Co-creation and creative leadership

This article will give you an understanding of why your brainstorms are a waste of time when working with co-creation, the difference between creativity and management and how employees want to be creative in their jobs.

It will show you how you as a leader can create structure when working with creativity, co-creation, and idea generation.

When a team has a challenge or a wish for development, most team leaders think: “Let’s meet up with the team to brainstorm and co-create.” If your company is like most companies, the whole team will gather together for the brainstorm of the year.

You stand fit for the fight by the flip-over, where you have written down the problem statement in the centre. 

Your pointy shoes are polished, you’re all wearing fairy costumes, and you as the team leader has completely blown them all away by your choice of a pink marker.

Sound familiar?

Well, maybe not the fairy costumes and pink marker. But the frames, with the leader at the helm and the team at the table, ready to throw good ideas in all directions.

The intention is the best in the world, and most people will probably walk away uplifted from the meeting, thinking “that wasn’t too bad now, was it?”

BUT — how is the distribution of who contributed to the ideas in your “co”-creation? In traditional brainstorming, we always have one person who never gets tired of hearing his own voice. Let’s call him Selling Simon. Then there is Careful Karen, who squeaks a little every once in a while. And finally, we have Shy Sebastian, who just hopes that it will soon be over.

Most likely, the landscape of idea generation looks something like this:

Co-creation landscape

As the sharp leader you are, you have guessed, of course, that Selling Simon doesn’t have to participate in a brainstorm to get his arsenal of ideas out into the world. 

Moreover, you miss out on all the gems that the other people don’t get a chance to say, express, or even THINK because Selling Simon fills in every second of silence.

And even if you have arranged the brainstorming meeting so that there is time for everyone to come up with ideas, I will still point out a few challenges to a classic brainstorming session.

Challenge #1 – New input
The foundation of co-creation is to combine elements from different people. But if we do not get any new input that pushes us in a new direction, we will only repeat what we already know.

Challenge #2 – Failure to pursue ideas
People lack the ability to conduct research and pursue curiosity when they find something exciting rather than be interrupted by new ideas.

Challenge #3 – Time and place
Finally, have you considered where YOU get your best ideas? When I give lectures, this is always the first question I ask. The answers are always the same:

> In the bathroom
> Just before falling asleep
> Commuting
> When you are physically active

Guess what I have NEVER heard. I’ve never heard anyone say they get their best ideas when they’re at work. 

So why is it that we force ourselves into boring meeting rooms with poor lighting and gray curtains and think that THIS is the place for us to reinvent the wheel, when this is not where we are most creative?

We all peak creatively in different ways and different times of the day; therefore, we should also take this into account if we want to work with creativity and professional brainstorming.

Well, of course, you might think that we need to be together to CO-create. Read on, and you will see 🙂

Challenge #4 – Shyness
We are afraid of what others think! It is so deeply rooted in us as humans to be dependent on our group in order to survive. If we get lost or excluded from our flock, then we DIE. It was, of course, a pretty practical instinct back when we were all living in caves, but today it is precisely what keeps us from saying the half-polished, quirky, and perhaps even bad ideas out loud.

We follow those who lead the way, and we better not say anything out loud that the others would not like. Especially if we think there is a slight chance that you as a leader will think it is a bad idea. 

But we should not fear or ignore the value of a bad idea. It will probably not make it to the finish line, but it can be precisely that idea that is the stepping stone to the brilliant idea.

>> If you want to become a master of creativity – check out my upcoming Master Class here

Creativity and leadership

After dragging myself through 37 excruciating days at the Business College, the principal agreed that I should probably do something else than going to his school.

Instead, I started an apprenticeship at an advertising agency as a 17-year-old boy, so today I have worked with creativity and new thinking for more 20 years.

Creativity and leadership are, for most people, “opposites.” The most creative people I’ve met have been as structured as a set of headphones that have been lying around in a bag, and the most talented leaders I’ve met have been far too rational to be able to lead a creative process.

