Using Co-design to transform our services, policies and systems

Mindsets for Co-design

Mindsets for Co-design

There are six essential mindsets for Co-design:

  1. Curiosity

  2. Elevating the Voices of Lived Experience

  3. Hospitality

  4. Being in the Grey

  5. Learning through Doing

  6. Understanding Many Perspectives

1 Curiosity

When curious, we’re open to a range of perspectives and opportunities. We defer judgement in favour of deepening our understanding. We ask quality questions and resist avoiding curiosity through our resting in our professional knowledge. Because we work with people does not mean we can speak for them. We can’t read their minds and don’t live within their experiences.

One of the first victims of frustration, overwhelm, and toxic culture is curiosity. It can feel like a nice to have, not something we do when we’re busy and working in scarcity.

Where staying curious gets hard, is practising it alongside our professional expectations, as well as the celebrated behaviours, many of us have grown up with (in the west at least). Confidently stating our opinion, standing up for ourselves, believing someone has to be right and others, wrong. Professionally, we’re often rewarded for asserting our views, having all the answers, negotiating others into submission - speaking with confidence and certainty. We have to make room for curiosity.

While we don’t have to give up what we believe, we need to lay down our armour for long enough to understand other perspectives. That can be hard in places where we’ve had to armour up. Where we’ve not had practice in negotiating our needs with others. Curiosity is essential to Co-design, creativity and innovation. Without it, we won’t spot anything new. We will keep doing more of the same (we all know how well that’s working).

  • Where is curiosity missing from your context?

  • Have you unsubscribed from curiosity? Or, subscribe to a single channel only?

  • How can you renew your commitment to curiosity?

  • Where can you soften your armour to increase your understanding?

  • Can you make your curiosity public? Role model your commitment to others?

2 Elevating the Voices of Lived Experience

Too often we speak about people, instead of with them. We assume we understand their needs and make important (and often costly) decisions based on those assumptions. Within such a focus on professional expertise, we’ve devalued other kinds of knowledge. We can fail to see that our experience of providing a service is not the same as the experience of receiving said service.

Elevating the voices of lived experience means challenging and negotiating power. Including what is considered ‘evidence’, who gets heard, who gets to decide and who is the room. It means challenging pervasive views of what constitutes ‘evidence’ in the first place. Evidence is found in everyday people’s experiences and stories, as well as formal channels (such as academic journals). We don’t need big data, we need thick data.

It’s time to extend ourselves beyond empathy. People who are marginalized do not most need our passive empathy or more over-designed reports written about their suffering. Instead, they need strong allies that take real and robust action to shift systems and the outcomes those systems can produce. Are we investing more time in being a good ally, than wordsmith-ing insights about people?

It’s not enough to share an emotional film or report on the voices of lived experience. We also have to create meaningful roles within our systems for people with lived experience. We have to ensure there are seats at the table with the right conditions for their participation and partnership. We have to pay them. Attribute work to them. We have to ensure that people with lived experience do not have to wait to be invited in.

Elevating lived experience is a significant part of Co-design as a social movement. Without it, we are perpetuating the status quo.

  • Where are voices of lived experience missing from your work?

  • What can you do to challenge power dynamics and create new roles for people with lived experience?

  • How might you move into being a better ally, instead of resting in empathy (or worse yet, sympathy)?

  • How can you build the value of lived experience ‘evidence’?

3 Hospitality

Hospitality is an often overlooked and underrated mindset. Often seen as fluffy. Failing on this mindset undermines Co-design. People feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and cannot easily form social connections. They remain in fight and flight (which works against collaboration)

Remember a time when you felt a lack of care. No one noticed you’d arrived. Someone asked you if you were ‘meant to be there.’ There were no breaks, and you were hungry. The seats were hard. The room was too hot.

Tending to people’s needs and welcoming them is critical to the work we’re trying to the environment we aim to create (one of Co-design). Culturally, it is vital to many peoples. Neurologically, it can move people from fight and flight to rest and receptivity. To bring our best and most creative selves, we need to know we are welcome and valued, and that we will be taken care of. For many people, a cup of tea is one of their few breaks in an overwhelming day, week or life.

Overlook hospitality at your peril. While it might not matter to you, it matters to those joining you. It is their barometer to how much you care about them and their experience. Don’t worry if you can’t go big - keep it simple and thoughtful. Ask and offer.

  • Where is hospitality missing from your convening?

  • What will make your Co-design partners feel welcome?

  • Where can you go the ‘extra mile’ to demonstrate care?

