. 

What is co-creation?

At its core, co-creation is the process of actively working together to build solutions to complex problems.

To develop this idea a little further, at Mural, we've even recently used “co-creation” to suggest an alternative label for “meeting.” The basic premise there is that anytime a group of people come together to generate something new, it’s an act of co-creation

The shift in terms also brings a shift in mindset: In meetings, you’re there to absorb and maybe ask questions; in co-creation sessions, you’re there to contribute and build something new regardless of status, level, or relationship to the organizer. Also, typically, creative and innovation activities are kept secret. With co-creation, all parties enter the relationship with an open mind favoring radical transparency.

As a concept, “co-creation” dates back to about the year 2000. Many people point to the work of Prahalad and Venkatram as a starting point, but the seeds of co-creation existed before their writing. At that time, it was positioned as a strategy to include customers in value creation. 

Since then, the term has evolved. These days, the term is even more broadly used to refer to any type of collaboration that seeks to bridge creation activities across divides.

This can include other individuals, teams, or departments in an organization — for instance, a marketing team developing a campaign together with product or people operations. Or, it can even refer to working together with competitors — frenemies, as some might say. 

How does co-creation work?

Wait, isn’t that just “collaboration?” 

In some sense, you might say co-creation is a special type of collaboration. Collaboration just means “working together.” That could be on anything, from mundane work tasks to creating the next market innovation. 

“Co-creation” ‌focuses on bringing things into being — forming them out of nothing — together as a team. In this sense, it’s ultimately a way of innovating. It moves the notion of “breakthroughs” out of a lab full of an elite few geniuses and puts it in the hands of quite literally everyone and anyone. Innovation isn’t just something a group does in isolation and secrecy, but becomes a participatory activity across an organization. 

Co-creation challenges traditional assumptions of collaboration across stakeholders and parties. It requires a deep willingness to solve problems together and the respect and curiosity needed to focus on the solution rather than proprietary knowledge or egos. 

First, there needs to be a egalitarian posture towards participants. Trust and psychological safety are key. The space and environment must be open and inviting. As a result, establishing new norms and ground rules is critical. 

Benefits of having a co-creation mindset 

  • Divergent perspectives: Co-creation embraces divergent and even contrary opinions, helping to make sure you avoid blind spots and emerge with more holistic solutions to complex problems 
  • Inclusion: All voices matter when co-creating — an environment built on psychological safety helps teams avoid groupthink
  • Buy-in: By engaging everyone in the conversation, there’s often deeper buy-in for solutions
  • Creativity: In an ultra-safe environment, creativity flourishes because no one is afraid to share their thoughts, resulting in a greater diversity of ideas (and faster innovation)

Not all teamwork requires cocreation. But in our post-pandemic hybrid world of work, synchronous interactions need to optimize time together. As asynchronous teamwork increases, the reason we gather in real time — either in-person or remote — should be to create new things together. 

Zoom fatigue and other alignments of the modern workplace highlighted in the likes of Dilbert cartoon stem from a disregard for the use of our time. Wasted time offends us. Co-creation, if done right, very rarely feels like wasted time. More times than not, it brings energy and connection to a group. 

4 tips to start co-creating with your team

With this framework in mind, here are some ways you can start using co-creation to help your team come together and actively solve problems, instead of just ‘meeting.’ 

1. Align on purpose

Getting clear on the objective is imperative. It’s not enough to just state a goal an expect everyone to understand and interpret it the same way. Co-creation demands a deeper activation of the common objective for it to work. 

For instance, we’ve often used a “challenge the challenge” approach to activating the problem to be solved. With this, a challenge statement is presented before a co-creation session. The team is then invited to challenge it and question the basic premise. 

Together, they may rewrite the brief before they begin. Then, it’s also possible to revisit the challenge statement again at the end of an interaction to rewrite it further. A brief that comes down from some anonymous exec or leader isn’t taken at face value. As the famous design thought leader Don Norman writes in the Design Of Everyday Things, “One of my rules in consulting is simple: Never solve the problem I am asked to solve. […] Because, invariably, the problem I am asked to solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem.”

Related: How to Identify the Right Problems to Solve

2. Set boundaries and guidelines

The first step in building a co-creation mindset within your team is to agree on the rules of engagement. Co-creation often refers to a type of facilitated session, but we see it more broadly. Either way, ‌team dynamics and interaction need agreed parameters to be met for it to work. 

Stating expectations upfront is the simplest thing you can do. Borrowing from brainstorming, for instance, rules such as “go for volume” and “withhold initial judgment” are great guidelines to introduce. But it’s also possible to build in short exercises to get folks in the right mindset. For example, to practice saying “yes, and” to each other in a short warm-up exercise around, say, planning a birthday party. One person starts with an idea for the party and the other has to start with the respond “yes, and” before saying anything else. 

3. Get vulnerable

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for a culture focused on co-creation, create a safe environment. If people are hesitant to speak up out of fear of retaliation, — perceived or real, large or small — then co-creation efforts get squashed. 

Trust is key: Everyone involved has to believe that their contributions are valuable and on par with everyone else. Take time to get present to the individuals participating. Co-creation realizes we bring ourselves to the table, and that’s important to acknowledge activity. Small but safe moments of vulnerability — sharing hopes and fears, for instance — go a long way to building trust. 

4. Work “out loud”

Put work in a place for all to see and interact with. Thoughts need to be out in the open and free for others to access. Visibility in the literal sense is needed. 

(Note: This is where a visual collaboration platform like Mural can play a key role in co-creation, giving everyone visibility into the creative process, as well as the same tools to engage and participate.) 

Related: Visual Collaboration: What It Is and How to Get Started

Bring co-creation to life through visual collaboration

Working together visually unlocks the ability to really embrace the mindset shift co-creation demands. There’s something about a sticky note — virtual or physical — that communicates a degree of incompleteness. They invite debate and discussion in a positive way, asking participants to lean forward and lead their reply with a “Yes, and…”

Bullet points in slide decks, on the other hand, feel like decisions. They invoke a more passive response from the viewer — a more lean back posture, if you will. 

Working visually subverts hierarchy. An open board is an invitation for all to contribute on an equal footing — from a new intern to the CEO. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.