Earth geometries. Nature (and subsequent manipulations of it) provide us with cues to recognize patterns and identify interconnections we might not have been able to see without a co-design process.

Co-Design: A Force of Nature (and Innovation)

A simple process of surfacing the knowledge you already hold, but are largely unaware of, is the key to building the market ecosystems of the future.

Gunther Sonnenfeld
Dec 6, 2015 · 7 min read

Startups have taught me that no one knows the market better than the market itself. Corporate gigs have shown me that no one can really beat or master the market other than the market itself.

But of course, these basic revelations also beg a serious question: what exactly is a market these days?

To begin to answer that open question, it would seem prudent to look at a market as a whole, interconnected set of actors, operators and agents, to which a purpose is evident, as well as emergent. In the best of cases, the purpose of a market is to provide ample opportunities for those who participate in it.

A market ecosystem or business ecology is typically defined as “a management imperative to make business more responsive, effective, sustainable and secure in a complex, networked world”.

So, if a market ecosystem is in fact complex and networked (which it is), then there are some critical attributes required for participants, among them:

  • the ability to see
  • the ability to adapt
  • the ability to create
  • the ability to be agile
  • the ability to (un)(re)learn
  • the ability to lead openly
  • the ability to deploy & distribute

With the attributes mentioned, participation itself takes on new light; it is one thing to passively invest in a market, or produce products in it, or to bridge two or more markets together.

It’s another thing to understand the realities of a market, why it works in certain ways, and what possibilities can emerge when a participant or group embraces the notion that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Knowledge is a funny thing. I’ve written about the power of not knowing as well as the truths about collaboration, and I’ve also discovered that when it comes to markets, knowledge is usually quite scarce. You could say that it’s by design.

Enter the process of co-design.

Co-design is the method we use to surface ‘knowledge’ in the form of ideas, insights and connections. Co-design can be facilitated any number of ways and is often quite fun, even if some interactions don’t seem to be.

When outside consultants are hired or advisors are brought in to help a company operate differently, for example, they often come with some off-the-shelf solution or some fixed way of diagnosing a problem and developing a solution. What we’ve seen in our own engagements and partnerships is that most often the problem an organization thinks it has is tied to a number of assumptions that don’t necessarily contextualize why the problem is occurring, or what scenarios will show up on account of it.

Part of how this happens is in the actual delivery of information. Most consultants, advisors and leaders talk at people and problems, rather than letting information come out through deeper, more focused listening and learning. The modality we can use to describe this is the difference between persuasive speech acts and interpretive speech acts. In utilizing an interpretive approach — combined with elements such as enriched experience design and skillful group facilitation — the listening and learning aspects are amplified for all participants.

Another example is in preparing for various scenarios. In our startups, we see challenges arise on a daily if not an hourly basis, everything from tech issues, to partner concerns, to at-home relationship problems. As our communications protocols evolve, we understand that the way we train to handle these challenges is critical, to which co-design plays an integral or tensegral part in our overall development. Tensegral explorations use geometry as a tool to map out tensions and interconnections, whereas many approaches to understanding business or market dynamics predominantly rely on quantitative, mathematical reasoning, which can prove to be misleading and inconclusive.

Further, a geometric approach provides visual context through which much clearer associations can be made between various players in a market, or in identifying who the stakeholders actually are, or how they are really influencing each other’s operations.

Tensegral geometry, which we integrate, customize and apply to various co-design tools.

At a meta level, what we are really doing when we co-design is cultivating and sharing previously unseen knowledge. We don’t allow the historical ‘rear-view mirror’ to reflect back on us and destructively affect our capacities to think and act critically. Nor can we default to ‘old stories’ about what is, what isn’t or what’s (not) possible. Rather, we evolve and grow through imaginative or creative means, such that we remain light, resilient, agile and quick-in-market, even if we may undergo multiple pivots in the business or multiple adaptations of a product release.

A recent ecosystem co-design we did at The Impact Hub in Oakland around Village Lab’s ‘Wealth Stewardship Model’

The ‘Innovation Problem’

One of the fundamentals we’ve learned to embrace in co-design is that we can remove false or inauthentic expectations around ‘innovation’. There are all sorts of descriptors for forms of it such as ‘disruption’ and ‘adaptation’ and ‘sustainability’, but for us, we see iteration as the main operational element in developing and maintaining an innovation mindset.

Iterative means can include, and of course are not limited to, conceptualization, designing, prototyping and engineering. Design and programming sprints are good examples of how iteration can be accelerated, especially when tensegral co-design principles are applied. With startups, there are various models such as ‘lean’ which are useful in terms of being able to iteratively mobilize aspects of a business or product launch, but these models are challenged by relatively opaque methods for learning about market conditions, how to adapt to them, and how all of this impacts team members.

What we’ve seen across industries is a quadrant of core challenges relating to the siloed nature not just of organizational structures, but silos that keep people from seeing and understanding what is actually happening on the ground. We talk to companies of all types that consistently defer to faulty assumptions simply because they refuse to adapt their business practices to changing market conditions and/or because they don’t have the tools of co-design to engage with other stakeholders in deep, exploratory ways.

One of the greatest assumptions is that people have the trained capacity to collaborate and innovate. It is true that we all possess the potential to do those things, but training requires constant mind, body and spirit work such that our potential can be manifested and integrated into real world application, at scale.

Becoming an ‘In-Service-To’ Archetype

When we work with groups through a co-design experience, we first ask them: What are you in service to?

This isn’t a question about their business models so much as it is one about their purpose, and how that purpose actually translates into doing something significant in the world, or better yet, in creating a new world altogether.

The overwhelming majority of companies in an ecosystem can make innumerable declarations about their mission, their values or their purpose, yet very few actually walk their talk. More importantly, defining what ‘good’ or ‘quality’ is can be fraught with misconceptions, especially when getting feedback from customers and market cohorts. This is especially the case in industries like cannabis, where immature work processes tend to prevent young and more established companies from reaching their full potential. And by mature, we specifically mean an emphasis on interpersonal skills development that starts with individual growth permeating that of the collective (and in a reciprocal manner).

A distinct in-service-to exploration is a key component of a co-design, and it begins with personal notions of how someone sees him- or herself as a progenitor of transformation, and how to activate it.

Since co-design is a constant background practice in and of itself, the intention is to create an active and applied narrative that helps achieve meaningful balance inside and outside of the organization.

Living and Working in Creation

It’s easy to forget — or not even be present to — the fact that we all have creative capacities, we just need help in bringing them out in ways that enable us to play up our strengths, work on our weaknesses, and evolve our roles as participants in service to something much bigger than ourselves and our own needs or desires. And as far as innovation goes, the possibilities are limitless when we carry a transformative mindset with us in everything we do and everything we imagine.

As always, thanks for reading (and participating).

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There will be more posts on co-design to come, as we share our latest experiences with stakeholders across various health & wellness, alternative science, P2P and cannabis domains.


Training the mind to see new horizons

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