This post was inspired by a lovely, in-person conversation in Seattle last week with Blair Glaser, therapist and leadership mentor.

Leadership and Co-Design

Although the term, co-design, has more spe­cif­ic, for­mal mean­ings, I like to think of it very infor­mal­ly as two or more peo­ple think­ing togeth­er as equals about some spe­cif­ic change they want to make. In my field of orga­ni­za­tion dynam­ics, that could be shift­ing how the work is done or how an orga­ni­za­tion is struc­tured, for exam­ple. It could involve any kind of strate­gic project or initiative. 

Co-design in orga­ni­za­tions, thought of in this sim­ple way, is pow­er­ful pre­cise­ly because of what it vio­lates: old habits of hier­ar­chy and our images of “lead­er­ship” and “man­age­ment” from the past. In par­tic­u­lar it breaks the mold of typ­i­cal pow­er dynam­ics, of some­one in a “supe­ri­or” posi­tion decid­ing on some­thing that oth­ers are respon­si­ble for “exe­cut­ing.” It thus can begin a pos­i­tive ero­sion of old deci­sion-mak­ing mod­els of change. In past mod­els, a man­ag­er or team of peo­ple might pro­pose a change, but the change must be “approved” before imple­men­ta­tion. The approver is sep­a­rate and dis­tant from the change and its design, and only gives a thumbs up or down response based on his/her per­son­al judg­ment, bias­es and agendas. 


In my expe­ri­ence, this approval based approach is what alters every­thing that hap­pens. The goal of design then is not to cre­ate the best design but the design that can get the approval, the design that can “win” by virtue of argu­ment, log­ic, per­sua­sion, and pol­i­tics — and often by virtue of super­fi­cial mea­sures and num­bers, not the qual­i­ties and intan­gi­bles inher­ent in the design itself. Every­thing might be reduced to, “How much will this cost?” and what were once good ideas quick­ly end up in dis­ap­point­ment and dis­en­gage­ment. Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, in the old world, if approval is achieved, the goal with exe­cu­tion nec­es­sar­i­ly shifts to the impor­tance of gain­ing “buy-in” (also a dis­tinct approval process) and to over­com­ing resis­tance (also per­sua­sion — by what­ev­er means). 

By com­par­i­son, the sim­ple idea behind co-design is that you and I sit down infor­mal­ly with an idea to flesh it out. We draw on white boards — or nap­kins. We then take this idea and share it with oth­ers whose lives or work could be impact­ed by it. We ask straight-for­ward questions:

• What do you think of this idea? Does it have suf­fi­cient mer­it to build on or should it be scrapped? Scrapped in favor of what?

• If you agree it has some mer­it, how might it be altered, cor­rect­ed, improved or extended? 

• Are there some side-effects or con­se­quences we haven’t fore­seen that need to be addressed? How would we do that?

• Who else needs to be involved in help­ing us?

• How would we go about actu­al­ly mak­ing this hap­pen together?

And then the design is revised, so that the ideas them­selves are co-owned, and we go look­ing for anoth­er group of stake­hold­ers to con­tin­ue the process. In this way the work spi­rals out­ward and begins to seam­less­ly include implementation.

In two oth­er posts, I explored some of these ideas in the con­text of hier­ar­chy — here (“A Spi­ral Mod­el of Change” and here (“The Side Effects of Hier­ar­chy and Oth­er Per­ils”). But those are both just a warm-up act for co-design as an emerg­ing and essen­tial part of leading.

Why? Because not so well hid­den with­in this very sim­ple idea is a rather pro­found cul­tur­al shift: from cri­tiquing indi­vid­ual per­for­mance and mak­ing judg­ments to ask­ing and engag­ing in a ques­tion, “What good thing could we cre­ate togeth­er?” That may not sound like much at first, but per­haps, asked well, asked sin­cere­ly, can change the whole game. Sud­den­ly, that work to co-design a new work sys­tem can also lead us to an entire­ly dif­fer­ent kind of con­ver­sa­tion — about con­scious­ly co-design­ing our rela­tion­ships with each oth­er. As friends might, as lovers might (ref­er­enc­ing Blair’s own work), by talk­ing about it, by build­ing a vision, and lead­ing each oth­er toward it with an equal­i­ty that tran­scends all roles. Approval-based pow­er rela­tion­ships pret­ty much suck in terms of cre­ativ­i­ty — and they can be quite lone­ly and unfor­giv­ing, silent and even abu­sive while keep­ing the rela­tion­ship itself undis­cuss­able. We would­n’t stand for that in a mar­riage. Why would we give our lives over to it so com­plete­ly at work? 

Work­places are like­ly to always have some hier­ar­chi­cal ele­ments, some frame­work for approvals and per­mis­sions, but part of what the world demands now from us in mil­lions of ways (and with­in a rel­a­tive­ly short time-frame) is to not just live out uncon­scious col­lec­tive kar­ma, but to actu­al­ly step forth and be part of lead­ing — to co-lead. And to do so with all we’ve got, with the best of what our hearts and minds offer. Take that thought to any lev­el you like, from build­ing a bet­ter billing sys­tem, to health-care reform, to heal­ing the plan­et, to end­ing war in the Mid­dle East. It’s the only idea that works, that can work, in oh so many ways.


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  • […] Co-design can be thought of as a sim­ple but pow­er­ful process to alter the cul­ture of an approval-based orga­ni­za­tion. In this, it is an emerg­ing and essential […]

  • […] Co-design can be thought of as a sim­ple but pow­er­ful process to alter the cul­ture of an approval-based organization. […]

  • Thanks for this quite vision on co- design fro­ma. Quite dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive as we — part­ners in A Euro­pean co-design project ‑ — take on it. Nev­er­the­less your ideas cer­tain­ly add on. And it very kuch con­tributes to mak­ing up my per­son­al vision.
    As ro the process you men­tion: we also believe that users or peo­ple involved can alos be tru­ly cre­ative and devel­op, build them­selves. So it is not just about ask­ing one’s opin­ion, but also hav­ing them involved in elab­o­rat­ing their ideas.
    Have a won­der­ful day

  • Dear Ingrid~

    Thank you so much for com­ment­ing on this post. I took a look at your web­site and it is very impres­sive as a resource. I believe there are many of us who see the pos­si­bil­i­ties of co-design, and not at all from the stand­point of input, “ask­ing one’s opin­ion,” but true collaboration.

    Thank you again!

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