by Jack Martin Leith

What is a co-creation meeting?

A co-creation meeting is a collaborative gathering that takes place over half a day, an entire day or several days, and that usually forms part of a broader organizational change or innovation programme.

A co-creation meeting brings together diverse stakeholders, often in large numbers (the upper limit is constrained only by the venue capacity) and with widely-differing agendas and perspectives, to discuss issues of heartfelt concern, share ideas, pool knowledge, explore possibilities and devise plans for sustained collaborative action.

Why do I call them co-creation meetings?

Co-creation meetings are known by various other names including large group interventions, large scale events and ‘whole system in the room’ events.

Other ways of saying co-creation meeting

In the world at large, the terms meeting, conference, event, gathering and intervention tend to be used interchangeably. In my work and on this website I mostly talk about meetings, indicating that people get together to do real work and not to be passive audience members. The co-creation qualifier denotes the broad purpose of the meeting and the manner in which the work happens: the participants are bringing something new into being, and they are doing it together.

Special acknowledgement goes to Clay Alderfer, editor of The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, for supporting our vision of a special issue on large group interventions in 1992, before this was an established area of change practice […].

From the Preface to Large Group Interventions: Engaging the Whole System for Rapid Change, by Billie T. Alban and Barbara Benedict Bunker, Jossey-Bass (1996).
Much has been written about large group interventions since Billie T. Alban and Barbara Benedict Bunker got the ball rolling back in 1992 (more here).

I have written on the topic myself, publishing the booklet Leith’s Guide to Large Group Interventions in 1996, and contributing the chapter Creating Collaborative Gatherings Using Large Group Interventions (download the chapter) to the Gower Handbook of Training & Development, which although published in 1999 is still relevant.

There’s more: If you view my bio you will see I spent three years running an enterprise called The Centre for Large Group Interventions, based in Amsterdam.

But a couple of years later, I came to the conclusion that the qualifier large group is misleading, as the size of the group is not the issue. What matters is having the right people in the room, which could mean as few as 10 or as many as 1,000 participants. Intervention is also questionable. The intervention is the entire programme of work, not just the co-creation meeting.

Some discoveries

Over the course of three decades, I have designed, produced and facilitated co-creation meetings for global corporates (e.g. Royal Dutch Shell, GlaxoSmithKline), government institutions (European Commission, Home Office), healthcare providers (NHS, Health Service Executive Ireland), professional services firms (PricewaterhouseCoopers, AT Kearney), arts organizations (Bristol Community Festival, National Association of Street Artists) and charities (Dogs Trust, Age UK).

This extensive experience has provided valuable insights into the design and management of co-creation meetings. Here are some of them:

It is not enough to choose a branded format (e.g. Open Space, Future Search) and follow the instructions. Each meeting must be custom-designed, using principles rather than strung-together set pieces, to address the unique situation and the particular set of requirements.

Each of the two main types of format has strengths and shortcomings. When formats are combined in sequence, the strengths one counteract the shortcomings of the other.

The work done before, during and after the co-creation meeting must be designed and managed as one continuous stream of work.

The maximum group size for a proper conversation is four people (read more). Deliberative processes must honour this max4 principle.

Deliberative processes must also be designed such that introverts are able to make a full contribution.

The downstream work needs to be monitored and supported by someone from outside the client organization.

The three main types of co-creation meeting

The three main types of co-creation meeting

Type 1 co-creation meetings

Real Time Strategic Change, Whole-Scale™ Change, Future Search, Search Conferences
Participants in a Type 1 meeting sit at round tables in ‘max-mix’ (maximum diversity) groups of eight, and engage in a series of pre-designed, faciltator-led activities aimed at manifesting specific outcomes.

Real Time Strategic Change grew out of the large-scale interactive process that Kathie Dannemiller and her colleagues at Dannemiller Tyson Associates designed for Ford Motor Company in 1981 (see here for more info — pdf).

When Robert ‘Jake’ Jacobs left Dannemiller Tyson Associates in the early 1990s, he took Real Time Strategic Change with him and co-authored a book on the topic. Meanwhile, Dannemiller Tyson Associates adopted the name Whole-Scale™ Change for their method and trademarked it. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere (here for example), Real Time Strategic Change is alive and well, as you can see on this website.

Future Search, originated by organization development pioneer Marvin Weisbord and conflict resolution practitioner Sandra Janoff, was inspired by the Search Conference method devised in the 1960s by psychologists Eric Trist and Fred Emery, the founders (with Ken Bamforth) of sociotechnical systems.

I am limiting the following assessment to Real Time Strategic Change and Whole-Scale™ Change, as Future Search meetings and Search Conferences follow a strict format and are informed by different theories, principles and assumptions.

What’s good about Real Time Strategic Change and Whole-Scale™ Change
Meetings are custom-designed and principle-based.

Meetings are embedded in a wider programme of work.

Meetings are outcome focused and action orientated.

Although much of the work is done in small groups, whole-room cohesion is sought when determining the current state of affairs, the desired state of affairs, and how this will come to fruition.

Everyone is party to the same information, and everyone is able to contribute their ideas and points of view to the central pool.

The composition of the small groups reflects maximum diversity in terms of organizational function, level of seniority and gender.

The process for each piece of group work is designed for maximum effectiveness.

The agenda can be modified on the fly to a certain extent. The agenda is simply a best guess at what will happen in the room. An agenda rarely survives first contact with reality.

What’s not so good
The discussion topics are decided in advance, albeit with the assistance of some of those who will be participating in the meeting.