I think many fail to work with co-creation because creativity and idea generation often is an inner process that can be really hard to pass on. It may well be that you have some undefined methods that make you particularly creative, but that does not necessarily mean that the same applies to others.

At the beginning of my career, I would sit staring at a blank piece of paper, begging and praying for my inner creativity to come forward. I would look with envy upon the “adults” at the agency who would just spit out ideas as if they were on offer.

Again and again I asked about how they were able to come up with this many ideas, but each time, the answer was almost identical: “They just come to me” or “Either you are creative, or you are not; it’s something you are born with”.

There has never been anyone who could give me a formula for getting ideas. For that very reason, I think many leaders find it difficult to guide a creative process or brainstorming session that goes beyond the ordinary.

For many years, I have been responsible for co-creation in creative teams. My job has been, beside getting ideas myself, to get the rest of the team to deliver the best creative solutions together. 

I was not particularly good at that, if I am completely honest. Because instead of co-creating with them, I usually came up with all of the ideas and then asked my team to help me execute them.

Once, I had a boss who wanted me to teach my creativity to the rest of my colleagues and involve them in my creative process. At the time, I did not understand what he meant. It was really hard for me to co-create because I usually got my ideas when I was in my bed and couldn’t sleep, so what did he want from me? Should I ask my colleagues to come over for a pajama party? What did he want me to do?

It wasn’t until many years later, while I was sitting in one of these horrible “classic” brainstorming sessions, that it dawned on me what it was that he had meant.

I had just got a new boss who, in his eagerness to show the outside world all of his mighty creativity, had invited our biggest client to a creative co-creation session.

For three hours, we sat and repeated ideas and thoughts that were so worn out that they were not even worth their own weight in scrap.

When the agonising session was over, he approached me angrily and asked why I hadn’t come up with any ideas, to which I had to reply that he simply didn’t inspire me with great ideas.

That day, I decided that I wanted to learn what he couldn’t do.

I soon realised that I had never been the creative leader that I had the potential to be because I had neither understood where my ideas came from nor how I could formularise the process.

Therefore, I spent two years studying myself and my colleagues while we worked. I tried to develop workflows, methods, and techniques for myself for when I had to generate new ideas, and after many attempts, I came up with something that might look generic on the surface but which stands if you want to succeed with true co-creation.

What does your employees want?

In 1995, researchers investigated “The Art of Choosing” by putting up a stand at a gourmet market where people could taste different jams.

They alternated between having six and 24 marmalades that customers could taste.

No matter how many marmalades there were, the customer would, on average, taste only two different ones. 

Interest in the stand with the large variety of marmalades was higher, and it attracted 60% of the customers in the trial, while the stand with only six different marmalades attracted 40%.

The interesting thing is that 30% of the customers who tasted marmalade from the small stand ended up buying, whereas only 3% from the big stand ended up buying. The study raised a hypothesis about whether we are being paralysed by too many choices.

The experiment has later been tried with everything from chocolate to speed dating, and every time it emphasizes that too many choices lead to no choice. At the same time, it also shows that the many choices often leave us feeling that we should have chosen something else.

My experience is exactly the same when it comes to creativity: too many choices and too open boundaries will kill creativity.

I recently made a very small survey where I asked 300 employees across industries to prioritise what was most important for their creativity in the workplace.

The employees prioritised the following five questions, as follows:

32,9% chose:
A well-prepared session where small tasks will stimulate and guide creativity towards the goal

20,5% chose:
Free play without boundaries at all

16,4% chose:
A chance to prepare before a brainstorm

15,1% chose:
Time to do research and become inspired

9,6% chose:
Ability to follow your own curiosity, without being interrupted by others’ ideas

5,5% chose:
Something else

The interesting thing was that over half of those who had chosen “free play without boundaries at all” as their first priority also chose “a well-prepared session where small tasks will stimulate and guide creativity towards the goal” as their second choice.

My own experience when I work with co-creation is that boundaries make it much easier to make choices that give a starting point. From this starting point, people can go exploring in other directions, but in that way, we create momentum from the beginning.

