Unlocking Co-design

On reading Stuart’s last blog about tapping into the three cornerstones to build collaborative capability, I recognised one way I saw this happen recently.

I had a coaching call with a client where they were complaining about a recent meeting where “hidden agendas” seemed to be constraining progress on a difficult co-design issue. The group consists of diverse external participants, each of whom passionately represents their constituency, and it some cases wear multiple hats, and so are no doubt juggling many perhaps conflicting points of view.

The client was seeking a tool that would help manage these people and their agendas.

We explored one of our meeting tools called “hold positions aside”- a way of helping groups to step past their strongly held views and consider new ideas.

As we explored and discussed using the tool, I was struck by the way the conversation and insights ranged across the three cornerstones:

  • In discussing the context for using such a tool, the client realised that it prompted a new way of thinking (mindset) about the views of the passionate participants, seeing them less as “hidden agendas”, and more as a view that needed to be respected and heard.
  • This also prompted some questioning as to whether the group might need to revisit where they were on the co-design journey (pathway), and potentially revisit their shared understanding the problem. And also whether the ‘agendas’ did reflect some reluctance to commit to working together, indicating perhaps that a review around the willingness might be useful.
  • And in actually knowing about and using such a tool (skillset), the client highlighted key aspects that make a tool like this useable in their inexperienced hands:
    • Simple step by step process
    • Knowing where it fits
    • Being able to “mix n match” the elements- to modify it to suit the users and the environment
    • Building confidence to use it themselves

And so in this case the process of finding a simple tool to tackle a difficult argumentative group helped to unlock and integrate the three cornerstones of collaborative co-design capability- pathway, skillset and mindset.

Cornerstones of Collaboration

Sometimes when working with others on challenging issues where different views abound, things can get a little difficult. I’ve definitely faced my share of situations where collaborators aren’t seeing eye to eye, when there is argument instead of exploration. This isn’t how it should be!

In our recent webinars and newsletters we’ve been sharing three “cornerstones” of collaborative capability: understanding the collaborative pathway and process; having the skills and tools to work differently, and; the ability to think collaboratively. So how do these three cornerstones shine a light on my struggle in those difficult meetings?

The Collaborative Pathway

If I’m seeing people in disagreement it helps to think about where we are on the journey and where we might more usefully be, given where people are at. Disagreement often stems from the fact that we aren’t clear on the problem, so revisiting the dilemma can be useful. Or if people are disagreeing about who should be involved or which information is to be trusted, then taking time to get everyone’s fingerprints on process design can help. Or if people are questioning the value of their involvement, then look back at the commitment step. The point is, knowing how to travel the pathway allows me to shift the conversation to where it may be most useful.

The Collaborative Skill Set

So my group of collaborators is at the point of co-creating solutions and we’ve agreed that this is the important and appropriate conversation. Yet we are still stuck! This is where the tools and the skills to use them can be useful. People are talking but nobody is listening? Perhaps it’s time to reach for a tool like Practice Curiosity which gives me a way to encourage learning and listening across the group. Fortunately the simple instructions walk me through the process so I can use it with confidence.

The Collaborative Mindset

Now I know where I am in the journey and I have a tool to help. But practising curiosity means I’m going to have to actually ask questions of others to learn more about how they see things, and why. Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts I struggle to value their view or their experience. If I go into this conversation expecting to learn nothing, and being uninterested and incurious then no tool will be effective, and no collaborative process can deliver. This is when I need to be stepping into the mindset of a collaborator, coaching myself to be curious, to expect the best even of someone I don’t quite trust, to listen as loudly as I would otherwise be speaking. Of the three cornerstones, the mindset is the most fundamental and the one requiring practice over time.

The interplay between process, skill set and mindset has guided the development of our Collaboration System and toolkit. But whatever approach you take to collaboration, with whatever toolkit, keeping these cornerstones in mind and tapping into them to guide your practice helps deliver success. How is your capability across all three?

Lessons from a newborn

Mindset is crucial for effective collaboration.

The clearest reminder for me about the importance of mindset was when our son was born (32 years ago!)

I guess my wife and I both thought at the time that the world would keep rolling along and we just had to fit the new arrival into our comfortable 'business as usual' existence (notwithstanding the advice from family and friends about the significant change we were about to experience!)

