One of the things I hear senior executive leaders say a lot is: “We’ve got to have more collaboration!... especially cross-functional collaboration. The problems we face today are too complex for any one function to figure out the solutions.”

It’s true that in today’s unpredictable world, if you and your team are going to contribute real value to your organization, you have to work closely together and engage directly with your stakeholders. But leaders often also feel frustrated that even though we are having lots of meetings “together”….with lots of smart people, ….we are not contributing as much value as we know we are capable of.

This is because “collaboration” is not enough.

Collaboration is generally thought of as “having a meeting, or working with others in a good relationship, or trying to cooperate”. This way of viewing collaboration may have worked in the past when business was simpler and less complex. But that way of working is not nearly enough for today’s fast-paced, ever-changing interconnected business environment.

The leadership shift needed is to go beyond “collaboration” to “Co-creation”.

Co-creation is more than collaboration, and it is how successful leaders today contribute added value and impactful results.

What does it mean to truly Co-create?

The problems that you, as a leader, face today are not just complex, they are also brand new; in many cases never existed before. So this requires real and meaningful help from your stakeholders to find solutions. For example: I was coaching an SVP who was leading the company in new product development. I asked if he was satisfied that he was co-creating with colleagues in order to get the best solutions. He said: “Oh sure, I am already co-creating. My team and I checked all the boxes. We set up meetings with our different stakeholders and presented a full slide deck on the product we created. We asked each stakeholder group to react to our deck, and give feedback.”

He thought he was co-creating.

But the subtlety that he and his team missed is that their busy stakeholders took in their slide deck presentation as “work that was already complete”, and was maybe open to a few comments or suggestions…However, that is a far cry from actually creating something together with stakeholders from a blank sheet of paper.

We often mistakenly think of co-creation as gathering input from stakeholders and generally having a good relationship with them. But it’s only co-creation if the stakeholder or customer actually plays an active role in providing upfront input and plays a key role in the creation of value, at many points in the process; and it is a continuous, repeated process of mutual benefit. (Based on a definition from authors Jansen and Pieters).

So, even one good co-creating meeting with stakeholders is not cause for a victory lap; it is just the beginning. Co-creation needs to become a practice, an ongoing endeavor, a way of working with stakeholders and customers to continually create new solutions “with them”, not just “for them”. It’s inviting your stakeholders to help you define what value is, and doing that several times during the project, not just once when you have your proposal all tied up in a bow with 30 beautiful slides. Co-creation is more than just having a good relationship; it’s having a proactive, engaged, outcome-producing relationship. That is how we innovate and create real value for our organizations.

Why does Co-creation matter?

Aside from creating greater value, co-creation impacts engagement. When people help create something (not just comment on what you created for them), there is a level of commitment and personal investment in the outcome. It can also be quite motivating and inspirational. Importantly, something created with a continuous and repeated process involving the right stakeholders ensures a high level of quality output.

To unlock real impact requires co-creation. If you have ever questioned whether or not you could be creating significantly more value, as most executives have, it’s time to reexamine.

What are some of the reasons why you and your team may not be going beyond “collaborating” to truly “co-creating”? 

6 reasons why you may not be Co-creating….and missing opportunities to add more value.

These are 6 opportunities for demonstrating greater leadership and more impact: 6 things you and your team can change, so that you co-create and produce much more value.

  1. The “real” conversations are not happening. People communicate in organizations, but not always about the right things. There is a difference between meeting with your stakeholders regularly… and focusing those meetings on obstacles that you mutually need to overcome and designing real action plans. Jointly creating real action is co-creating. That takes hard work and the hard work can sometimes be uncomfortable, with differing viewpoints, which is why people avoid it. Opportunity: Are you satisfied that each of your team meetings ends with a solution to an issue that is related to your mission? And does every meeting end with a written list of specific actions; including who will do what, and when?  
  2. Teams have often forgotten how to come together to create something. After emerging from the pandemic and in some cases where remote working is still the norm, the act of sitting together physically and creating something from scratch may seem foreign. True co-creation is best with some level of co-location, at least at the start when the paper is blank. There is no substitute for the magic that happens when humans are shoulder to shoulder, creating something new together. Opportunity: Are you having live meetings that result in creating something new (vs. a round-robin of updates from each area)? And during the meeting, is each member fully present vs. multitasking on their laptop doing email/text during the meeting?
  3.  Leaders are High Achievers and we actually enjoy giving slide presentations. I myself am a recovering high achiever. So, I know that high achievers, by nature, want to demonstrate that they are adding value. We like creating decks with lots of content. We like presenting our ideas “all tied up in a bow” to the audience. We believe we are making it easier for the audience; and it shows we have it all together. It’s the same reason that opening a meeting with a blank sheet of paper can seem scary to a senior leader. It can seem like it signals a lack of confidence in their own leadership. The reality is that the act of opening a new conversation about the unknown is an act of leadership. When you have the courage to create a conversation, where you don’t have the answers, you create possibilities to change the future. Opportunity: Are you leaning too heavily on presenting slides of pre-done material vs. leading a real unscripted conversation about how we will meet the tough challenges...which includes sharing what you don't know?
  4. We are “too busy” and equate being busy with good output. Like hamsters on a treadmill, people are running at a fast pace and oftentimes, unproductively. The fear of future changes, the reality of reduced workforces and the “appearance” of doing something that matters, are all contributing to this. For a leader, it is often hard to even get your stakeholders’ attention. With an unpredictable economic environment and uncertain times, there is an organizational tendency for “heads down” performance, motivated by fear of survival. This fear exists for leaders, for teams, and for organizations and has to be recognized, in order to rise above it. Opportunity: How often are you taking a "pause" to connect with your team and stakeholders to realign first on your vision and then on the priorities? And how often do you evaluate which work adds value, and which work has limited value or should no longer be done? 
  5. The wrong tools are being leveraged for Co-creation. Have you ever used email/text to discuss a serious matter that needed to be solved by the six people listed in the recipient field? Everyone is guilty of this on some level. Email/text is efficient, which is not always the same as being effective. Problem-solving is a synchronous sport; email and texting were invented as an asynchronous communication tool. It is true that digital document-sharing has value. However, there is nothing more powerful for problem-solving than one simultaneous conversation. Opportunity: Have you and your team agreed on when you will just pick up the phone/video or walk down the hall, and talk human to human? 
  6. Goals are not aligned between and among stakeholders. Chances are, as a leader, your agenda does not always match the agenda of your peers, your stakeholders, or your customers. Unless these agendas are somehow aligned, no one wins. How do you show your stakeholders that you can co-create something that is of mutual benefit? Do you ask your direct reports for recent examples of how they have co-created with stakeholders? Opportunity: How often are you connecting with stakeholders to fully understand and engage in their vision and what their problems are? Most important: Have you created a shared vision?  

If you can see any of these 6 opportunities in your own team, …what action could you take to lead your team to shift beyond collaboration to true Co-creation? And then what new value could you contribute to your organization?

For more insight on co-creation with stakeholders, check out my new book Even More Impact. Now also an Audiobook, available at Amazon.