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, generally forming part of a broader organisational change or innovation programme.

A co-creation meeting brings together diverse beneficiaries, 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 wider world, the terms meeting, conference, event, gathering and intervention tend to be used interchangeably. On this website I mostly talk about meetings, indicating that people get together to do real work and not to be passive members of an audience. The co-creation qualifier denotes the raison d’être of the meeting and the nature of the work that is undertaken. The participants are bringing something new into being, and they are doing it together.

Much has been written about large group interventions, and if you view my profile you will see I used to run an enterprise called The Centre for Large Group Interventions. Furthermore, I contributed the chapter Creating Collaborative Gatherings Using Large Group Interventions to the Gower Handbook of Training & Development (download the chapter — published in 1999 and still relevant). However, 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 six or as many as 1,000 people.

Type 1, 2 and 3 co-creation meetings

There are three main co-creation meeting formats that I am calling type 1, type 2 and type 3. The labels are neutral, by design.

The key distinctions are summarised in the graphic below.

The three main co-creation meeting formats

Type 1 co-creation meetings

Real Time Strategic Change, Whole-Scale™ Change, Future Search, Search Conferences, World Café

Participants in a Type 1 meeting sit at round tables in ‘max-mix’ (maximum diversity) groups of eight, and work their way through a sequence of pre-designed, tightly orchestrated activities with minimal participant discretion with regard to conversation topics.

In The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, John Heron describes three modes of intervention design and facilitation that he labels hierarchical (he also refers to this as direction), cooperative (negotiation) and autonomous (delegation):

The hierarchical mode. Here you, the facilitator, direct the learning process, exercise your power over it, and do things for the group. You lead from the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group. You decide on the objectives and the programme, interpret and give meaning, challenge resistances, manage group feeling and emotion, provide structures for learning and honour the claims of authentic behaviour in the group. You take full responsibility, in charge of all major decisions on all dimensions of the learning process.

The co-operative mode. Here you share your power over the learning process and manage the different dimensions with the group. You enable and guide the group to become more self-directing in the various forms of learning by conferring with them and prompting them. You work with group members to decide on the programme, to give meaning to experiences, to confront resistances, and so on. In this process, you share your own view which, though influential, is not final but one among many. Outcomes are always negotiated. You collaborate with the members of the group in devising the learning process: your facilitation is co-operative.

The autonomous mode. Here you respect the total autonomy of the group: you do not do things for them, or with them, but give them freedom to find their own way, exercising their own judgment without any intervention on your part. Without any reminders, guidance or assistance, they evolve their programme, give meaning to what is going on, find ways of confronting their avoidances, and so on. The bedrock of learning is unprompted, self-directed practice, and here you delegate it to the learner and give space for it. This does not mean the abdication of responsibility. It is the subtle art of creating conditions within which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning.

+ Read about John Heron
John Heron (born 1928) is the originator of a participatory research method called co-operative inquiry. He was the founder of the Human Potential Research Project at University of Surrey, and its director from 1970 to 1977. The Human Potential Research Project was Europe’s first university-based education centre for humanistic and transpersonal psychology.

Read more about John Heron and his work (long, informative and worth the effort)

Type 1 meetings, exemplified by Real Time Strategic Change, are high on the hierarchical and cooperative scales but low on the autonomous scale.

These terms hierarchical, co‑operative and autonomous are neutral. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that co‑operative and autonomous are ‘good’, whereas hierarchical is ‘bad’. Those participating in now-to-new meetings and projects need to embrace and employ all three modes.

In the two parts of the graphic below, each originated by Robert W. Keidel and presented in his book Seeing Organizational Patterns, the concept of control is equivalent to John Heron’s notion of hierarchical / direction.

Robert Keidel's three design variables

“Robert Keidel explains that most organizational issues are a balance of three variables: individual autonomy, hierarchical control, and spontaneous cooperation. By learning to frame issues as trade-offs among these design variables, one can see underlying patterns that previously had not been visible – and thereby make more intelligent analyses, choices, and commitments than would otherwise be possible.” Source: Amazon.co.uk.

Type 2 co-creation meetings

Open Space, BarCamp, unconferences

A type 2 meeting consists of a series of concurrent, self-determined and self-facilitated discussion groups related to a predetermined thematic question. This type of meeting, which uses the Open Space Technology format, is generally billed as an Open Space event, BarCamp or unconference. The meeting is lightly orchestrated and the process affords considerable participant discretion in terms of discussion topics and time usage.

Type 2 meetings are high on the cooperative and autonomous scales but low on the hierarchical scale.

Type 3 co-creation meetings

Composite

In a type 1 meeting, all work is done in unison, whereas in a type 2 meeting, most work occurs in self-organised breakout groups.

Type 3 meetings are a judicious blend of types 1 and 2, providing the right balance of hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

This is the generic format of a type 3 co-creation meeting:

Generic format of a type 3 co-creation meeting
The strengths of the type 1 format compensate for the shortcomings of the type 2 format, and vice-versa.

OpenSpacePlus

OpenSpacePlus serves as the launchpad for a collaborative, mission-focused response to tough challenges faced by corporates and nonprofit organisations. The mission startup meeting is a type 3 co-creation meeting.

Read more about OpenSpacePlus

How I came to create the three distinctions

I have been designing, producing and facilitating co-creation meetings for three decades, having experienced Open Space for the first time in 1988 (the ‘Technology’ appendage was added a year later — read more) at the Sixth International Symposium on Organisation Transformation (OT6), held in Djurö, near Stockholm, Sweden.

OT symposia, OT1 to OT7
As an aside, Harrison Owen devised Open Space specifically for OT3 in 1985, and it became the format for almost every OT symposium from then on. It was used as an organisational intervention for the first time in 1989.

“And then, in 1989, Open Space escaped. Within a period of less than a month, Open Space was utilized with two vastly different groups in widely separated areas. Polymer Chemists from Dupont wrestled with the future of Dacron in the USA, followed immediately by a group of scholars and executives in India considering the issue of Learning in Organizations. It both cases, everybody sat in a circle, identified what had heart and meaning for them, and collectively organized a multi-session gathering in less than an hour. Something rather strange was taking place.”

Source: Opening Space for Emerging Order, by Harrison Owen.
Read about the series of Organisation Transformation symposia, from OT1 in 1983 to OT23 in 2005

On returning to the UK, I produced and facilitated a number of pro bono Open Space meetings before running my first professional one, for a prominent management consulting firm, in the early 1990s.

A little later, I learnt how to design, produce and facilitate co-creation meetings using Real Time Strategic Change, Future Search, SimuReal and other formats, and subsequently established The Centre for Large Group Interventions in 1995.

During this period my client list included Royal Dutch Shell, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Guinness Ireland Group (now Diageo Ireland) and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Going beyond the brief

Clients would usually specify the method they wanted to use for their co-creation meetings, but by the late 1990s I was either including a period of Open Space in Real Time Strategic Change and Future Search meetings, or sandwiching the largely autonomous Open Space process between pre-designed, tightly-orchestrated work sessions in which everyone participates.

Eventually, I abandoned the brand names and recipe book processes, and began custom-designing each co-creation meeting in tandem with the client team and in accordance with the Rich Co-creation principles that you can examine here.

Initially, I referred to the three formats as tightly orchestrated, loosely orchestrated and hybrid. On finding the emphasis on orchestration style misleading, I opted instead for the value-free designations type 1, type 2 and type 3.

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