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Co-Creative Leadership

The world population is 7.7 billion people and growing. That’s billions of unique perspectives on how community systems function or could be improved. Yet, studies like this one from the American Psychological Association tell us that, amidst this vast pool of resources, we as humans are biased towards ideas that will validate our opinions rather than challenge them. Much like the similar-to-me-effect, this bias encourages people to discredit innovative ideas, losing out on potential solutions to the challenges facing the nonprofit sector and our communities.

While there are structural forces that encourage this, part of counteracting this bias is intentionally challenging held beliefs by seeking out more perspectives:

  • Read different perspectives. Pursue articles and books written by authors with different value systems or life stories than you.
  • Go to new places. I don’t just mean traveling. Varying where you spend your time and money locally will bring you in contact with a wider range of perspectives.
  • Check your network. Do the people you regularly interact with come from a similar background? Seek out groups and activities that bring you in contact with a broader network.

When presented with an idea where your immediate reaction is to disagree, use that as an indication to be curious about what you can learn from that unfamiliar framework.

What is Co-Creative Leadership? 

I believe that everyone leads in some role, regardless of where they are in an organization. Rather than relying on just one leader’s viewpoint, the sector needs more leadership that actively draws on solutions across a diverse array of people. In other words, we need co-creative leadership.

Forbes sums up co-creative leadership skills nicely as the ability to “switch with ease between divergent and convergent thinking, between filling the ideas canvas with many bold solutions and then paring them down to the ones that are most desirable, feasible and viable”.

Co-creative leadership is active and iterative. How many iterations depends on the time frame. It might be a brainstorm session that turns into a consensus-built program agenda by the end of a single meeting. Or, it might be a compilation of essays collected and polished over the course of months by a single editor. In another context, it might be aggregating the feedback from a series of public forums for presentation to community changemakers. Regardless of the constraints, co-creative leadership at its core is bringing people to the process and amplifying the emergent ideas in the final product.  

It’s worth noting that there’s a huge role for individual skill in co-creative leadership. Co-creation that devolves into chaos is problematic partially because it silences the least powerful voices and still labels it a grassroots process. Co-creative leadership requires a transparent process and good facilitation.

It can be an uphill battle for this skill set to even be recognized as leadership, and can feed into imposter syndrome. This isn’t the dominant leadership narrative, and it can be difficult to say that we don’t have all the answers and still want others to trust in our leadership. But it’s worth working towards.  

So, what are some ways to encourage more co-creation in our organizations?

  • Cross-pollination: ask those in different departments, organizations and sectors what they’re working on
  • Brainstorming: this is a well-known concept that can draw people to the table who might otherwise be skeptical of co-creative models
  • Tech: use websites and social networks to crowdsource output designs, as so many for-profit companies like Lego have successfully done
  • Evaluation: suggest interaction points with clients, coworkers, and others that could incorporate evaluation and feedback

I don’t have all the answers on how to shift to more co-creative leadership, but the conversation is one I would certainly like to have more often, in more places, with more people.  


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