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Barriers to a cocreative mindset – disempowerment

Embracing cocreation requires an aligned mindset.  Many things need to line up… a will to work differently, a willingness to change and be vulnerable, a perspective that acknowledges the long-term and the big picture…  (I wrote about the cocreative mindset a few weeks ago.)

But the greatest barriers I find time and time again, are mental models of change that run counter to possibility of cocreation.

None of these mental models are wrong – they are not even deficient. They are valuable additions to any process, and are the basis for many sound decisions and effective paths of action. But when these paths are no longer sufficient, we need to be able to leave behind models that no longer serve us and open up to cocreative opportunities.

Thinking through my experiences, I can identify three major limiting beliefs.

This blog post is a fair bit longer than the last one… I will forgive you if you skim it.

Crystal_ball_May_2009 - cropped - wikimedia

The first and clearest is defeatism, or fatalism.

If we believe that the world is the only way it could be, and will be the only way it can be… then any possibility of positively influencing this world is entirely snuffed out. Change is not hard, change is impossible!

Few of us embrace this idea in all aspects of our lives, but we do all rely upon this belief in certain areas of our lives, at one time or another – often without any consciousness of it.  We might believe for instance, that that’s how I am (and I will always be like that), that greed and fallibility are part of human nature, or that the procurement process can’t be changed.

This can be a handy tool to simplify the complex world around us. Unfortunately, when wish for the education system to better reflect the needs of diverse students (for example), we are going to have a hard time bringing this wish into reality if we are struggling against the hidden belief that the way things are now is ‘the way it is’.

The second is the cog-in-the-machine mindset.

This is constraining not because we think that we are too small to matter… but that the only role we can play is the one that has been designed for us. We are blinkered to any avenue to change that is not part of the formal mechanism of the system itself.

This is very common in bureaucratic situations like government, where the construction and management of the system itself rests upon this premise, and often seeps into the culture. When we are trapped in this mindset, we see and acknowledge that change happens, but by blinding ourselves to most of our options to influence, we amputate our capacity to shape these changes.

If we had ideas about making our school more engaging for the kids, there are any number of ways we could start to do something about it. But if all we could see was to put these in the suggestion bucket, or provide them as feedback the next time the department invited us to comment on policy reform, our chances are very very slim.

If I take a step back, I sense the roots for this mindset lie in the role these systems play reinforcing patriarchal power structures, and the way we this authority privileges the formal over the informal… but let’s leave that can of worms for another day!

What is worth noting for now is how tricky this barrier can be, because it is very value-laden. It often comes wrapped up with a strong respect for The Rules and The Right Way to do things… these values can prevent people from taking action even if they can see clearly that it is possible. (I personally try every possible route around such points of resistance before thinking about pushing through as a point of last resort. It is easier for everybody!)

The third barrier is the ‘they should do something about that’ doozy.

We are probably all familiar with this response. It is actually not about believing that other people need to take action, which is almost always true. The core is the belief that, because someone else needs to take action, I don’t need to.

‘They should do something about that’ is a whinge that makes us feel better about something we don’t like. It is inherently passive. Sometimes we don’t actually care about the result, or at least not enough to act… and the whinge is a perfectly acceptable social bonding exchange. A lot of politics ‘discussion’ is in this basket. Sometimes we slyly whinge knowing that this message will have a desired influence; a very sneaky lever for change! But a lot of the time the whinge is a way to share something we wish were different, but because we don’t actually want to act, we want social reinforcement that we can’t influence that outcome, and are therefore absolved of responsibility for action.

The barrier in this case is the belief that we are powerless to influence something that we care about.

The whinge itself is not a problem, but it is a good indicator of the real problem, because it is a mechanism we use to reinforce the belief that we are powerless and therefore not responsible. Think about how often we whinge about our workplace. Or let’s not… it is a depressing thought*.

This is the most pervasive of the three barriers, and it is also much more subtle than the other two… it is easy to convince ourselves we aren’t exhibiting it, and to defend our position if we think we are. It is often culturally ingrained, and interwoven with the roles we adopt in society: workers, consumers and voters, vs decision makers, policy makers or The Boss.  By shifting something beyond our implicit realm of activity, it convinces us not to take action without us even realising that we can.

