How to Co-Create with the Customer

It wasn’t so long ago that I heard a C-suite executive say that working with staff and the customer to develop strategy was equal to communism.

Ah! The good old days of single-minded hierarchy!

Happily, as we seek to flatten the organization it’s even become desirable, among some circles, to talk about co-creation of strategy – particularly products and services – with customers, not just staff and partners. It’s a valuable tool to clarify what the customer wants and align the organization’s various functions around that.

After deciding to open up dialogue with the customer, there are some interesting opportunities to use a Solution Focus mindset, particularly if we use the roundtable / kitchen table approach. This approach works equally well with the traditional consumer, or the B2B buyer.

Having talked about 4 Strategic Planning Co-creation Steps & Benefits, here’s a few thoughts on what to do when you engage with the customer and your staff together in the room.

So, be brave and bring a group of customers together with your staff to have a dialogue beyond the data you already know. It’s not a focus group with 10 questions that must be answered. We are co-creating around the customer’s needs; not the Marketing, Sales or Operational team’s performance measures. We are looking for both the functional and the emotional aspects of their needs relative to our products and services.

We ask questions in the context of where the customer group is, not where we want to direct them. We also encourage them to disagree among themselves.

The customer’s needs are often far more complex than their supplier (us) can know.

We want to know where the customer has both opportunities to become more satisfied/efficient in their own realm, but also where any pain points in their own process/usage cause them difficulty (so that we don’t inadvertently add to the pain).

The client’s main priority with suppliers is often to be listened to, then sold a service. We show how we can listen.    

We also co-create with the client to find out where we fit in their value chain. We are mostly interested in what works. When something doesn’t work we ask, ‘What could be better?’ ‘Suppose that’s no longer an issue, what will be happening?’ ‘How do you see that being useful to you?’

Make sure your customers also engage in a dialogue with staff.

Once the clients depart, the staff team can discuss and share insights, decide which of the client’s priorities stood out for them, consider what small actions they may be taking to move forward, plus discuss what they plan to share with their colleagues back at the office.

Management and Unions at war: How to ignore the problem between them


Ever wondered about the cost of unions and organizations that are in conflict? Ever wondered why they don’t start out looking for solutions?

Think of the negative ROI – the waste of time, money, motivation, innovation and productivity. At its worst – the recent demise of the Hostess company and the Twinkies brand!

An organization and its union may be skirmishing, infighting, or in open conflict. It’s a battle for power and the competition between the two sides is inefficient, sometimes deadly. Both sides think they are ‘doing their job,’ but they’re not thinking about outcomes for the organization, the workers…and the customer. It’s about who’s right and one side usually bullies the other to force things through.

In my book, ‘Monkey-free meetings’ I advocate that people create problems in negotiation meetings because they focus exclusively on problems between them. I say, ‘don’t breed problem monkeys in meetings … they bite back!’

Now think about the cost to the likes of Hostess and the Twinkies brand … and the workers in that organization. Both sides see each other as the problem. Problem-focus is normal in organizations, but much worse when the groups in conflict compound it. They may think they have a solution at hand, but instead they are each vested in being experts on the ‘problem’ with the other side.

Speed up solution-building by framing meetings around what’s possible and what’s wanted, not the problem!

So, how do we get them out of problem-focus and move to solution-building around common goals? How do we move from negotiation to co-creation?

Don’t experiment on problem monkeys. Experiment on solutions.

We have to ignore the problem between both parties.

Here are some questions that will help steer away from the problem-focus in negotiation and start the process of alignment that leads to solutions without compromise:

What are you both doing right? What would your shareholders, leadership, workers and customers tell us you are doing right? What would the other team say you do right?

What are each of your key deliverables / goals? And, on a scale of 1-10 (1=room for improvement, 10=ideal), where are you?

Suppose the barriers to success went away, what would that success look like (to you, to the other side, to the customer)?

Suppose you were collaborating effectively with the other team and you were both achieving your goals…

What would be different / better about the way you work together?

Where will you have both made the greatest progress?

What will you see yourself doing to help make progress towards your shared goals?

What are your first steps?

Note that there’s little discussion about the contract that organizations and unions usually focus on. Instead they are focusing on co-creating outcomes that will make progress for both sides.

Will this approach work 100% over-night? Unlikely, but it will help make progress right away.

Do something different, not difficult, in your next negotiation

Where have you seen examples of organizations and unions making progress?



When collaboration ‘kills innovation’ try co-creation

Finally, collaboration is in vogue! So why is someone saying that it kills innovation?

I’m sick of collaboration. It makes things mushy and kills innovation

So spoke a participant impatient for change at a recent planning session.

It could be that, in this person’s field, some of the collaborators are actually more interested in the politics, or the lowest common denominator, or worse … compromise!

…this means bringing diverse groups together to deal with ambiguity and complexity. Leaders must be adept at the use of influence as they will most likely be operating without power and authority over many of the participants.  Crossen and Olivera

Yes, innovators … you do have to be patient with the status quo. But, stop for a minute! How do you maintain your standard for moving forward, being ahead of the pack and collaborate through co-creation?

Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.   Oliver Wendell Holmes

How do you get others to buy into your ideas without having to circumvent others and make progress faster then they appreciate? Avoid assuming that people are not ready for your idea, but instead they are:

  • Moving at a slower pace than you
  • In a different place, but are interested in similar outcomes as you are
  • Wanting to cooperate with you, just not your way
  • Not resisting your idea, but your impatience

Remember, that your innovative idea will come alive through test and learn practices. Why not co-create with those who might not actually be your detractors?

Solution focused co-creation ideas for the naturally impatient innovator:

Sell the benefit to them, not the idea itself. Ask yourself:

‘Suppose people were to buy in to my idea and engaged in its use, how would it be working for them? What would they be saying that they appreciate about it?’

Help them understand the idea by first asking:

‘Suppose it worked for you, what parts of it would please you most?’

When they raised objections to your idea ask:

‘Imagine that were no longer a problem, what would we be doing that works?’

‘What one thing do you see that might be done better and how would that be useful?’

Innovators, make your solution part of everyone’s solution by co-creating the Solution Focus way.