About Jean Russell


Action Spectrum graphic

Co-Creative Leadership sounds compelling and exciting perhaps, but how exactly do you practice it? The Action Spectrum helps reveal how to engage with others while still moving projects forward. For those new to co-creation, I find that many are concerned that they will have less control, extend deadlines, and be tossed into chaos. While that can happen, it by no means needs to. Others believe leadership is antithetical to the emergence and peer respect that co-creation involves. For those, I would say that the old command and control form of leadership won’t work, and yet, there is a role for a different style of leadership. That everyone involved in co-creation can be leaderful.

1. Control

It may seem counter-intuitive for co-creation to be clear about, yet it is actually essential at the individual level. Know clearly what you do control. When you are clear on your realm of control, you will find it easier not to control what isn’t yours. (At least that helps me, since I have a long-standing habit of trying to control everything around me. Now I just work on controlling myself and what I stand up to be responsible for.) Control is the realm of simple even mechanical systems. Often the language of the control space sounds mechanistic. What do you control:

  • What story do you want to have about the facts? You control your story and how you experience those facts. How you talk about co-creative efforts helps create culture, excitement, and sets expectations. Telling stories about resourcefulness, generosity, flexibility, gratitude, and learning encourage co-creative engagement.
  • How do you want to respond to what comes your way? Following from controlling your own story, you control your response. You can’t control what comes, but you can control how you react. Your reaction to what happens demonstrates the kind of culture that the collective supports. Are you reacting with patience, curiosity, appreciation, and resourcefulness?
  • What about moving forward or next steps are not dependent on someone else that you can take to demonstrate your own commitment? What are you taking action on right now? You can’t control for all the variables for next week, month, or year, but you can control what action you are taking right now. Can you name small actions that you can start on right away that can be reciprocated by others stepping forward with their small next step?
  • What do you want to be held accountable for – what commitment to output can you make to the group (that you have control over)? For example, that could be drafting an invitation, hosting a discussion or posting to a dialogue space, or reaching out to speak with someone else, etc.

2. Guide

Guiding and influencing others can seem a bit paternalistic from the wrong angle, and yet actions in this realm can be helpful in co-creation leadership too. The guide space tends toward complex systems. We hear the language of cooperation, partnership, and agreements. Engage generatively with others using guide-like actions:

  • How are you inviting others to partner with you? Is your invitation acknowledging the value that others bring to the co-creative endeavor? Does it demonstrate that you have listened to their concerns? Does it inspire them to bring their best, most creative, and insightful versions of themselves?
  • What actions can you take with someone else or a group of others? Does your invitation to action have a clear next step that resonates with why others are interested in co-creating with you?
  • How does your invitation to action together build on what others are already doing or already have expressed? Avoid offering your pre-scripted plan, especially a multi-step plan, if it doesn’t take into account what is alive and emerging in the present with others.
  • How is your guidance on a next step spontaneous and playful?

3. Nurture

Co-creative leadership shows up most in the realm of what we nurture. Older styles of leadership remained in command and control spaces. Co-creative leadership flourishes in the realm of what we nurture. Look for words of gardening and not the language of machines. The nurture space tends toward complex adaptive systems where predictability is challenging and emergence, probability, and ongoing learning rule.

  • How are you cultivating patience and an openness to what arises from the group and beyond?
  • How are you planting seeds of possibility with others? Is your story speaking to a desired vision of the whole?
  • What actions can you take that shine the light on the magnificence of others? And is that replicable in a way that they can then shine the light onward?
  • What simple agreements can you create with others that enable each contributor a great deal of autonomy? Often emergence of rich possibility arises from just a few simple parameters. Avoid lengthy rules and policies, and instead elucidate clear principles.
  • Is what you are doing easy to share and replicate? Can others see not just what you did but how you did it in a way they feel invited to try it themselves? It is crucial that they believe they can try it themselves and not that you are the privileged expert that they need to rely on.
  • How are you providing the resources and opportunities for others to flourish? to bring and be their best selves? Are you enabling other people to lead from where they are? Do you acknowledge and encourage what others are doing in a way that they feel seen and supported?

Co-creative leadership leverages the full action spectrum, enabling each individual a great deal of personal control and freedom, encouraging individual agency while rallying around clear agreed upon principles and visions. There is an immense range of variety in co-creative leadership. I hope these questions have helped to surface some of the edges to play with as you extend your co-creative efforts.


reposted from JeanmRussell.com

What in the world is that? I dunno. I guess I am figuring that out. It came out of my mouth, so I better figure it out!

What most people think of as the economy is a transactional world where exchanges are made between people that clear obligation to each other. I buy milk at the store for a few bucks. I give them money, they give me milk, basically end of the story.

