Co-creation? Co-production? When I first started to hear these terms, I dismissed them as trendy management speak. Then I saw the approach in action, and it was a revelation.
Co-creation and co-production are effectively the same thing.

They describe an approach where companies looking to increase customer satisfaction started to involve customers in designing their services or the way they are delivered. I first saw it used in the water industry to redesign water bills. The design of these documents is hotly contested, and vast amounts of time and effort can be invested in making sure they are fit for purpose.

The free flow of ideas

The co-creation approach I saw put customers in the room with water company staff and design experts to design water bills that work for everyone. Even with everyone in the same room, there was still a high risk of design by committee – an enormous document that did everything everyone wanted… but wouldn’t fit through a letterbox. However, with expert facilitation and clearly managed expectations, you can get amazing things. I saw interesting ideas emerge, develop and stimulate other ideas until the whole room was buzzing with ideas – often completely unexpected ones – and company staff were seeing their business in an entirely different way. It’s that free flow of ideas and diverse range of perspectives that makes co-creation approaches so special. It’s the difference between planting seeds in compost and sand.

Two hands face each other, each holding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle

An exact parallel

The approach Versus Arthritis (for which I volunteer) uses is almost an exact parallel. Versus Arthritis involves patients and health care practitioners in producing the information about musculoskeletal conditions on its website. Patient, health care practitioner and researcher input provided the insight that stimulated the choice of the charity’s big challenges – pain and cure. Funding decisions are made by mixed panels, and yes, sometimes it takes longer, but the decisions and outcomes are so much richer and better.

Perhaps the most amazing example is the way the charity’s research roadmap for pain came together. Lots of different people and groups were involved in selecting and refining a list of priorities for research into pain. It was by no means an easy process – many a sacred cow had to be slain, and many a pet theory surrendered. The outcome, however, is one of the best documents I’ve ever helped create.

Every time I have seen co-creation work, three very simple factors made the process work.

  • Firstly, co-creation wasn’t a complete departure from the usual way of doing things. Everybody felt that their ideas would be listened to, valued, respected and recorded.
  • Secondly, there was enormous preparation for the process. Co-creation is not spontaneous. It requires careful planning, selection of the people involved as participants and leaders and military-grade briefing to prepare all concerned for the process.
  • Thirdly, everyone comes at it with a shared purpose and an open mind. Every entrance should be littered with ditched preconceptions.

When you read this, you might think co-creation is easy. Hire a good facilitator and stick to the three principles and you’ll be fine, right?

Alas not. When hard facts get added to the mix, co-creation can get tricky. It works best when there’s a free-flowing topic in which there aren’t many constraints. Creativity often thrives when there are constraints, but co-creativity (if there is such a thing) struggles. Constraints can seem like one interested group imposing limits on another. In HDR UK’s sphere of operation, that means datasets and their interpretation need careful handling, as do legal constraints. Don’t let that stop you, though. With the right facilitator, and presenters willing to answer every question about datasets, co-creation can still work brilliantly, and will, I guarantee, surprise you. The whole will still be greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a guest blog for HDR UK and reflects the interests/knowledge of its author. Our blogs are designed to stimulate debate and are not necessarily reflective of HDR UK’s opinion