While we could learn the techniques of child rearing (nappy change, bottle feed, managing the crying, etc), a big surprise was how we had to adjust our thinking:

  • No longer were we in control of our agenda- we had to adapt and be ready for what emerged in the night, or at mealtime, or when we were due to be somewhere!
  • We no longer knew the answer (and sometimes even the question was unclear - babies aren't very clear sometimes in what they want!). So we had to become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing but just trying stuff and seeing what worked (or not)
  • Our schedule went out the window, we had to accept that flexibility and not certainty was the new order of the day.
  • We could no longer do things 'to'...., it always had to be 'with'....the new arrival- as uncomfortable and frustrating as that sometimes was.

I learned to shift my mindset around some significant patterns of behavior, just as our experience at Twyfords tells us is necessary for collaborating effectively.

My key insight is that our natural and learned thinking that has worked and been successful in the past can compromise our efforts to collaborate.

We need to challenge and shift our thinking - to "rebirth" our mindset so that our collaborative efforts are congruent and effective.

Collaborators beware! There's a black hole out there

When I was young two sci-fi movies came out at around the same time. There was The Black Hole, apparently Disney’s first film with a PG rating. And then there was Alien. Not sure what it was rated but in terms of traumatic impact on my young mind it scored a clear 11 out of 10. I’m still getting over it.

I recall The Black Hole being a little underwhelming, but all these years later it’s the inescapable power of that thing at the centre of the galaxy and the centre of the plotline that I keep being reminded of in my work.

We all know that black holes exert an unfeasibly strong gravitational pull. Get too close and there is no escape, but even at a distance we can feel its presence. Any traveller in the vicinity has to constantly fight this invisible force lest they disappear forever.

Strangely, this has come to seem a lot like the universe my clients inhabit in the workplace. But in their case, the black hole is business as usual (BAU).

My work is all about supporting individuals and teams to grow their ‘collaborative muscles’; that is, their level of collaborative skill, behaviour and thinking. Inevitably for clients this means some change to the way they think about other team members, other business units, other stakeholders. Yet, the gravitational pull of business as usual is very strong, sometimes almost inescapable, making it really hard for people to grow a new, more collaborative pattern of thinking.

And just like gravity, the force that BAU exerts is invisible. It emanates through existing structures and processes, culture, performance evaluation frameworks, expectations of self and of others and in a 100 other ways. So when I work with clients I see people wanting to change their approach, to work more collaboratively, yet struggling to make progress against the black hole that traps their thinking into BAU. And if the thinking doesn’t change, neither can the actions.

Organisations that make the shift to a more collaborative way of working do so with more than just a few tools and a training program. Rather they do so by making new thinking possible. With the right support and freedom to learn, any person can escape the black hole of BAU. Let’s just hope they don’t encounter the Alien on the way past.

Accessing the Collaboration Gold

When I was a kid, my Dad used to take me exploring for gold near Tamworth. We all knew there was some gold in the local mountain streams, as both my Dad and uncle had been successful there for years, and the area has a long history of gold mining.

But as we got to the creek and started panning, I quickly realised that while I knew the gold was there, getting to it was something else. And try as I might, swirling and swirling the gravel in my pan, I was initially unsuccessful, while my Dad in short order was showing me the grains of gold in his pan.

So I painfully and slowly learned and practiced with the pan and my technique, and eventually success! - as something finally glittered in my pan.

I was reminded of my gold panning experiences recently when running a workshop for a client learning and practicing collaborative tools and techniques as part of implementing a collaborative way of working, and utilising our Power of Co system (PoC).

I've heard many times from clients that they saw the PoC as "gold", and then saw both them and myself frustrated by the apparent inability to get real collaborative change in the workplace. It seemed that while the pathway made absolute sense and gave them real confidence in collaborating, they really struggled with the "how", particularly letting go of longstanding practices that compromised the collaborative effort.

This was the catalyst for our development of a series of steps, activities, tools and techniques to provide a more detailed "how"- a bit like my Dad showing me how to use the pan, where to get the likely gravel, how much water to use, how to swirl effectively , etc.

So our realisation, like mine, was that knowing about the collaboration gold is only part of the story, and having access to the tools and techniques and learning is a critical element of success.

Have you the tools to access the gold?

Why is my collaboration toolkit empty?

I spoke recently with an experienced CEO of a member-based organisation. An important part of her job is to support her members to work together to create strategies and policies to guide the whole group and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts. In other words, her job is to help her members to collaborate.

But she finds this easier said than done. “My members don’t all see eye to eye,” she said. “There is an element of competition among them. Politics is definitely involved and there are some challenging personalities”.