The meeting is tightly contained, with little or no room for spontaneity, serendipity, emergence and individual autonomy.

Participants are seated in tables of eight, whereas the maximum group size for a proper conversation is four people, or five at a push. So even if the right voices are be present in the room, they may not be heard.

Participants are tethered to their tables for much of the time.

For the sponsoring organization, mounting a Type 1 meeting requires a largish investment of time, effort and money.

Type 2 co-creation meetings

Open Space
Participants in a Type 2 meeting create a programme of impromptu, self-determined and unfacilitated discussion groups related to a predetermined thematic question. The facilitator is there to lead the agenda creation process and the closing session, and to ‘hold the space’ while the small group discussions are underway.

A Type 2 meeting employs Open Space, which was devised by Harrison Owen in 1985 as a way to create a better conference. Open Space has its roots in Usenet newsgroups and tribal ritual. When you strip away all that stuff about complex adaptive systems, self-organization and the power of spirit, an Open Space meeting is really just an online discussion forum conducted in the physical world.

I first experienced Open Space in 1988 (the Technology appendage was added the following year) at the Sixth International Symposium on Organization Transformation that took place on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. On returning to the UK, I conducted my first Open Space meeting a few months later, on a pro bono basis, and became a professional Open Space practitioner in the early 1990s.

Over the years I have designed, produced and facilitated Open Space meetings for a wide range of clients, for many purposes, of varying durations (from 60 minutes to three and a half days) and in all sorts of venues (hotel ballrooms, conference centres, theatres, an art gallery, and a barn where people sat on straw bales).

What’s good about Open Space
The meeting is loosely contained, with plenty of room for spontaneity, serendipity, emergence and individual autonomy.

Participants decide what they want to talk about.

Participants are free to join whichever breakout group they wish. They can move from group to group, form a new group, work on their own, or take a break, whenever they choose to do so.

Participants make new connections and form new relationships.

Even though people spend most of their time in small groups, there is a strong community spirit.

For the sponsoring organization, an Open Space meeting is quick, easy and inexpensive to set up.

What’s not so good

Please note that these points refer to meetings where the Open Space format is used as a now-to-new (innovation, change, problem solving etc.) intervention. They do not refer to gatherings such as unconferences where Open Space is employed as a conference format.

Most sessions take the form of a group discussion, with the session host standing in front of the group, moderating the discussion and capturing salient points on a flipchart. Other potentially more fruitful ways of running a session are rarely employed.

People spend most of their time in breakout groups. Little or no work is done with everyone sitting together. This means there is no common understanding of the problem or opportunity and the context in which it is situated, there is no shared vision of the desired state of affairs, and there is no agreement about how this vision will come to fruition.

The breakout groups often have far too many participants for all voices to be heard.

The emphasis is on deliberation, not on action and outcome achievement.

Open Space was conceived as a conference format, specifically for the Third International Symposium on Organization Transformation. (It was was not employed as a now-to-new intervention until four years later.) Harrison Owen devised the Open Space principles to make it easy for conference participants to step forward and offer a session. Remember, this was 1985 (Live Aid, Mikhail Gorbachev, Windows v.1 etc.) when the idea of a user-generated conference was revolutionary.

How Open Space evolved, from 1985 to the present

I no longer recite  the Open Space principles as they have no relevance when Open Space is used as the format for a co-creation meeting. In fact, they can foster a que será, será attitude, particularly the one stating: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” I still mention The Law of Two Feet, though.
Facilitation is just one of the skills an Open Space practitioner needs.
When I was fully immersed in the world of Open Space, not only working with clients but also fostering Open Space UK (a community of Open Space practitioners with its own website), hosting community gatherings and running practitioner training programmes, I often noticed an overemphasis on the logistics and facilitation of Open Space meetings, and insufficient attention paid to what, for the sake of brevity, I will call consulting.

By this, I mean the work done with the client in order to:

Understand the issue an Open Space meeting is being convened to address and the whole situation in which the issue exists.

Find out if Open Space is the right tool for the job and, if not, what the right tool might be.

Devise the thematic question and agree its precise wording.

Consider whether session reports are necessary and, if so, in what form are they needed, how will they be circulated, and who the recipients will be.

Decide who needs to take part in the meeting, whether participation is discretional or compulsory, what kind of invitation people will receive, and through which channel.

Consider how members of the senior leadership team need to behave during the meeting.

Decide how any actions arising from the meeting will be taken forward

Discuss how this downstream work will be monitored and nurtured, what external support might be needed and how this might be provided.

Discuss venue requirements and catering arrangements.

Agree communication protocols, expectations etc.

Agree how the overall success of the meeting will be determined.

An effective Open Space practitioner needs to be more than an accomplished facilitator. He or she must also be a skilled analyst, strategist, advisor, coach, event producer, host, and project director. What the practitioner is mostly being paid for is the upstream work: the meetings, the phone calls, the emails and the reassurance. Facilitating the meeting is the easy bit of work that happens at the end.

Of course, this is a caveat about the Open Space practitioner, not the Open Space format, but it is one a sponsor needs to keep in mind when seeking professional assistance.

Type 3 co-creation meetings

A Type 3 meeting includes Types 1 and 2 in whatever sequence is considered most suitable for the matter in hand.

The strengths of Type 1 compensate for the shortcomings of Type 2, and vice versa.

The overall duration of the meeting is between one and three days.

This is the generic structure of a Type 3 meeting:

Generic structure of a type 3 co-creation meeting

Further reading

The maximum group size for a proper conversation is four people

How might co-creation meeting formats be modified in order to honour the max4 principle?