Those dreaded words… we’re co-designing!

So the network you’re a part of or your boss declares “We’re co-designing”. You swing on your chair, breathe out and wonder… “How am I actually going to make this work”. The next thought you have is “There’s no way it could actually be a thing. Not the way people do things around here.”

This thought process underscores a common belief that innovation and co-design are absolutely doomed to be crushed under the weight of over cautious decision makers who are only too happy to dismiss the latest attempt at change. It’s easy to write it off as the latest buzz word. We’ve all seen it. Innovation, Collective Impact, co-design. At times it feels like everyone is saying the right things, but nothing actually happens in reality.

But there is hope. Wanting to innovate, to work together using collective impact and to make that change that draws on the expertise of others means that there’s enough recognition that we can’t keep doing things the same way if we’re going to shift that dial.

Good old fashioned project management and governance

The good thing about co-design is that it’s a structured approach and can easily be adapted to fit into overarching governance and organisational project planning.

From my experience, there’s a couple of things that trips projects up — these tips will help you to cut through the pain and get your project to sail so you can deliver on the co-design promise.

1. Set the scope

You can do this through a consultative process at workshops with staff and external stakeholders. The benefit of this is that it immediately signals involvement with people. It also enables you to go back to your executive or governance group with a list of priority problems that need to be tackled in a collaborative way. In a world where lots of decision makers mistakenly think co-design means devolving all decisions to the design team or to stakeholders, it will give them a little peace of mind that they have the option to be involved. If you already know what the problems are, then get your stakeholders to help with prioritisation and take a proposal back to the decision makers.

If you’re brand new to the approach, I suggest that based on the outcomes of your consultation, short list to a couple of areas of focus that that your managers or governance group can choose from. Make sure that the projects you propose won’t require significant risk or massive disruption in terms of what might be implemented.

Making your first few projects manageable and achievable will build comfort and confidence. Remember. It’s better to take contained steps that build skill and evidence than making people feel like they’ve gambled on their grandmother with no payoff. A strong foundation will stand everyone in good stead for bigger projects down the track.

2. Keep everyone informed

As your project progresses, make sure you build in some key communications activities in line with your project milestones. This enables you to share the experience and what you’re learning and also demystifies what you’re actually doing and how decisions will be made. Talk about what was different in terms of your approach, how you or the design team evolved over the journey, what’s gone wrong as well as the tools and resources you’ve used as part of your project.

3. Involve the decision makers

Your managers and governance group can be what I refer to as ‘critical friends’. They’ll have unique perspectives and expertise that will help shape your project. Whatever you do, don’t disappear, design something great and spring it on them. By scheduling update and feedback meetings, you can get a steer over time and you’re likely to get their buy in.

For example, if you’ve got a promising prototype and there are three directions you could go, that’s a great opportunity for these critical friends to challenge the direction — to narrow it down or to push your thinking to evolve an idea even further.

Remember, design is all about iteration — the first thing you make is just something to build from, not the final product.

4. It takes trust

My experience demonstrates that you can tell people how co-design might look, but as an emerging discipline, it’s actually really important to give people concrete experiences. Giving over to a new process takes trust. Having honest conversations about what is and what is not working takes trust. Letting go of assumptions and adopting a design mindset and building on new ideas takes trust.

All of the things above are designed to make your project more transparent and to build trust with all project participants. Because when you’ve built trust, your managers, governance group and stakeholders will take that leap of faith — and that’s the co-design sweet spot.