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.

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.

Not Collaborating is OK too….

It seems that there is a growing tendency for ‘collaboration’ to be seen as the answer to any tricky issue, particularly if there are questions or pushback from those affected.

But that often just deepens the dilemma, by creating expectation that probably can’t be met ie that the decision can be influenced by others.

A couple of years ago we came across a really nice decision-making framework that has been particularly useful in helping clients with this question.

It was developed by Adam Kahane, and outlined in his book “Collaborating with the Enemy” (Berret-Koehler, 2018)

In the framework, Adam suggests that when faced with a difficult situation, one can respond in 4 ways- collaborating, forcing, adapting or exiting-

He suggests that one should choose to collaborate only when it is the best way to achieve the objectives. So this means collaboration is appropriate when adapting or exiting are hard to swallow, and forcing is impossible because one can only succeed by solving with others (multilaterally).

Adam also notes that the choices can be situation and time dependent, and one may move between the choices (for example between collaborate and force) over time or as circumstances change.

In our experience, decision makers are quite relieved that it’s OK to “force it” and retain their unilateral control.

However, we reckon that it’s a bit more complicated, with the unilateral choice labeled “force it” likely encompassing a spectrum of choices around the degree of engagement.

For instance, it could be just imposing a unilateral decision, but it could just as likely be inviting stakeholders into the process, while still retaining the right to make the final decision.

The distinction from the multilateral collaboration choice is retaining the power around the decision.

Our growing experience is that by recognising that it’s OK to “force it” when appropriate, the multilateral collaborative efforts tend to be more genuine and successful.

Are your collaborative contracts really collaborative?

A couple of years ago I worked with a major utility that wanted to change the nature of their services contracts.

Previously they had run a very top down, top heavy process requiring the contractors to jump through many process hoops, which left them feeling very constrained and powerless.

The provider started a new process stating they wanted it to be a more collaborative, flexible and outcome focused regime where contractors would be valued as equal partners.

What was interesting were the comments that I heard from the contractors during the subsequent implementation process, which were quite revealing about the attempted change.

I heard comments like:

  • this doesn't feel very collaborative 
  • you are still the "big gorilla" in charge of the cash
  • but you are just telling us how it will work
  • I'm not sure you really trust me....

While the new contracts were reasonably well received, and seemed to provide benefits, it soon became apparent that these new arrangements were just a bit better, rather than the quantum shift that had been planned.

While it looked different to the utility, it felt the same to the contractors- in the contractor's mind, the real power and control continued to reside with the utility, so it seemed that nothing had really changed.

And maybe that gives us a clue as to what might make a difference- it takes a different mindset to make a process truly collaborative, which drives different thinking, behaviour and actions:

  • thinking we, not me
  • giving up control and not always knowing the answer
  • paying attention to relationships, and building trust before presenting solutions
  • allowing those involved to get their "fingerprints" on the process

So there is a big distinction between doing collaboration, and it feeling collaborative.

The mindset is the difference.

There is co-design, and then there is co-design...

Co-design is a word on many lips these days, but at Twyfords we believe that there is co-design, and then there is co-design!

When most policy makers refer to co-design they are typically referring to a process that invites stakeholders in to jointly solve a particular problem. From our work we have developed a different, more specific understanding, reflected in our Power of Co framework.

In the Power of Co framework Co-design is one part of a structured, holistic collaborative process. While the whole framework is about inviting stakeholders in to tackle complex problems together, co-design is specifically about ensuring that stakeholders have their fingerprints on the process. In other words, it tells us that successful collaboration requires that all collaborators have a say in how they will work together. They are not simply invited into a pre-defined collaborative process. They are invited in to help design it – every step of the way.

Having worked on some very complex collaborations we have learned the importance of getting fingerprints on process. When stakeholders share process decisions they:

  • Become more invested in and supportive of the process, which really helps when things get tough and trust becomes critical;
  • Are more likely to accept outcomes of the process because they had a share in designing it;
  • Add their intelligence and creativity to ensure the process works best for everyone;
  • Step up and share accountability for how this process is running;
  • Feel like partners rather than pawns in someone else’s process fantasy (they are done ‘with’ not done ‘to’);
  • Develop trust and a stronger working relationship.

When you have worked with the Power of Co for some time, the idea of co-design becomes second nature and an integral part of your daily work. Rather than sitting at your desk sweating over how to run the next meeting you will find yourself asking participants what they would like to do. Instead of trying to work out what information your stakeholders will find most useful, you will ask them. Rather than mapping out the Gantt chart for the project and doing it ‘to’ your stakeholders you will plan each step with your collaborators as you go.

So when you next hear someone saying they are running a “co-design process”, you might ask just how much involvement stakeholders have had in co-designing the process. If the answer is “not much, but they are involved in finding a solution” then perhaps a critical piece of collaboration has been overlooked.

Do your stakeholders have their fingerprints on your processes?

To find out a little more about how we see co-design, take a look at our co-design guide.

The Presence of Trust

When this photo (the one of the guy on the motor bike) comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    

Can you "structure" emergence?

In our experience, an issue that constantly emerges, particularly from the leaders, is the lack of something tangible to 'anchor to' when staff are attempting to collaborate. They want to collaborate but are missing the measures, lacking project structure or a plan.

So for some years we have been delivering programs such as Collaboration Builder, and now an obvious and ongoing question for us is how to add rigour to the collaborative process without compromising the emergence which we believe is a key attribute of effective collaboration.

While almost all collaborative processes lay out principles and a broad guide, such as our own Power of Co Pathway, it is almost impossible to find a definitive process map of what to do, when and how to do it.

Now why is that?

We know that dealing with complexity requires a different approach to business as usual, and that structured problem solving methodologies do not work well in situations where uncertainty reigns, solutions are unknowable and even the problems are unclear. In these situations it is foolhardy to closely define the plan as it will likely fail to allow for new emerging directions that are the very heart of good collaboration- where the solutions emerge from the interaction, and can't be planned with "best practice" or even a "good practice" approach.

Yet clients want clarity and confidence. In an attempt to tackle that dilemma, we wondered what characteristics to consider in a useable guide. We landed on four which we use regularly as a lynchpin for our work- content, process, mindset and relationships. We then considered what might be useful under each heading to provide a bit of a map without compromising the flexibility and emergence critical for working in complex situations.

  • Content- recognising the tangible focus for working differently
  • Process- mapping out the collaborative frame
  • Mindset- shining a light on how people might think and act to hold that frame
  • Relationships- checking in on how the relational dynamics are being monitored and tackled consistent with the desired frame

The next step for us is to provide some more clarity on what these might look like, without locking in to a pre-determined plan. Stay tuned for updates, and let us know what you think.