  • How well do you ‘host’? Is there someone else that might better play that role?


4 Being in the Grey

I’m yet to find someone who relishes the thought of being in the grey. It sounds awful. Particularly for those who thrive in high-levels of order and certainty. In many contexts, we value solving problems over asking questions. We don’t want to waste time. We want to be done already.

However, miserable sounding, being in the grey remains one of the most vital mindsets for anyone with anything to do with Co-design work, innovation and systems change.

It is the ability to be in ambiguity. To sit within the discomfort of not knowing, recognise and grapple with complexity. To give ourselves over to its necessity and its gifts. Without it, our push to ‘get things done’ often leads us to hurried conclusions - incomplete, unsophisticated and rushed solutions. It can rush us to reach for the obvious and chase magic bullets. In complex change work, there are no magic bullets.

The obvious leads us astray - it is just about always too simple for the complexity of the challenge we are facing. By contrast, time spent asking the right questions, ‘mulling’, deferring judgement, unpacking and exploring with others can lead to powerful insights and responses. 

  • Where do you sit in relationship to ambiguity?

  • Do you have a mix of relationships to ambiguity within your team?

  • What are the structures and incentives that could support embedding this mindset in your work?

  • How will you build time for being in the grey into your project plan?


5 Learning through Doing

Learning through doing is a preference for learning through trying things out, instead of talking about them in theory or in meetings.

We learn through making things. Through putting them into context with the people who they will impact and judging their performance against the outcomes we’re aspiring towards. We continue with what works and discard what doesn’t. We test our assumptions early and often. We simply cannot do that through a theoretical conversation. It is guessing at best. Prototyping is the most common tool to support this mindset (read more here).

In contrast to traditional planning approaches, in Co-design, we hold ourselves back from rushing straight from an idea, to pilot or implementation. Instead, we prototype through several ‘loops of learning’. With each loop, we test our assumptions and make changes as needed. If we get to piloting a service, program, policy etc., we are very sure about what we’re doing. We’ve checked - not guessed.

Here’s where it gets hard. We take all of our baggage into Learning through Doing. I’ve worked with many Co-design teams who agree to prototype. However, they’ve not de-conditioned themselves to be different. They get stuck in lying and hiding failure, lack the tools to recover from failure, and/or they work within an organisational culture that does not allow for, or reward Learning through Doing. That needs to change.

If we’re not learning through doing, we have regressed into the past. Processes where we assume what will work. Our commitment to elevating the lived experience means hearing it across the process - not editing them out when it doesn’t suit us. Meetings must end when we begin guessing what people might want or need. Instead, we learn with them. That is Co-design.

  • How are you holding yourself accountable to Learning through Doing, over discussing and guessing?

  • How are you building your skills for productive failure? Do you need a Fail Club to learn how to fail?

  • Are you familiar with prototyping? Do you need to deepen your knowledge?

6 Understanding Many Perspectives

Change often fails is when we engage just a few parts of a system. Worse yet - when we work from a single perspective (such as that of a senior leader). We need to gather people from within and across systems to untangle our differences and find a way forward together.

It is critical that facilitators of Co-design can hold space to allow different perspectives to be named, explored and re-negotiated. Spaces that don't harm people, but can host hard conversations. Pádraig Ó Tuama calls these “soft spaces for hard conversations.” Those spaces come from being connected.

I often hear indignant comments about particular people within a system. Commonly referred to as the ‘bad guys’ or simply ‘them’. “They are where the problem is”, “they need to go.” Yes, there are bad people within systems who act from cruelty. However, beyond a few bad eggs, there are many more acting out the expectations of the system. Aligning to the norms, trying their best to belong and perform. Systems that harm them too (albeit in different ways). Within systems, we are bound by incentives and expectations. Some of those create good outcomes for the people we serve - others don't.

While we don’t have to agree with a perspective, we have to take the time to understand others if we’re committed to transformation. That is Co-design. We need to hold lightly to our worldview, and a healthy dose of interpersonal flexibility. We must also give up on our temptation for ‘they’ language. Language that distances us from one another. With distance diminishes curiosity and opportunity. Co-design is about getting close up, it is inherently relational.

  • Where are you resistant to understanding a perspective within the systems you work in?

  • Where do you find yourself blaming individuals, instead of looking at the systemic conditions that produce their behaviour?

  • How might you soften your frustration to provide room for curiosity?


Want to read more about mindsets?
Keep your eyes peeled for my book

Tools to deepen the mindsets - coming soon