Who’s Got the Power?

The Awkward Question at the Heart of Successful Co-Creation

People may still avoid discussion of religion and politics at dinner parties because raising such issues is considered impolite, but the two have long been a necessary part of the conversation in the development world. You simply can’t hope to effect real change somewhere without understanding what people there believe and how they live.

However, there is a long-held taboo topic among those seeking to address the challenges and inequalities that shorten or shackle too many millions of lives around the globe: Who’s got the power? It’s like gravity — pretending it doesn’t exist won’t stop you from landing with a bump when you are cavalier about heights.

Who’s got the power? is an especially crucial question for anyone wanting to accelerate development change through co-creation, which was succinctly defined in a recent Forbes article as “the involvement of multiple stakeholders at every stage of a product or project, from conception to design to implementation.”

The piece by Guillermo Miranda, IBM vice president and global head of corporate responsibility, affirmed what we at Geneva Global have been advocating for some time and I have been exploring in a series of blog posts — that some big goals will only ever be achieved if we are willing to risk working collaboratively with others at a whole new level.

Naming the elephant in the room

If you are serious about co-creation, you simply have to be willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. It’s this: Get a group together, and someone there probably has more power than the others, whether you acknowledge it or not. This is true in families, in groups of friends, in businesses, in governments.

Oftentimes, and this is particularly true in development, the power is to be found with the money. After all, if someone gets to choose where to spend or give it, there is going to be some pressure on the would-be recipients to be unquestioningly grateful.

But it’s not limited to finances. In some situations, the power might be with a person of influence — maybe a celebrity who can help mobilize a movement. Or it could be an individual or group that allows or refuses access to a community or a region in need. For example, some countries have been restricting the ways nongovernmental organizations can operate there, either financially or on the ground. They hold the keys, if not the wallet.

This whole question of subtle or simply unspoken power and how it can limit people and possibilities is being raised in other places. Think of the debate about fair representation in Hollywood or the #MeToo movement. Sadly, there have been examples of flagrant on-the-ground abuses of power in the development world, where supposed helpers, field workers or peacekeepers were taking advantage of their positions to further harm victims of crises.

Stepping down the voltage

Now, to be fair, the power dynamic has been acknowledged in the development world to some degree for some time. At Geneva Global, we have for years worked hard to incorporate community-based organizations in the designs of programs, and we have not been alone in this.

Welcome as these sort of efforts have been, they are not always successful: I have seen situations where all the actors have talked about power imbalance, but nothing has really changed. People end up paying lip-service to the idea but check out at some level and let things carry on as they always have. I believe we will need to take the (unavoidably uncomfortable) conversation to a whole new level if we are to see true, fruitful co-creation.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that power is in and of itself a bad thing. After all, it’s what makes things happen. But it’s a little like electricity — we’ve got to be careful about how we discharge it. Having traveled internationally for many years, I am all too well aware of what happens when you plug something into the wrong voltage!

One thing I have observed through the years is that awareness of the power imbalance varies depending on where you stand. While some people with the power know very well that they have it and act accordingly, others don’t recognize the weight they carry by virtue of their assets or influence. Meanwhile, when you are the one hoping to benefit from those same assets, you are well aware of the power imbalance.

Having said that, power relationships are not always clean and clear. If you are stopped for speeding, the power would seem to be in the hands of the officer who comes up to your car window and asks for your driver’s license and insurance. But if he recognizes you as the spouse of the chair of the police committee, the balance may subtly shift.

Taking a stand, giving up a seat

So how does all this play out in efforts at co-creation? It seems to me that those with the power need to lead the way in acknowledging the issue. Have it as the first item in the agenda at the first meeting, giving everyone time to talk about where they stand – perhaps literally. At some of our collaborative gatherings, we have asked people to get up and place themselves in a line between two extremes on an issue, to physically demonstrate their position. Actually embodying one’s perspective like this can be very illuminating, for yourself and others, and the transparency is freeing.

Even before this, maybe give some consideration to the table you are sitting around to have the conversation. If it’s a conference room setting, who gets to sit at the head, in what everyone recognizes as the seat of power? Probably it needs to be an independent facilitator of some kind, or at least a trusted chair.

Then there is the process of co-creation itself. How can those with the power ensure they give some away to level the teeter-totter — and what do those sitting on the other end need to be willing to risk, rather than keeping quiet, to step up? Do all the various actors get an equal say in the decision-making process? These are not easy questions.

Awkward as all this is, I actually welcome it. Because it is a self-selecting process. Only those who are really, truly serious about wanting to try to effect change that is beyond their own best efforts will be willing to press in and stay the course. You will save a lot of wasted time, energy and money by recognizing that you are not willing, or perhaps organizationally not able, for one reason or another, to invest what is needed in terms of sharing the power to co-create. Those resources may be better put toward doing more of what you are currently capable of, which remains immensely important.

I’m not Pollyanna-ish about facing up to the unspoken power dynamic. I don’t believe co-creation means that everyone has to agree about everything. That’s utopian, and the kind of issues that need a co-creative response are by their nature complex and messy and awkward, and don’t lend themselves to utopian solutions.

In fact, far from being an environment in which everyone is comfortable, co-creation might better be seen as one in which participants are willing to be stretched and made to feel uncomfortable, in pursuit of a greater goal. And that must involve candid reflection on and conversation about who’s got the power.