There is another economy – the gift economy. I am out of milk, I borrow some from the neighbor. I do not insult her by giving her a few bucks for it. Instead I bring her cookies. I reciprocated but it wasn’t transactional – in a tit for tit kind of way.

people sitting

We were talking, at #cocreate14, about the qualities of being co-creative. And that is when this phrase, non-transactional reciprocity came out of my mouth.

The old forms of international development/philanthropy worked in something like the following storyline for those providing what they thought of as “help” to others who needed to be helped. “I have something. I am sad that you don’t have this thing. So I am going to help you by teaching you how to have the thing that I have.”

When we come from a place of being co-creative, the story goes much more like:

“I have value to offer and I recognize that you have value. Let’s share our value with each other over time and see if we can make things better in ways we both believe actually are better for us.”

There is reciprocity here, where there wasn’t in the old international development/philanthropy model. But it is not transactional – as in we do not measure our gifts for each other as equal in a way that we feel the encounter is completed.

Maybe there is a better word for it, but this is the phrase that came to mind at #cocreate14. We did not talk there about how it relates to the gift economy, but I would love to hear your thoughts on how they may relate to each other.


cross posted from jeanMRUSSELL.COM

We called it the Learn/Share Lab: a laboratory experience for learning and sharing together on the topic of co-creation. We gathered 14 case studies in co-creation on projects from around the globe. We all shared, and I learned a lot. I want to share one aspect of what I learned with you about being co-creative over time as well as a distinction between being co-creative in how we do what we do and being co-creative in what we do.

Nadia, Edgeryders and Tom, StartSomeGood

Nadia, Edgeryders and Tom, StartSomeGood

By the end of the event, I was most interested in how being co-creative plays out over time. Let’s look at Edgerydersfirst. The project is very open in the sense that anyone can join the network and participate. Also, the events are open to anyone. However, the governance and structure is not co-created – in the sense that the ground rules were stated up front on how it was going to work. So the initial phase of creating the structure of it wasn’t co-creative. Let’s call that phase 1. It became co-creative once the structure was in place, which we can call phase 2. What they developed together – the LOTE events (Living on the Edge) and from the the Unmonestary, were both emergent outcomes of co-creation in phase 2. So the process design – how you behave and interact – was not co-created, however, the outcomes were. The outcomes were only possible through the conversation of many people interacting and building on each other.

Similarly, my book, the Thrivability Sketch, had a clear process that I dictated, yet each piece came from the contributor or in the space created between the contributor and I. So you could say phase 1: process design, was not co-creative. Phase 2: content creation was co-creative. For example, the page on creativity became an email from the contributor to me discussing the challenges he was having writing the piece and my counsel to him that playful was better than intellectual. The production of the book, post-editing, was a very closed process with just 3 collaborators helping me polish and design it. So phase 3: production wasn’t broadly co-creative. Once the book was released, the marketing of it was very co-creative again. So phase 4: promotion was again co-creative.

bar chart

Phases of Co-Creativity

It is my sense in both of these cases and others where the process design is pre-determined, that the projects move quickly forward with only those participants who self-select to be part of the process. Speed of action is gained, but it risks alienating people who either want to create process together or don’t like the process that was dictated.

Other projects begin with a challenge and an open question, unclear about process. The process is emergent. For example, Let’s Recycle in India suffered a massive fire that wiped them out, so they gathered with their suppliers (waste pickers) and discussed what to do. The solution came from that open dialogue from a vulnerable place: both the process and the solution that emerged were co-creative. So their early phases, of this iteration of the work, were highly co-creative of both process and deliverables, but the way they might be running now may be less co-creative now that they have a co-created process that everyone is working with.

The urgency of the fire moved the conversation on process and outcome forward swiftly. There was a great deal of risk taken by leadership to let it unfold, but the crisis made that risk-taking a necessary one. With proven positive results for co-creative process, Let’s Recycle is more likely to continue using co-creative process and co-created outcomes in the future. If we were to map co-creative activities over time with Let’s Recycle, we would see a sharp spike following the fire followed by a slope toward standard process and outcomes thereafter, probably never returning to a place without co-creative elements again. Plus the threshold required for initiating another co-creative phase has been lowered.

spike flow chart

Co-Creativity over time for Let’s Recycle.

So co-creation seems not to be some element that is always present in all different aspects of a project. For some projects it may be a recurring piece of the process. For others it might be co-creative on outcome but not in process design. This seems to make the patterns for co-creation a little tricky to surface, as patterns for process may be quite different than patterns for outcomes. Being co-creative at different stages of co-creation may take different skill sets or require different structures. I think this is really getting us to a much clearer place of understanding how the case studies share certain elements while also understanding how different they are. And, I believe that makes us closer to knowing how and when to instigate co-creative practices.

We believe we have developed a list of qualities that can be present in co-creative endeavors that differentiate at least the co-creative portion of that effort from other approaches. To flesh that out, we will be co-creative in making a book about who, why, how, what and when of co-creative efforts for social innovation and impact. Look for that outcome later this spring.