Four Crucial Questions in

Green-Lighting Co-Creation

If co-creation is one of the best ways to effect significant, long-lasting change in areas of systemic need, as many of us in the development world are starting to believe, why don’t we see more of it happening? Because it’s hard work.

Most business mergers and acquisitions are announced with fanfare and lots of talk about maximizing strengths, the sum being greater than the parts, and so on, but all the rah-rah disguises an ugly reality. Only around 10-30% of such optimistic ventures are successful, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, while most of the rest are “abysmal failures.”

Even with a clear financial incentive, simply having the will and the wherewithal to work together with others on a shared endeavor is frequently not enough. No wonder it can be even more challenging in the philanthropic and development world, where outcomes are much more difficult to quantify.

With that in mind, anyone considering a co-creation response to the challenge of hunger, or education needs, or some other pressing concern, really has to do their homework.

In a previous blog, I suggested the seven key elements an organization needs to have in hand if it wants to pursue the idea of co-creation. They describe the mindset needed for anyone considering co-creation. Now I want to look at methodology, and offer what I believe are the four crucial question-steps that need to be taken and asked before moving ahead.

1. Are we clear about the goal? Do we actually want to co-create or just scale up?

In other words, do you have in mind something that might end up being different to what you are already doing, or just more of the same? If it’s the latter, you really talking scale, not scope. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the same as co-creating something new. It’s bigger, not broader.

Now, achieving scale will require some of the same elements that are part of successful co-creation—cooperation, patience, flexibility—because  you are going to be reliant on others’ help to some degree. But are you really looking for just how they can help you, rather than embracing inter-connections and being willing to cede control? Do you want involvement, or do you just want access to their relationships and resources? Scaling up requires nowhere near as deep a level of commitment between you and others—it’s much more a marriage of convenience than a true union.

For instance, we could have just tried scaling up our Geneva Global anti-trafficking prevention granting to organizations in Nepal, a few years back, but instead decided to co-create a more far-reaching ecosystem to fight the systemic evil of trafficking—from prevention, through transportation to destination cities in India. This latter approach required many different agencies and NGOs all working together. As a granter, we had to give up a lot of control to the emerging network of 28 Nepali and Indian organizations who joined forces with government to eradicate this slave trade.

2. Is the potential result worth it?

With talk of diversity and integrity and mutuality, co-creation can start to sound a bit woolly. But it occurs in real time and real space and comes with a real price, both hard and human, that needs to be evaluated. There must be a practical cost-benefit analysis.

For instance, what might we have to give up to embrace co-creation, in terms of long-standing practices or public perception? How might that affect our bottom line? And what level of risk are we prepared to take on: true co-creation comes with the possibility of failure, and would we want to be associated with that?

On the other hand, how might a big win affect us positively? Could a successful co-creation effort not only make an impact in a particular area of concern but open new doors of opportunity for us in others?

All of these considerations have wider implications, for things like staff retention, political and operational goodwill with funders and other actors. This requires some serious thinking—more than just a quick pros and cons list on a napkin. Make a detailed risk and SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats—analysis of the proposed initiative.

3. Are we really willing to do what it takes?

If part of the bottom-line analysis is what co-creation might cost you in the sense of what you have to potentially lose should things not work out as well as you hoped, there is also the need to weigh what you will actively have to invest to help make them happen.

It might mean recruiting more people with new particular skill sets, or providing additional training and resources. It may require reapportioning funds. It will certainly necessitate a review of how well you embody the seven fundamental Ss of any good organization: shared values, strategy, structure, skills, staff, style of leadership, and systems. A change in one “S” may well need adjustment in others.

All of these questions are good ones to be asking not just of yourselves. They apply to those with whom you are contemplating co-creation, too. After all, if you are going to be sober-minded about your own capacity for co-creation, you certainly want to be no less cautious about how serious are those to whom you will be trusting some of the outcome.

4. What is the timing?

Having answered the if positively, you must get the when right. Because there is a sense in which co-creation is always going to be somewhat open-ended and subject to modification, there may always be newcomers coming to the table. But for the most part, it’s advisable to have a small circle of the main actors involved early on, so they truly feel equal ownership.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that the more participants you invite to be part of the process, the greater the drag, especially in an environment that requires plenty of give and take. So it is helpful to remember that you may go faster alone, but you might be able to go further together.

This is the part-science, part-art nature of co-creation. It demands an ability to be both level-headed and visionary, in the sense of being able to ask hard questions and entertain big what-ifs. At its heart, fruitful co-creation demands a heightened level of humility and selflessness.

But that can only be truly offered if first you are properly selfish, as it were. That involves determining whether you are willing, able and ready—not the other way round, in the usual order of that three-step process, note—to commit to the cost.

There is always going to be an element of risk in co-creation, and it is wise to look closely before you take a leap of faith. However, we need to see more big successful, sustainable social impact programs—not just for the incremental benefit they bring, but to encourage and re-invigorate donors and the sector that large-scale, sustainable, transformational change is possible, even when the challenges of our world loom large.