Co-creation is one of today’s hottest buzzwords. It’s the idea that a collaborative process of shared creation leads to higher levels of engagement, innovation and resilience. I should love the concept – after all, I’m working to promote a more complete understanding of life’s co-creative pattern. But I have a controversial confession to make: when someone says, “Let’s co-create this,” warning bells go off. There’s a saying that you should never trust a man who says, “Trust me.” Secretly, I feel the same way about co-creation. If you have to say it, you probably mean something that I don’t really want to be involved in. However, I’m beginning to understand why I feel this way, why that’s important, and what to do about it.

The problem is that I’ve been burned. I’ve had a string of experiences in which the person proposing co-creation explicitly wanted me to leave “my stuff” behind – my research, my writing, the frameworks I’ve developed and worked with over the years. “We didn’t co-create that,” said one person. “We need to start with a blank slate and create something new together.” When I object that I can’t leave these things behind – that they’re part of me and my value – the response on more than one occasion has been that I need to work on rejecting my ego (a more enlightened stance). I’ve entertained that possibility and entered into co-creative projects with as much openness and curiosity as I can. But it doesn’t work and the projects invariably flounder. And I’ve remained quietly unclear about my position on co-creation. How much of your own agenda and baggage can you bring into a co-created project? Is it always the right approach? What am I supposed to do with all this stuff I developed on my own, before I knew I had to co-create everything?

Two recent conversations shed some light for me.

In one, a woman was describing an online clothing company, in which customers can create 3D models of their own bodies and try clothes on virtually before buying. The company then went one step further and allowed the customer to design the clothes (or at least to alter the design). “Designers still think they can impose their designs on us,” the woman scoffed. “Not anymore.” Co-creation prevails!

But what about the designers? I thought uneasily. What about the role of art and inspiration? What if the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had been co-created to make it a more democratic process? It might have been beautiful in a very different way. But we would not have seen Michelangelo’s vision, and his talent would likely have been buried within a muddled creation. That seems an unacceptable trade-off to me.

The second conversation involved a collaborator and a conversation to establish the ground rules for our shared project. The first rule he proposed was, “Nothing is ‘mine.’” Hmmm. Here we go again, the little voice in my head whispered. I didn’t object and I tried to be open – maybe it’s just my pesky ego refusing to let go, I thought. But eventually, I had to come back to this point. “I think I know what you mean by this,” I said. “But in my experience, ‘nothing is mine’ has meant that ‘what is mine is nothing.’ The fullness of my contribution isn’t invited into the project. Nothing moves forward. And nothing comes to me.” I asked for more information about his proposed rule, and he explained that the point was a philosophical one – that ownership is a groundless concept. “We don’t take anything with us when we die,” he said. “So what do we really ‘own’?” It’s a fair point. In fact, I’ve written recently questioning the concept of ownership in living organizations. But in this case, I made the distinction between ownership and stewardship. “I may not truly own anything, but I do have responsibility to steward some things – to care for them as a parent does,” I said. “I steward this body. I’m responsible for feeding it. No one else is responsible for that, but I am. And I’m responsible for bringing my gifts and contributions into the world. They are mine to steward. These are important things to acknowledge.”

These two conversations helped me see several things more clearly:

  • First, everything is co-created – even Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Nothing is ever created in isolation. All of life is shaped by context and interactions. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges expressed this point beautifully: “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors….”
  • At the same time, life is fantastically – and necessarily – diverse. Each species has something precious to contribute to the process of co-creation. The richness and resilience of life – and of our projects – are ensured by inviting that diversity in, not suppressing it.
  • In our haste to move away from an almost exclusively individualistic worldview and to embrace a more collective paradigm and collaborative practices, we risk creating a false dichotomy. Life doesn’t choose between divergence and convergence; between the gifts and needs of the parts and those of the whole. It integrates. In the words of the Integral movement, it transcends and includes.

There is a time to invite customers and suppliers in to help design products and services. This is exciting new territory.

There is a time to put ideas into the center of a circle of people, relinquish ownership of them, and work together to grow them into something novel and unexpected. This is especially appropriate when a project has already been defined and people have committed to contribute to it, or when no one has a clear agenda or strong opinion about what exactly they want to do.

But there is also a time to stand up for what is yours to steward – for your vision, your inspiration, your art and your needs. This doesn’t mean you have to work in isolation or create a dictatorship. It means that you have to be clear what you’re inviting people into if they want to collaborate with you. A healthy relationship of any kind requires each participant to be whole and self-aware. With such clarity, the ground becomes more fertile for co-creation, not less. Without it, there is the risk of an unsatisfying, co-dependent pattern.

With this perspective, I see that each time I was burned in attempted co-creation, the real problem was my own lack of clarity and strong stewardship of what is mine to bring into the world.

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