Then she said something simple and yet so important. “We meet monthly as a board and all we do is run through the formal agenda. Those meetings are terrible forums for collaboration, but we don’t know any other way to work together!”

It is a tough position to be in. This capable leader is seeking to improve collaboration but the only tool she has is a monthly meeting with a very business as usual agenda, chaired in a very business as usual way. The collaboration toolkit is empty.

How is it that we can spend years learning to manage teams and businesses, but never quite obtain the tools of collaboration or the skills to use them? Though an experienced leader, this CEO is finding that in her current situation she doesn’t have the power to make things happen, and that is new to her. Though her management toolkit is full of useful items, none of them are suited to supporting her members to, for example;

  • listen to each other deeply
  • practice curiosity about how others see the issues
  • put their solutions aside
  • define their dilemmas together from all perspectives
  • co-design processes so that they all feel ownership and accountability
  • see past their own needs to co-create something that none could create on their own


These are among the skills of collaboration and they require a different toolkit. What is your experience? Is it time you filled your collaboration toolkit?

If you are curious about the things to put in your collaboration toolkit you, get in touch, or register for our webinar in May https://bit.ly/2Qh9dYB.

Are there Five Steps to Collaboration?

If you have read our book or worked with us over the past 10 years you will know that we talk about our five-step pathway for collaboration. We call it the Power of Co Pathway. We built it as a step-by-step guide to help collaborators know what to do and when to do it. The five steps are:

  1. Commit to collaboration
  2. Co-define the dilemmas
  3. Co-design the process
  4. Co-create solutions
  5. Co-deliver actions.

The framework is simple, clear and the evidence suggests that it works well.

Yet over the years we have come to realise that collaboration can never be fully described by a linear, step-by-step model. Collaboration tends to be organic, emergent and fluid rather than neat and linear. In our collaborative work we saw that the stages blend and merge, run in parallel and interact with each other in a creative and wonderful way. Often, people begin half way along, perhaps at Co-create, then find themselves going back to Co-defining the dilemma together when the realise they need to better understand what’s going on. All of which builds their Commitment to Collaboration, which in turn allows them to do work on Co-designing the process together so that they can get back to finding solutions.

Productive? Yes. Linear? No.

Which inspired us to rethink the structure of our pathway. The steps are the same but we have begun to represent them more as a system. Importantly, commitment to collaboration is at the heart of the journey because everything we do should be about building and growing the momentum and energy for working together. The other four are represented in a clockwise sequence, but in reality we can move from any step to any other, through the commitment circle in the middle.

So when you are collaborating you can start anywhere, go everywhere on the Power of Co Pathway. Think of it less as five steps to follow and more as five precious ideas to carry with you on your journey. Any and all of them can be useful and relevant wherever you are.

Which of the ideas do you need to tap into today in your work?

Explore More

Our Collaborative Pathway is the topic of discussion in our next free webinar. Join the discussion to learn more about the linear versus emergent aspects of working with others.

The Heart of Collaboration

There is a lot of energy expended bringing people together to find solutions to complex problems, but getting diverse stakeholders in the room together is no guarantee of success. Why do some efforts to co-create solutions founder when others succeed? It often comes down to three important steps of collaborative work that can be overlooked or underdone, yet together these three steps form the heart of any authentic collaboration.

Where trust is low and scepticism is high, what is it that allows people to work together to find solutions? An absolutely critical piece in the puzzle is that everyone trusts the process. Many clients seek to address this issue by hiring an “independent facilitator” to manage the co-creation process. “You may not trust us but you will trust this person we are paying, right?” Wrong!  “If I don’t trust you why would I trust your hired gun? And even if they are fabulous, why would I trust that you will listen to us or respect our views in this?”


In order that all stakeholders trust the process we have learned how important it is that they get their fingerprints on it. In others words, we want them – and all of us in the collaboration – to own the process by which we will work together to co-create solutions. Successful collaborators design the conversation together, the data, the questions they will ask, agreeing the boundaries, identifying the stakeholders together. They discuss and own the decision-making process, the criteria, the options development etc. And all this great collaboration happens before they start to talk about solutions. So that when they get to that step in the process they are ready, committed, engaged and able to truly co-create together. Even if trust in the ‘who’ remains low, trust in the ‘how’ allows progress to be made.