On the other hand, I think it is also the most practical of the three beliefs, helping us to prioritise and process those things we don’t like, but aren’t prepared to focus energy on. So it is not all bad!

Reeve_and_Serfs - Wikipedia

Despite writing about these three limiting beliefs separately, I suspect that they are ‘three sides of the same coin’.  I suspect they are inseparable and mutually interdependent parts of one cluster of beliefs— the dominant paradigm.

If I have written this out clearly enough, it should be pretty clear how common ideas can lead to a paradigm of beliefs about how the world is shaped, and that in turn these beliefs can limit our willingness to embrace cocreation (and a productive and fulfilling role in shaping the world around us).

Taken together, these limiting beliefs constitute a culture of powerlessness.

It’s worth noting that empowerment is not enough to be willing to step in to the work of cocreation.  We also need to embrace our inherent togetherness, the complexity of the world around us, and the need to work with others to shape the future.  This perspective is what marks cocreation out from many of the existing empowerment trends.

I think the mindset of togetherness probably deserves a post of its own.  Once I’ve collected my thoughts I will write a proper post about them, and hopefully round this out as a series of three.

Til then, may you embrace your agency to shape the future you want to be a part of.


* yes, this is borderline whingeing. There is no escape!

Letting go of a paradigm of powerlessness

We have great capacity to shape the world around us.

It is a truism that we can now publish and share our thoughts, connect with peers and leaders, start businesses and scale them much more readily than even ten years ago.  Of course, not all of us are so lucky… but if you’re reading my blog I’m willing to bet that these things ring true.

It is also a truism that we are disempowered and disconnected from this capacity.

While the sense is still fuzzy for me (and everybody else describes it in their own way), it seems to me like we are in a paradigm of powerlessness.

It is very hard to generalise, but the strongest indicator I see is how we characterise our different roles in society, and how frequently we adopt one role or another.

We are often workers before all else, consumers whenever we are not working, and customers some of the time of both. We are voters once every few years, volunteers perhaps once a month, and as far as I can tell most people are citizens perhaps a couple of times in their lives.

Decision makers make the decisions about society for us… and even in our personal lives, we decide little more than who our friends are (if we are lucky) and what colour case we put on our latest tech gadget – a choice out of those provided to us.

Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit - co Wikipedia

These roles reflect how we think about how the world around us is shaped, and our role in that process.

Despite the tools that we have and the capacity we wield, if we cannot let go of the beliefs that don’t serve us, then we are handicapped.  It is hard to cocreate a better future if we do not believe it is possible.

Step one for a better future; believe in possibility.

Mental models of change – the cocreative mindset

I’m beginning to realise it is impossible to embrace cocreation if the dominant mental models of change don’t fit, whether at an individual or group level.  I’m also coming to appreciate how rare these models can be.

I am going to start by describing the cocreative mental model of change.



I believe that we are all embedded in complex systems.  We all play a role supporting or shifting these systems, whether consciously or not.  We all have capacity to influence change, through a mix of different levers… it is not only the ‘decision makers’ who have power.  ‘Decision makers’ have clearer and more transparent powers, and they likely have access to some big levers, but they don’t hold unique and unimpeachable influence.  In fact, from my experience working under a Minister in State Government, I know how even the highest ‘decision makers’ are hamstrung by context, political imperatives and conflicting influences.  I love the admission by a CEO who only realised when he was finally appointed to the role, that he half expected to get to his new desk and find a set of magic levers that make everything happen…. only to realise that the CEO’s omnipotence is an elaborate charade.

So what does it mean to look at the world like this?  For one, whoever and wherever we are, we have capacity to influence our world for the better (or worse!).  So whatever we want to see, the change starts here, with us, now.  But it is no use working in isolation… to put this capacity to good use we need to work together – and not just with a band of merry changemakers, but collectively in consonance with the whole rest of the system we seek to change.

“Dancing with others to bring better futures lovingly into being” – this is how I seek to live my life (inspired by Donella Meadows), and it expresses what it is like to work with the mental model I’ve just described.  This is the fundamental disposition of cocreation.

This sums up a mental model of change, of how it happens and how we need to go about applying it (cocreatively).

This is most obvious at an individual, psychological level, but it scales up too – to group cultures, and how we work together in all the sorts of areas that I work in.

