March 14, 2022 | Huub Edelman

5 Lessons Learned About Co-Creation

The struggles and opportunities of doing innovation together

In this article I try to make sense of my co-creation journeys from last year, whilst hopefully motivating readers to embrace a more collaborative way of innovating, and learn from my lessons to do it more efficiently.

When using a traditional, more one dimensional way of doing innovation, the focus is on creating new value for one organization, often tackling a specific organizational challenge. The inward looking mindset often misses out on the opportunity to learn from and work together with others divisions, supply-chain partners, industries, countries and even competitors to shape integrated future-proof solutions and benefit from what has already been done and learnt. I believe we only need one conviction to open up for a more collaborative way of doing innovation; together we can grow the pie by creating shared value. Often fear of losing a piece of the pie; drives protective behavior and a focus on conflicting interest, whilst in many cases the potential impact of working together outweighs those risks and can drive successful co-creation.

The potential of co-creation

Co-creation is about distributing ownership, leveraging diversity, and using a more decentralized, long-term approach. I believe no organization or individual, no matter how capable, could innovate effectively on its own. To both, (1) shape innovation initiatives together and (2) build innovation together to tackle more holistic challenges, does require more investment upfront but has the potential to deliver better results, less costs and more positive spillover effects in the long run. To make it more tangible, I have listed a few of this year’s project goals below. It shows a tip of the iceberg of the potential added value of adopting a co-creation approach in the field of innovation.

Struggles & Lessons

Although the potential of co-creation is huge, it’s far from easy. My last 12 months have been a real struggle. Managing a variety of stakeholder interests, establishing shared ownership, whilst keeping track on delivering some first value (see list above), in order to create momentum hasn’t been easy at all.

Luckily it is said; strength and growth comes through continuous effort and struggle. Below I share, a far from complete but personally experienced, set of 5 lessons that will hopefully help you to improve your co-creation efforts and will help you on your open innovation endeavours.

1. Co-creation is a long-term game

Building relationships and growing a coalition is essential to co-create effectively in a coalition of organizations. Relationships take time; building trust, understanding each other’s interests & strategies, growing commitment, discussing and aligning potential conflicting values or interests, establishing ways of working and so on. Working in a small team can already be a challenge, let alone when 3, 4 or even 10 organizations are involved.

The results of co-creation (shared value & ownership, integrated solutions etc.) are often hard to effectuate in the short-run. It is my strong belief that the (1) initial time and financial investment in growing a coalition and (2) potential results being hard to realize in the first year, scares away a lot of business leaders. Especially in company settings where partnership, ecosystem or open innovation mindset is missing, and people are rotating every 2–4 years.

So what to do?

First of all, communicate the long-term co-creation potential in a motivational story and put it on repeat. It is your joint anchor when short term challenges pop-up.

Next, be realistic about the timelines when multiple stakeholders are involved; only planning a meeting for all stakeholders could take you 3 weeks forward and attendance and joint sessions are critical to build relationships and create shared ownership.

When starting a co-creation exploration or open innovation program, make sure to plan support capacity in line with a time intensive exploration phase. Putting too much execution power in the first period will be a waste of money and create too much pressure for partners that still need to get 100% on board.

And again (on repeat), keep your eyes and those of the coalition on the prize by establishing an astonishing vision for your collaborative innovation effort that matches interests of all involved key players.

2. Find strategies to get into action mode together

My biggest struggle in all three projects was getting into action mode together and moving beyond the talking. At the start there is a huge risk of ownership shifting towards one partner (often the first initiator) whilst others might be still shy and reluctant to be proactive. This often results in a circle of meetings and conversations that provide strategic direction but fail to move to action.

What can help;

So don’t keep talking about it — just start building it together

3. The right people at the right time

Everybody loves to be involved in new exciting initiatives, yet how do you make sure to work towards a team of partners that will be active contributors and co-owners. And how to prevent consumer behavior in a large group? A few tips;

4. Don’t underestimate a good process

Co-creation or open innovation requires an inclusive approach and a flexible mindset. Progress, relationships, partnerships and shared value evolves over time, and might look very different than what you imagined at the start. From personal experience, a lack of control can be frustrating, as it often feels like you’re taking steps backwards when new partners, challenges, interests or opportunities pop-up and drive the initiative into a different direction.

A few learnings over the past months that can help you facilitate a successful process;

5. Use Startup thinking to drive effective co-creation

When working on (open)innovation you come across many entrepreneurial change-makers(innovators) yet you also need to work with corporate professionals, governmental officials and academics. What helps to drive innovative behaviour is using start-up metaphors, language and methods. A few examples below.

The story above helped me to clear my mind and capture a few of the lessons I learned over the last year. A lot of it I learned by experimenting, and so it is not 100% applicable in other co-creation projects. Nevertheless I do hope it has unlocked some value or ideas for your co-creation journeys. Co-creation and open innovation have a bright future ahead, and finding ways to facilitate it effectively is key for creating more holistic, and more sustainable value, so we can ultimately solve the big challenges of our times.