But where trust is low and the project, problem or situation is seen very differently by different stakeholders, invitations to help co-design the conversation are likely to be met with stony silence. “Why would I talk to you about collaborating when I believe that you are the problem?” What is it that makes the co-design step flourish? In our experience collaborators are much more likely to step into the process when they feel that the problem or project that brings them together is something they are a part of, they understand and feel is worth their precious time. Building a shared sense of the complex situation we face together and taking ownership for our own piece of that bigger problem is the magic of Co-defining. Only when we have all heard each other on the nature of the problem and found some agreement on aspects of it, can we productively move into co-designing and co-creating.

Commit to collaboration

So we come to the root question. What makes stepping in possible for those who don’t trust the system and don’t see the problem, or feel they already know what the solution is? This is the commitment question. It is both a pre-cursor to co-defining and co-designing and an integral part of each. It is about my/our commitment to collaborate with ‘them’ and ‘their’ commitment to working with us on this.

If we skip over the first three steps – Commitment, Co-definition and Co-design – and begin with Co-creating, how can we expect a high level of commitment? And in the absence of commitment, how can we do the difficult work together to find solutions to our complex problem?

There is a pathway to follow when collaborating and it begins well before we attempt to find solutions. In your work are you collaborating from the heart?

You can find more about the whole collaborative pathway on our website under Why Collaboration?

Collaboration- Assert and Love?

A client recently talked about the seeming ‘bi-polar’ nature of their organisation, where they see a strong desire for good relationships with their stakeholders, which can feel at odds with their role as a regulator and being strict on the rules, even when this damages relationships.

It reminded me of Adam Kahane’s book we discussed in our February blogs (“Collaborating with the Enemy”- Berret-Koehler, 2018)

As well as his simple framework around collaboration as a choice, Adam also suggests that being able to move between “asserting” (having the power), and “love” (building relationships) is actually a key if one chooses the multilateral approach.

This parallels our experience, where we often see people vacillating between wanting to drive in a particular direction, and waiting to build consensus together. They can be nervous about which path is “right”, rather than acknowledging that both might be appropriate and part of effective collaboration.

So when is "assert" and when is "love" appropriate? According to Kahane, asserting reflects the need for individuality, the importance of respecting that individual’s difference and their piece of the truth, and their need for control.

Love on the other hand respects the collective, and the fact that only by being together can we find the collective truth. It recognises that if the individual is not part of the collective problem, then they can’t be part of the collective solution.

If one seeks consensus too much, one might give up too much and let down their constituency.

If one asserts too much, one might damage the relationships and be unable to reach a required consensus.

So if we assume that “assert” and “love” need to exist in a symbiotic relationship for effective collaboration, what does that mean for the collaborator?

How do you manage that internal conflict?


Your Lonely Plant Guide to Collaboration

There we were, three young backpackers fresh off the train in Florence, Italy, with an intention to stay for a bit and see all this beautiful city had to offer. The only ‘plan’ we had was to stay in a place someone had told us about at our last accommodation – a grand old villa that apparently had something to do with Mussolini’s mistress. We had a bus route number so off we went to the bus stop. The 39C came along – just the one we wanted - and on we climbed.

45 minutes later in winter darkness, the bus was empty and we had no idea where we were, where we were going or where to get off. The industrial buildings outside looked very unpromising in the wan glow of the occasional streetlight.  We were lost! There was only one thing to do – reach for our dogeared copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Florence. We found the section on transport that explained how bus routes work, and realised what was going on. We were on the right bus, but the wrong ‘direction’ heading on 39C East instead of West. I don’t believe Mussolini’s mistress had ever been to this part of Florence.

The helpful driver confirmed our mistake and we sat on that bus for the next 90 minutes while we retraced our steps and then headed out to the other side of the City. Villa reached. Backpacks unloaded. Nervous, relieved laughter. Exhausted sleep.

I have designed, facilitated and lead enough collaborative processes to know that I sometimes feel lost. I’m not sure what to do next, where to go or how to get there. Where is my Lonely Planet guide to Collaboration when I need it?

Experiences such as these inspired us at Twyfords to look back over our collaborative journeys to find out what the key steps to success were. Could we extract a common approach to create a map to guide our future collaborations? Turns out we could. What emerged was a five-step pathway we now call the Power of Co Pathway. You can read more about it on our website. The point is that collaboration has a map. There is a pathway to guide us on the sometimes difficult journey of working with diverse people, values and opinions. The collaborative pathway has been guiding us and our clients for years and along with a collaborative mindset and a collaborative skillset, forms our Collaboration System.

So whether you are lost in Florence or lost in your collaboration, turn to the guide that shows you the path forward.

Find out more about our Pathway and our Collaboration System on our website.