In my next post (now up here), I will describe alternative mental models that I have rubbed up against recently, some thoughts on their limitations, and what that means for working cocreatively.

Til then, may you dance lovingly…

Adelaide’s new City Council

With South Australia’s local gov elections barely over, it’s hard to get back into the swing of daily chores. Let’s talk about our new elected representatives instead.

Town Hall image from the ACC website

A new look for Adelaide City Council (list below)

Our City Council has changed remarkably, with many new faces and new sorts of faces. Council is much younger, though it’s hard to say which ways the council’s direction will skew.

Half of our reps are new to Council, including the Lord Mayor. The new reps are all relatively young, in their 30s and 40s mostly, at least as far as I can tell. Three of the councillors to bow out (Plumridge, Hamilton and Henningsen) were probably all older than each one of those incoming… that’s a big shift.

We have really solid female representation as well, with a respectable 5 of 12 female reps – a coin toss away from parity. That is (I think?) 1 more than last time out, with all 4 previous reps re-elected and the introduction of Priscilla Corbell in the south.

The current council also looks like a very approachable bunch. I have directly connected with almost all of them for one reason or another, and know they are all approachable and committed to their communities. The new Mayor might not be as active on social media as our old one, but we can work on that.

Somewhat more frivolously… our new representatives are a highly photogenic bunch too. Prior to the election our best looking gent was Houssam Abiad (Central Ward). Now, Houssam’s a great guy and all, but he’s definitely no Robert Simms (Area). Haese, Slama and Antic (South) are all passable gents in front of camera, and Priscilla Corbell is good in front of the camera as well. Adelaide shot straight up the attractiveness ladder over the weekend, and I’d be very surprised to find a Council around the country that would put us to shame.

At least two of the new reps, David Slama (Central Ward) and Martin Haese (Lord Mayor) are strongly aligned with business. But the overall mix of new councillors, many young professionals, looks to be no more aligned with traditional business interests, so that will be a wait and see…

If anything, I think the new Council probably represents an excellent mix of the Adelaide of today; a younger and less traditional local gov demographic, but full of people who are proactive and cut across business and residential interests, who are getting involved because they care – not because it fits their retirement plans, or because they want to rig the deck in favour of them and their friends.

Overall I’m guardedly optimistic. I remain concerned that many of City Council’s innovative agenda-setting projects are exposed to the whims of the new crew who may side with traditional interests, but optimistic that they’ll do a good job carrying Adelaide forward over the next four years.

A Change of Voice

The new Lord Mayor is the more progressive of the non-Yarwood candidates, but how this plays out remains to be seen.

Haese ran a campaign on partnership, vision and leadership, and leveraged his strong ties with the business community more than resident voters.

Haese did come out in line with the AHA against the city’s food truck regime, and I’m a little worried he is too wedded to entrenched corporate interests to push a progressive line. He talks of a positive, progressive future for Adelaide, but will he roll over when it counts? Will he stand up and sell the future that we need to grow into when the road gets rocky?

Whether you agreed with Yarwood’s agenda or not, he did an excellent job in his position advocating for positive change in the face of pressure to conform to the past… regardless of whether you agree with it, it is a really valuable role for a figurehead to play, and I’m glad our last Mayor took to it with the required courage (even if that meant a bravado that brought him down). Haese says that he’ll do the same, but I’m not yet convinced how well he’ll stand the test. Still, fingers crossed for him – for Adelaide.

Candidates’ List (in approx order of votes)

Lord Mayor
Martin Haese (new)

Natasha Malani
Anne Moran
Sandy Wilkinson (formerly North Ward)
Robert Simms (new)

North Ward
Sue Clearihan
Phil Martin (new)

Houssam Abiad
Megan Hender
David Slama (new)

Alex Antic (new)
Priscilla Corbell (new)

Info about candidates is still available here on the ACC website, including contact details and a blurb.  This will probably be removed soon and replaced with basic info on the elected members.

If you want to chat about the candidates hit me up, or post in the comments below. I have my opinions on most of them and happy to chat. As mentioned, I think they’re a generally approachable and good-hearted bunch. So maybe just look up their details and give them a call instead. : )

Cocreation: beyond collaboration

I’ve just touched down in Adelaide from my South-East Asian trip, including the Ci2i Global Lab.

