Co-Creation: The Value is in the Process

Written by Nick Marzano on April 26, 2018

In another life, as a middle school English teacher, my classes would kick off the year by proposing, discussion, and voting on a class constitution, a list of expectations, norms, and promises we would agree to uphold for the rest of the year. Year to year, and class to class, the lists didn’t look that different. But the process of participation, and subtle nuances in wording and norms, really mattered to the students. Just as important as the end result, the journey had generated buy-in.

Co-creation is the making of shared value alongside your customer, your audience, your members. It’s a tool for those times you need to go deeper than a survey or focus group, inviting participants to brainstorm, explore, and make shared decisions together. If this sounds similar to design thinking, you’re on the right track. Both are rooted firmly in empathy. But whereas design thinking includes a range of methods that focus on observed behavior, co-creation almost always refers to well-designed, facilitated workshops in which you work alongside your audience to generate ideas, explore and prototype, or converge on priorities. Your members are sidekicks on the adventure, not just research subjects. Because of that, co-creation is often as much about the process as the product, something I’ve written about before in the context of the IKEA Effect.

We can certainly use the principles of co-creation and meeting design in our daily routines. If you’ve ever sought your team’s ideas, exploration, and decision on a new workflow or goal, you know what co-creation feels like.

What if associations went bigger than co-creation in the office? What if we involved members in the co-creation of essential programs, key strategic questions about the future of their profession, or decisions about how a portion of their membership dollars should be allocated? Co-creation at this scale requires a commitment to the process, as well as an investment in time and resources. You’ll need a plan to design, house, and facilitate workshops that ask the right questions and move the conversation forward. You’ll need a plan for advertising to ensure the right people are in the room. And you’ll need a communications plan to keep participants informed in between sessions, as staff explore feasibility and try to operationalize the outcomes of co-creation.

Is it worth all that? To answer that, we could look to any number of corporations and industries who are making co-creation an integral part of their strategy and product design. Instead, let’s look to another often cash-strapped type of corporation: local government. If that sounds surprising, consider the incredible diversity of the people cities are required to serve, and the enormous impact that one city decision can have on thousands of lives. To tackle this complexity, some cities rely on the power of the co-creation process.

There are plenty of use cases worth noting. Co-creation is relatively ‘old hat’ to city planners, who have to consider the desires, hopes, values, and needs of a community, and understand the positive or negative effect the built environment could have on residents before finalizing a plan. In another example of co-creation at work, New York City allocates a million dollars a year to each district for a participatory budgeting program. Ideas and decisions for how to spend the money are generated through sessions and online forums run by and for citizens. And co-creation can help right the ship when citizens are furious over an executive decision. My hometown of Philadelphia wrote the book on this as it attempted to deal with the fallout of the financial crisis.

Like a lot of cities, 2009 was a tough year for Philly. The City needed to close a budget deficit of deficit of $108 million, and fast. When the Mayor announced emergency cuts to public services like community pools and libraries, citizens were livid. These were high value spaces and services for the community.

In response to this outcry, the City recognized the need for a new approach. Partnering with the University of Pennsylvania’s Project for Civic Engagement, they hosted four workshops to explain the situation and workshop solutions. Through guided exercises, participants were invited to discuss the services that mattered most. They also worked within the constraints of the very real financial situation, to consider alternatives, safeguard essential resources, and weigh in on tough-but-necessary cuts.

Co-creation didn’t magically restore city coffers. Some services had to be cut—no way around it. But it did raise some creative ideas the city had not considered. It also created a map of the services the community valued most, and generated buy-in on the shared sacrifices that had to be made. After a unilateral stumble, the City regrouped, presented a seemingly immovable object to the community in a realistic and transparent way, and created a better way forward through co-creation.

As associations, we can learn a lot from local government about the power and potential of co-creation. If cities and urban planners can engage citizens from diverse walks of life to create innovative programs and a shared vision for the future, we can find a way to co-create with the various special interests and audiences that make up our membership. In the process, we may help more members to view their association as more than a bundle of services, meetings, and discounts. Just maybe, more will come to think of it as their association.

Nick spoke in the “Co-Creation: Building Shared Purpose and Value with Members” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.