Co-Creation Beyond the Buzzword

Written by 
Semco Team

On Monday 30th October we hosted a webinar on Co-Creation with two contributors to The Carbon Almanac project, Cat Barnard from Working the Future, and Beth Salyers from Custom Learning Atelier

Here we’ve tried our best to sum up 45 minutes of the wisdom and practical insight which Cat and Beth shared with us. It’s safe to say, we barely scratched the surface of how far you can go with co-creation, but if you’re new to the concept, or wondering how you adopt this way of working, we’ve shared key themes to help you take your first step.

The Carbon Almanac – A Co-creation Case Study

The Carbon Almanac is one of the largest global co-creation projects. It has brought together hundreds of volunteers from around the globe, with various backgrounds and expertise to build a fact-based resource that delves into the complexities of climate change. It provides a vast panoramic overview of how and why our planet is changing. 

But The Carbon Almanac isn’t just another book about climate change, it’s a powerful resource that through collaborative effort has taken the campaign for action on climate from a whisper to a shout. Gathering global minds and voices to focus on the most pressing issue of our time. 

Cat Barnard and Beth Salyers both contributed to The Carbon Almanac, and so we invited them to share with us on this webinar, how a book, written by hundreds of people around the world managed to come to life through co-creation in record time.

We hear constantly from organisations that it’s just not possible to co-create when working remotely, or in a hybrid style – how many times have we heard recently big brands and companies demanding people back to the office with the reason of ‘collaboration’ or ‘culture’ - when we all know this is not the true agenda. 

In our webinar, Cat and Beth shared wholeheartedly from their experiences both working on The Carbon Almanac and in their own organisations, that co-creation can work but it takes an intentional approach. 

What is co-creation?

Co-creation is both an act and a mindset. It’s a belief that with many minds and perspectives we can achieve better outcomes. Using The Carbon Almanac as an example, Seth Godin, the best-selling author and entrepreneur, was the visionary for the project. But he didn’t create this book on his own. He knew that deep down if he wanted to create a resource which has real impact, it would need to be created not just by him alone, but together with others. 

The belief of co-creation is also upheld by actions and practices of collaborative and participative approaches that enable people to contribute in the first place.  

We need both the mindset and the act of co-creation. 

As Cat Barnard said, “The act of co-creation is in partnership with others.”

First, we must deconstruct to reconstruct

Co-creation sounds great – after all, it’s not only common sense, but also wise to bring together more than one person. But where it gets stuck, is the foundations. We cannot plant the seeds of co-creation, if the soil isn’t fertile. 

In our webinar Beth Salyers put out the challenge to look at times when co-creation doesn’t happen. From here we can then identify the bad habits we fall into that means co-creation won’t take root.

Beth gave the example of companies forcing people back into the office. As Beth explained, this is partly due to leaders seeking familiarity. They know how to manage when everyone is in an office. But as Beth said, “if you’re seeking something familiar and freaked out by change, you can’t co-create.” 

First, we have to understand the barriers for entry if we’re going to make co-creation the way we do things. 

Designing inclusive systems of work was an area Cat and Beth expressed must be at the forefront of people’s minds. While the top-down hierarchy had its place 100 years ago when things were predictable, it’s no longer fit for purpose in a world that sees emerging challenges every week. 

As Cat said, “We all need our eyes and ears open to new contexts. It’s not helpful to organisations and communities to have one person on the lookout.” 

This aligns with the Semco Style belief of democracy. It’s better that everyone is involved in making sure that an organisation is in control instead of only top management. We can’t predict the future, but we can certainly create an environment where everyone's awareness is sensing and responding to change.  

Of course, this isn’t as simple as suddenly making everyone contribute. As Beth explained, “you also have to change how you approach participation, let’s be more co-creative about how people participate – what can we do differently to elicit voices and responses?”

Safe spaces are creative spaces

It will be no surprise that psychological safety was mentioned as a prerequisite for co-creation to take place. We need a safe space to grow and trust if we want creative efforts. 

The desire and intention can be there for co-creation, but living it is very different. We must realise that for many marginalised groups contributing and being truly heard has been a struggle and continues to be a challenge in organisational life. 

When working on The Carbon Almanac Cat and Beth mentioned that there were principles co-created with the question of “How do we co-exist together?” - It’s a powerful way to build social norms and expectations. In Semco Style we use this in the practice of Co-creating Your Social Contract. It’s about creating agreements as team members so that every person on the team can perform to the best of their abilities. 

As mentioned by Cat, a key part of this is ensuring you have an environment where colleagues take the time to listen to each other – and actually listen.

A different type of leadership

Leadership comes up frequently when we begin to talk about redesigning work and changing the system, in our Semco Style Roadmap Brave Leadership is often the first step towards change. Cat and Beth both touched on the importance of leadership and its effects on co-creation. 

The conventional view of leadership, whereby someone takes control and dictates measures and rules, does not serve co-creation. Instead, we must take on a new view of leadership that sees the role less in terms of title and position, but as the individual who steps up, takes something forward, gathers groups and then stands aside and holds the space. Cat gave the example of the V formation of flying ducks and geese. The point of the V formation is the one leading, but as they fly, the leader gets tired and the next one takes its place. The flying formation helps each member communicate and coordinate with the group. 

If we are to step fully into co-creation and unleash its impact, we must first step into a new form of leadership. 

In Summary

Cat Barnard put it perfectly when she said, “Co-creation happens when like-valued teams align around a shared goal or mission.”   

Alignment is key for co-creation – when considering this journey yourself perhaps consider the following questions; 

Are you all connected by similar values? 

What is it that you wish to create? What is the outcome you are striving for? 

As exemplified by The Carbon Almanac, co-creation can take place on a large, global and remote scale; we just need to have the courage to redesign a better system together. 

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