Creativity is an essential ingredient in cocreation - photo and workshop by Carolina
(Co)creativity! Photo and workshop at Ci2i by Carolina. More photos on FB

There are too many ideas and amazing experiences to share, but I can offer a few thoughts before I launch myself back into it all.

In particular, there were some insightful discussions at Ci2i about the Great Big Question – what on earth is this ‘cocreation’ thing anyway?

I don’t bring back clear answers— but I can report strong agreement in thinking about cocreation.  This surprised me, given our diverse projects and backgrounds, from Ugandan community projects to the boardrooms of McDonalds.  You can see this common ground for yourself by looking through the session notes, exploring cocreation vs collaboration and the core values of cocreation.

Natalie and Christina

Natalie and Christina – photo by Carolina

I loved the way that Nathalie described cocreation.  She worked for decades in knowledge management, enabling collaboration in organisations.  She watched collaboration spread through management practice (and theory), taking the way we work up to a new level.  And she has the feeling that now, cocreation is the next level.  But it’s early – we are still trying to understand what that really looks like, and how it differs from the present.

That’s certainly not the only way to think about cocreation though.  At other times the discussion was not so much about methods as about philosophy.  We talked about things deeper and more fundamental, intricately interlinked, and much more global that I had realised.  This will be worth writing about when I get the chance to process thoughts.

Whatever way you look at it, there is definitely something ‘to’ cocreation.  It might not be a silver bullet, but it definitely has deep implications.  Ci2i has given strength to my conviction that it is worth the effort.

With such hosts, how could one's conviction not be strengthened?  Christina, Kathryn and Irma aren't in the shot

With such hosts —see event page— how could one’s conviction not be strengthened? Christina, Kathryn and Irma aren’t in the shot. Photo c/o Jean, on the right, but I have a feeling she didn’t take it herself… 

Which brings us to next steps!

As we wait to see what formal plans emerge for the Ci2i network, I am focused on articulation.  Even those who ‘get it’ use the word in different ways.  It’s harder still for those for whom cocreation is just one potential concept among many relevant to their work.  I don’t want to try to be definitive, but something useful is not too much to ask.  Right?

I need to do this for the sake of my own business and the people I work with, but if there’s interest I’d be pleased to facilitate collaboration on something that represents a broader articulation.  So I am waiting to see what people say. ; )

Patterns of Cocreation

Early next month I head to Thailand for the Ci2i Global Lab – a gathering to develop practices of cocreation.  I was invited to present CoCreate Adelaide as a case study – or more specifically, the methodology we applied with our November event, the Festival of CoCreation.

I am glad that I can share my experience with CoCreate, and I’m glad for the opportunity to refine my thoughts about it and the methods we have developed.  But I’m even more excited about the emergence of a sophisticated global practice of cocreation.  This is a chance to participate and contribute to the practice on an entirely new level.

So in the lead-up to Ci2i, I’d like to offer a thought on knowledge development, from my recent explorations of pattern languages.

Generating aliveness with deep patterns

To work our way towards a shared language once again, we must first learn how to discover patterns which are deep, and capable of generating life.
– Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building


Christopher Alexander is more a facilitator than a builder.  He aspires to generate life.  His isn’t a process of making things, it is a practice of responding to human needs.

He makes his pattern language sound really simple sometimes.  Patterns are architectural solutions, “relationships between elements that resolve a conflict among certain forces meeting in a context”.  Patterns are distilled from what repeats time and time again, and from what we can see and feel generates aliveness.  So it seems almost like we could walk out to a handful of the nearest “vibrant” places and deduce some patterns quite simply – for instance, that aliveness comes from having a barista with tattoos.

But “hipster barista” isn’t a very deep pattern.  Nor are things like “a grid of sessions by time and space” are either.  These things re-appear in certain kinds of living spaces, and we can see they play their part in liveliness.  They are solutions we might use – and if we ever need them, they’re great things to know.  But there is nothing generative in these patterns – they do not really support a practice to come alive.

Alexander doesn’t describe fashion or incidental patterns that he notices in a mix of lively places.  Nor does he pick a mix of patterns without an idea of how they relate – “no pattern is an isolated entity”.  He draws out not just commonalities and lessons, but a generative language – a mutually consistent whole and structure that embodies and enables a generative way of working.

