I once worked at a large arts organisation. A selection of us from different departments were invited to a meeting to discuss the future of the company – purpose, values, rebranding, logo - the works. I was very excited to be included and, as a young 20-something a few years out of university, I came armed with sparkly fresh ideas and strongly formed opinions.

I was delighted to be part of a progressive arts organisation that valued the input of its people. I pictured a group of creative thinkers around the boardroom table with white boards, butcher’s paper, post-it notes, word maps in rapid-fire idea sessions where I would wow them with my creativity and ingenuity.

Instead, the direction, branding and the internal purpose had already been decided. As it had been presented as a ‘co-design’, a few brave people attempted to contribute ideas. It was made very clear their input wasn’t welcome and after about thirty minutes of dismissed questions and thwarted opinions, the CEO huffily announced that the changes were already in place and adjourned the meeting. I left the meeting deflated and directionless, not long after I chose to leave the organisation too.

There are a thousand stories like this one in organisations the world over creating the ‘illusion of co-design’. Organisations understand they need to co-design or collaborate but these aren’t words to be tagged on to pre-existing concepts, they require fundamental change in the engagement process.

First conceived in the context of the client/designer relationship, co-design enables a wide range of people to make a creative contribution in the solution of a problem. In this context, the user is considered an expert of their own experience and central to the design process.

 Participants in a Co-Design project with G2 Innovation.

Participants in a Co-Design project with G2 Innovation.

Imagine an architect designing a home. The architect is passionate and creative and designs a home with high cathedral ceilings, a multitude of skylights and a connection to nature. It looks AMAZING! But the skylights are impossible to clean, the cobwebs in the ceiling can’t be reached and the bathroom is an atrium!

Taking a co-design approach, the user works with the architect who considers all of the inhabitants of the home. How they function as a family, how they interact with each space as individuals and with each other to design a home that delivers function and form.

The intent of co-design is to empower users to influence all decisions alongside all stakeholders that the service, product or process will impact.

Each stakeholder has the potential to deliver valuable insights and feel empowered and valued within and by the organisation as a result. Meetings rebranded as co-design sessions without any change in the engagement process leave stakeholders feeling unheard, irrelevant and undervalued. The result is not only a lack of buy-in and disengagement, but whatever you are seeking to re-design will be fundamentally flawed without insight from those who will need to believe in and use it.

Co-design done properly is a powerful way to deliver change and innovation. At G2 Innovation, we’ve worked with organisations to co-design solutions for employee experiences, business strategy, systemic problems and to uncover breakthrough opportunities for innovation in the form of new products, services and processes.

As for the arts organisation, I never heard the much-disputed purpose used again, and the logo, well it too has since changed. If they’d consulted with staff, stakeholders and their customers throughout the design process, they would have saved time, money and empowered their people. If you want meaningful, user-centric results – choose co-design, not the illusion.

Want to learn how co-design can support the transformation of your team, business or organisation?

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