Build a structure for co-creation

There are just as many recipes for creativity as there are for chocolate cake. So, the best thing you can actually do is “taste” some different ingredients and then mix the recipe so that it fits you specifically.

Here, you get my recipe for how to succeed with co-creation. I am very much advocating what I call individual co-creation, which basically is about starting together, then giving each employee an individual job, and finally meeting up again.

The advantage of giving individuals tasks is that each employee decides how and when he or she will work with the challenge. Some may need to talk like a waterfall to get ideas, and some will need silence and time for reflection. By giving employees this freedom, they will have the opportunity to work with creativity where they are the most creative, which means the ideas that come will be much more qualified.

Co-creation model

Put together a goal that helps your clients
The most important thing about working with co-creation is to have the right goal. I see many aiming for goals such as: “we need to get 2000 new permissions for our newsletters,” or “we want to be Denmark’s leading company in xxxx.” 

I believe that we are much more likely to co-create on new ideas if we instead try to focus on how we can help our customers even more. 

Let’s take a bank for example. Many banks in Denmark have, in recent years, focused on the “customer-centric” approach. But I think this is the wrong goal. What does it mean to have a customer-centric approach? Does that mean they serve good coffee? 

And no matter what they will come up with, I will probably expect that as a customer already. 

I think they overlook the fundamental need that a customer in a bank has. As a customer in a bank, I have a fundamental need to feel peace of mind about my economy, and I need to feel secure that I will have access to money if I should need it.

It may very well be that it is the bank adviser who who instils this peace of mind, but if I had come to that conclusion, then I would not set goals that said “customer-centric.” Instead, I would set a goal called “How and where can we make it more attractive to create a relationship with us?” because then I would know that if I succeeded with that goal, I would have succeeded in creating a relationship. And if I have succeeded in creating a relationship, I will have succeeded in installing peace of mind in my customer.

Once the mutual goal has been set, the next step is to inspire. Creativity is really just a reflection of something we have seen, heard, or experienced before. Therefore, we need some building blocks that we can separate and combine with new elements. Therefore, always make sure to find something that will inspire your employees in the direction you want to go. But please don’t copy/paste others’ ideas—spend some time splitting the inspiration into small fractions that you can use to build something new: something that is yours.

In addition to inspiration, we also need to be provoked. You can create provocation in many ways. It can be like an obstruction where you set a boundary that forces us to think in new ways, but it can also be based on the goal and inspiration. With your goal and your inspiration fractions, you define different directions that your employees can explore. By creating a direction for your employees to follow, you make it easier for them to get ideas because they know what to look for.

Co-creation model

Once the directions are set, the employees now go to work individually in one of the directions. When they have had time to delve into the assignment on their own, they can meet in smaller groups to further develop each others’ ideas and provide sparring and feedback.

At this time, a lot of thoughts and ideas will be made. NOW you can finally gather and have your big brainstorm together.

Although it may seem like a cumbersome process, you will quickly discover how effective it is. You will have a team that meets up inspired, prepared, and with a whole pile of ideas to start with.

>> Learn to facilitate brainstorms and innovation workshops, with one of the most hands-on framework

About the author

Dan Ravn, idea facilitator working with co-creation and innovation

Dan Ravn has been working on idea development and innovation for more than 20 years. His long-standing career in the advertising industry and an education in behavioral design have made him a one-time commander in transforming people’s knowledge into groundbreaking ideas.

Dan believes that everyone hides great ideas that can be used to solve problems and create innovation. The only question is whether you have access to the ideas.

He designs methods and tools so companies and employees can use their creative potential to the max in order to create change and innovation.

As speaker and facilitator, Dan has worked for: Novozymes, Novo Nordisk, Sydbank, Arbejdernes Landsbank, Nilfisk, Arriva, Svane kitchen, Copenhagen municipality, Novasol, and many others.

Keywords: Innovation, idea development, co-creation