I think – taking a leap – that Alexander’s profoundly life-giving philosophy for architecture is the heart that enables the depth to his patterns.  His philosophy is the master-pattern that generates the whole pattern language of his architecture.

Reflecting on this, thinking about the upcoming Ci2i Lab, I am drawn into the philosophy for cocreation.  I can see already some strong philosophical principles in the articulations of Ci2i – including an underlying value of thriving.  And I guess there is a lot more there as well, but I’m not sure what it is yet.  It’s exciting because I like this stuff, and because I don’t have much chance to flesh it out with others.  And it’s exciting because I think the challenge before us makes it really important.

So I’m eager – nay… anxious – to explore this philosophy.

Is it what we need, if we are “to discover patterns which are deep, and capable of generating life”?


And yes, I am keen in general to develop understanding of pattern languages, how and where they might work, what we can learn from them, how to apply them and what makes them work.  Meta-patterns of pattern languages, perhaps?  I might write something about that later.

In the meantime, if you want to explore the potential of pattern languages in cocreation, check out Lilian Ricaud’s (@liliousCo-Creative Events Pattern Language project.  I’m glad to have found such a great thinker-doer already on the road carrying the flame – lighting the way!

Cocreation Spectrum

The methodology I use to support cocreative government strategy includes a spectrum for different modes of engagement and cocreation.  Hopefully tools like this can help governments make informed decisions about how to work with others when developing (and implementing)  strategies.

A spectrum in three levels

1. Consult

Engage with external stakeholders for controlled input and to mitigate risk.

This is suitable where plans are internally focused, or in a relatively well understood area and the risk of getting it wrong or getting people offside is low.

2. Codesign

When things are more complicated it is impossible to find effective solutions without working closely with external stakeholders.  It is necessary to work collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a strategy for a government response that has a reasonable chance of success.  Without it, risk of failure is high.

3. Cocreate

Situations are different if they have a diverse mix of influential stakeholders and the context presents a degree of complexity… in these situations government can’t set a plan of action and forge ahead hoping.  In fact, government needs to recognise the need to develop shared strategies to underpin responsive, collective action in the face of uncertainty.

The main difference between cocreation and codesign is shared agency and influence.  Ideas of codesign that are presently gaining traction are built around a single agent (government, or the designer, business or entrepreneur) which develops and is ultimately responsible for implementing solutions.  With cocreation, all participants contribute their own actions to effecting change.

Cocreation is also a strategic process that reflects uncertainty, emergence and the idea of strategy as a verb – knowing that ‘a strategy’ is never finished.

From programs to systems

Consultation aligns with a simple input-output model for government programs.  The dominance of this philosophy parallels the relative dominance of consultative methods of engagement in government.

Codesign acknowledges shortcomings in the simple input-output model, and the need to work closely and iteratively with those ‘on the outside’ to develop solutions and a deeper understanding of impact.

Cocreation steps away from input-output program logic to look at impact in a systemic way – impact is a result of agents’ interactions within a system, and achieving a desired impact on that system requires a range of agents acting in a concerted way.

The state of play

Government leaders understand the need to work more closely and collaboratively with those outside the organisation in order to achieve results.  But understanding what ‘collaboration’ might involve and applying a coherent model for action are much less common.

The result is a mismatch between rhetoric and action – and a mismatch between good intentions and mediocre results.  Government strategies everywhere talk about collaboration, codesign and (increasingly) cocreation – while being developed using a consultative approach.  And then government takes their gov-centric strategy out to potential partners, and wonders why it’s so hard to get them to play.  ‘Collaboration’ is so overused it is being sapped of meaning, and the faddish adoption of ‘codesign’ and ‘co-creation’ may lead these words the same way.

There is nothing wrong with a consultative approach, and governments are rapidly getting better at working with others – even if the language and models for this can get muddled.  Moreover, moving towards cocreation needs to be done selectively, recognising that cocreative methodologies are still being developed, and that there are many contexts where they’re actually not a good idea – at least as often because of internal challenges as external ones.

But while the business case for adopting a cocreative approach may be uncertain in the short term, governments need to develop the capacity to do this effectively in order to address big picture challenges – accelerating social and economic change, intractable problems and trajectories of government funding vs capacity.  Cocreative practices are some of the green shoots with real promise – to help governments through the evolution they need to address these problems in future.


