The Meaning of Co-Creation

Today is the first day of school, and while it’s usually a time for parents to crack open a bottle of wine in celebration, today, we’re cracking open a bottle of wine because they’ll only be in classes for about 5 hours a week.

I’ve received twenty-one emails since late August when the back-to-school plan was announced. Many are multiple pages long, and that doesn’t include the messages sent directly to our kid’s school email addresses.

Today you can fully expect parents to make #fireSomeone trending on twitter because little Porter was confused about which classroom to go to, prompting parents to think the school board has no clue what they’re doing.

Let’s put this into perspective:

  • there are two million students enrolled in public schools where I live in the province of Ontario, Canada
  • there are 4000 elementary schools and 900 secondary schools
  • there are about 2200 kids in the high school both of my kids attend
  • there are roughly 130,000 full-time teachers in Ontario schools, and about 7,500 administrative roles (principals, admins etc.)

Our back to school plan includes:

  • a mix of in-person and online learning
  • the choice to stay home (and the choice to resume in-person by mid-November depending on what happens)
  • a strict protocol for self-health checks (our oldest must submit a wellness check each morning before going in)
  • mandatory masks for Grade 1 and up (the age limit changed a few times along the way)

What needed to change:

  • timetables moved from semesters to quadmesters (each kid takes 2 courses for 6 weeks)
  • creation of cohorts for those attending school
  • liability waivers by way of self-health checks
  • classroom organization
  • new online tools and training for 7,500 teachers, many of which are technologically illiterate (sorry, that isn’t meant as an insult, anyone who teaches anything knows how hard it is to move from in-person to remote, especially when you’re not tech-savvy)
  • orchestration of transportation for kids who take the bus

There is much more detail in the entire plan, which I’m not going to get into because that’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is around the co-creation of change. I believe in a diverse and inclusive approach to change that gives people affected by the change the option to contribute to its creation.

But is that possible with this change? How likely is it that 130,000 teachers will coalesce around the “right” plan? How likely is it that the people responsible for the back to school plan can satisfy two-million kids and the close to four-million parents/guardians/caretakers of these children? How possible is it for the school board to ensure the policies, especially the self-health checks?

They’re in a lose-lose situation. No matter how good the plan is, it won’t satisfy everyone, and that’s what we’ll focus on verses focusing on being responsible parents.

The arguments against co-creation I typically hear are 

  • You can’t just get everybody in a room and use sticky notes!!!
  • But we HAVE to do the change; we can’t co-create it
  • we can’t just let everyone do whatever they want
  • we can’t just ask people what they want and do it

Usually, these arguments come from people who are used to the top-down, linear and plan-based approaches for change. That is, the stakeholders decided on a change and dropped it onto the change team through the hole in the floor.

What Co-Creation Means

First, let’s look at the school re-opening. What did they do that captures the spirit of co-creation:

  • there were many virtual information sessions via google hangouts
  • there were surveys sent for feedback
  • parents were given a choice to keep their kids home to do virtual learning, or they could go back to in-class learning in a limited way
  • there’s an option to move from virtual to in-class learning by mid-November, depending on what happens

Co-creation isn’t about satisfying everyone and doing whatever they want. It’s about clarifying who decides what but leaving options open long enough given the context.

Co-creation is about:

  • understanding the context, including the consequence of the change:
    • For software teams ‘going agile’ – what’s the consequence if the team picks their own process so long as they understand the outside constraints? Probably none, but change agents still want to impose standards.
    • How bad are the optics? I think that is stupid, but I understand the egg-on-the-face syndrome. I’ve been part of a couple of doozies, and the spectacular failures were 100% pinned on my ineptness.
    • How does change usually happen? Co-creation might be too far away from the current culture.
  • Giving people choices:
    • invite people to the party
    • ask them to dance
    •  give them the option to decline 
  • Be congruent:
    • Be clear about what is in and out of bounds. For example, we love easy answers. “just hire more teachers,” “just space the desks out further” – while this emotional response is valid, it’s a stupid argument. It’s just a silly as all the agile people who say “we should de-scale organizations, not use a big prescriptive agile scaling method” – who decides who to fire? The agile coach?
    • Close the loop: Be prepared to say, “we agree (as change agents), but this isn’t possible now for these reasons.” That likely won’t give you the best reaction, but it’s clear.

The key with co-creation is to find the line:



I started this post and mentioned the twenty-one emails I received. First, a lesson in responsibility: It’s not the school board’s responsibility to ensure my kids’ safety. It’s mine. I have two kids to worry about; they have two million kids to worry about. We let our kids decide: The oldest opted for in-class, the youngest wanted to do it virtually.

The school board can’t NOT send out information; that’s not the message. The message is, it’s impossible to think of everything upfront and to be adaptable is the key. There will be an increase in cases. There will be kids who refuse to wear masks just because they’re assholes. There will be whacko parents flooding social media with #fireEveryone tweets.

Co-creation isn’t only about how *you* approach change as a change agent; it’s about the attitude people have. If we can help people shift away from *me* thinking to *we* thinking, they at least have the choice to contribute, give feedback, complain when they disagree, but ultimately emphasize doing the right change in the right way.


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