Proposal: a Vision for Adelaide to Guide and Inspire

We need a vision for the future of Adelaide that will shape our path over the coming decades, that will inspire and enable us to work together to reach our potential.  We need a guide to direct our efforts, and a beacon to affirm our identify and the value of the place in which we live.

The visions we have had for Adelaide are not fit for this purpose.

Government has taken the lead setting our path into the future, but its plans and messages are fluffy and fail to identify the strengths and challenges that make us unique.  Do we really need to be told we aspire to be vibrant, liveable or innovative?  The collective vision for Adelaide – what you hear talking to people on the street – seems stuck either in pessimism, or a sense of pride with no meaningful shape or direction.

The coming decades will see change in South Australia.  Our dependence on defence, manufacturing and mining is holding back our economy, and it is becoming clear that our cities and lifestyles are not sustainable.  The deterioration of community has left us frail and dependent on a government going broke.

Adelaide has an exciting and vibrant scene of innovative grassroots initiatives.  They are proving we can overcome our challenges and look forward to a bright future.  But they are still swimming against the flow of a culture that ‘looks to the top’.

To drive change in the right direction we need to join the top and the bottom, to remove barriers between the fringes and the core, and work much better together.  We have some great examples bridging the space between the two extremes – IDC, Hub, Renew, TACSI, Fringe, GovHack – but none of these are without their problems.

We need a vision that will inspire the grassroots to grow up towards the sun, and draw down the top so that we can join in the middle – and work towards a shared vision of the Adelaide we want to live in.

So where to from here?

The above isn’t my personal opinion.  It’s a summary of a group discussion at Trampoline Adelaide, 26 May 2013, (notes here) between a diverse mix of Adelaide’s most active change agents.

It was an exciting discussion – much more constructive and insightful than your average musings on Adelaide.  But it did close with an invitation none of us had an immediate response to – what does this mean we should do?  How can we take this beyond the first stage of discussion?

Governments have typically lead big picture thinking and ‘community engagement’, to create shared visions and plans.  But in this day and age, they needn’t be the only ones – with a network of support we can do this ourselves, we can create a shared vision with a network of citizens and stakeholders, we can lead public discussions, and genuinely help guide the future of Adelaide and South Australia.  What might this involve?

We need to broaden the discussion beyond the 15 of us that were present.  We need a much larger set of conversations to engage many more people in shaping a shared vision.  We need partners to help us reach out and engage and to resource the effort.  But first off, we need to pull together a team to make it possible.

  • Do you think this is a goal worth pursuing?
  • Do you want to join a team to make it happen?
  • Can you offer other assistance?

> You can make your first contribution by getting in touch here <

#13CU Elephants’ Gathering

We all look forward to the engaging presentations and lessons learnt at conferences – the upcoming ConnectingUp conference (#13CU) is no exception.  Actually… with a mix of high profile international superstars in the field and a mix of experienced local practitioners, the ConnectingUp conference is positively appetising!

But we all know that the best bits of a great conference are meeting inspiring like-minded colleagues, serendipitous encounters, and exploring the big questions at the edges of our practice.  These gems can be hard to find in a packed schedule, however!

So, at this year’s ConnectingUp conference, let’s convene a space where these are front and centre – the Elephant’s Gathering.

This will be a chance for relaxed and reflective conversation, understanding shared experience, and exploring what we think are the elephants in the room that have escaped the formal program.

Elephant building, from

Elephant building, from


Thursday 16 May.  If you’ve been at the ConnectingUp conference, head straight to Stingray Lounge afterwards, at the QT Hotel – a short walk up the road.  Otherwise, join us from 530.

The atmosphere of the Elephant Gathering is informal.

Discussion will be ensured through light facilitation.

The Elephants’ Gathering is an initiative of @JohnSBaxter of Realise – a conversations’ catalyst, creating spaces for discussions that matter.

Stingray has food, drinks and chairs to rest our weary feet, as you can see below.

RSVP: leave your details below – and share what elephants you’ll be hunting at ConnectingUp 2013.

Stingray.  Nice place

pretty schmick, eh?


Stingray interior

Singray Food Menu 2013

Pretty mad MS Paint skills, eh?  It's just a glimpse of the fun to be had