The 7 principles of complete co-creation: how to make innovation efficient, relevant and desirable for end-users

The 7 principles of complete co-creation: how to make innovation efficient, relevant and desirable for end-users

Wednesday October 17, 2018,

12 min Read

By involving end-users in research, design, production and marketing, organisations of all types can ensure successful innovation, as this new book explains.

Traditional top-down business models based on knowledge dominance and mass-market approaches are under pressure from more open, collaborative models that directly and continuously involve customers. In a fast-moving global economy where customers are more digitally connected, informed and empowered than ever before, the co-creation model works best for organisational success, according to the new book, The Seven Principles of Complete Co-Creation.

Authors Stefanie Jansen and Maarten Pieters are co-founders of TheCreators, a consultancy specialising in co-creation. Stefanie was earlier at market research firm IPM KidWise, and Maarten is Head of Co-Creation and People Insight for the Design and User Experience Department at Signify, formerly called Philips Lighting (see author interview here).

“Complete co-creation is the transparent process of value creation in ongoing, productive collaboration with, and supported by, all relevant parties, with end-users playing a central role,” the authors define.

“Complete co-creation is an adventure calling for openness, curiosity, overcoming fear, and letting go of the need to control,” they add. Success also depends on skillful guidance by a competent process owner called co-creator.

The 208-page book is thoroughly referenced and well-designed, right from the slanted cover (though the choice of font could have been much better). I have summarised some of the key principles in Table 1 below. See also my reviews of the related books The Power of Co-Creation, Do Good , Peers Inc, The Sharing Economy, and Facilitating Collaboration.


“Today’s end-users want to see how organisations work, what they stand for, and how they create value for their employees, suppliers and buyers,” the authors begin.

Some principles of user focus are already present in practices like design thinking, crowdsourcing, open innovation, and voice-of-customer frameworks. Mere involvement of end-users is not enough – they need to be co-developers if the approach is to qualify as complete co-creation, the authors explain.

The customer focus of a company evolves through three phases: connection, insights and co-creation. This pyramid is built on a combination of market research, analytics, competitor analysis, consumer safaris, and customer forums. Continuous contact with customers helps unearth insights about unmet needs faster. The next steps are co-creation and co-ownership.

The co-creation activity begins with products, services, experiences, marketing and support. It moves on to co-creation of organisational strategy and tactics, and can ultimately lead to co-ownership. An effective organisation can have many co-creation trajectories running at the same time.

Benefits of end-user involvement in co-creation include relevance and efficiency. There is less wastage of time, money and resources in the long run since irrelevant options will be discarded earlier. End-users are more involved and motivated, and hence they trust the company more. They are likely to be loyal to the organisation and even serve as brand ambassadors or marketing evangelists via personal endorsements and influence.

The authors caution that barriers to adoption of co-creation as an organisational principle lie in insecurity due to loss of control, fear of uncertainty, habits of existing patterns, unwillingness to let go of traditional methods of business, and lack of awareness about the co-creation model.

1. Together: broad collaboration

The journey starts with framing a challenge for which co-creation is the solution approach. Boundaries and scope are clearly defined. The frequency, duration and intensity of online and offline interactions are charted out. For large organisations, the initiative can be positioned as a semi-independent startup.

The optimal team should include decision makers of the initiating organisation, partners, investors, end-users, domain experts, and other influencers. Conceptual thinkers will play an important role in early research stages, while practical, action-driven types will be useful at implementation stage.

The co-creator will need strong “political antennae” and social skills to avoid “idea killers” and catalyse out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation. Care should be taken to deal with concerns that co-creation takes too much time, or doesn’t deliver, or doesn’t fit into current practices and culture.

2. End-users: the central role

Continuous and deep engagement with end-users delivers relevant products and identifies unmet needs faster than the competition. Customer development helps build minimum viable products (MVPs) that are desirable and memorable.

Regularly adding fresh users helps keep up with new trends. End-users can provide creative insights via diaries, mood boards and crowdsourcing; a number of apps have emerged that are useful in this regard. Brainstorming sessions also help with idea generation and acceptance, team-building, and group pride -- but care should be taken to move away from group-think.

Recognition, appreciation and rewards for end-users also help. In some cases, spokespersons of end-user communities can be roped in (eg. student representatives), but care should be taken to go beyond their agendas and unearth the concerns of average users. A long-term goal of end-user engagement is to create an “end-user gut feel.”

3. Ongoing: continuous end-user engagement

The co-creation approach can be used in conjunction with other methods such as agile, scrum and lean. Formal and informal networking sessions help in knowledge exchange and trust formation.

End-user engagement should occur across all the key activity phases: founding (kick-off for the challenge; shared research experience); finding (from divergence to convergence of ideas; preparing and presenting the insights report); forming (developing the initial concept starter and prototype, describing its benefits); fine-tuning (implementation, launch); and following-up (impact analysis, fan clubs).

The co-creator plays the role of “facilitator, motivator and coordinator.” The activities should be captured in regular reports that are textually and visually strong; direct inputs from end-users bring credibility and acceptance.

4. Productive co-creation: an implemented solution

Successful co-creation leads all the way to an implemented solution, beyond a concept or prototype. This requires a competent and empowered co-creator. Core competencies of a co-creator include ability to have “helicopter views,” strong social antennae, political sensitivity, creativity, networking, project management, and guiding multi-disciplinary teams.

The initiating organisation should empower the co-creator to facilitate the design and implementation of the solution. Advisory councils and work groups also help in this regard. The co-creator should be able to revive enthusiasm during low periods (eg. with quick wins, re-framing the situation, getting additional support).

5. Transparency: opening up the organisation

Using a black-box approach or roping in only consultancies instead of opening up to end-users is a sub-optimal approach, the authors caution. More transparency wins end-user trust, motivation, involvement and collaboration, and thus yields better insights.

Some companies are even adopting “radical transparency” and share negative information about their mistakes and errors. Open sharing of all relevant information will help add even more value, the authors advise.

6. Supported: contribution by all parties

In addition to supporting productive activities, the co-creator should be able to spot and tackle potential barriers of creativity, time and cost. Best practices should be shared, and sessions should be made interactive to address issues of research and design.

External support can also be brought in the form of experts, for credibility, validity and objectivity. Continuous communication also helps; digital platforms can be useful in this regard. Incentives and compliments should be given to participants.

7. Value-driven: impact for end-users, organisations and planet

Co-creation helps deliver offerings that are realistic for end-users, relevant, resonating, and evoke desired reactions and behaviours. The initiating organisation improves its efficiency while also creating positive energy; it flourishes and not just grows. The primary goal of a flourishing organisation is sustainable value creation, and not just profit maximisation, the authors explain.

Co-creative organisations develop a “we” orientation and become more adaptive to market changes. They improve vertical (internal) and horizontal (external) accountability, and can make mutually-enhancing deals with their partners.

Co-creation can help organisations improve their broader social and environmental engagement. This goes beyond quick fixes and “greenwashing.”

Case studies

Each chapter is packed with case studies of successes (and failed initiatives) from a wide range of organisations. Open source software, Wikipedia, and the rise of sharing economy companies like AirBnB and Uber are showing the power of co-creation on a global scale.

The city quarter Amsterdam Noord used complete co-creation with youth to design and launch the semi-independent JIP Noord (Youth Information Portal) and community centre. Gynzy develops online software for digital boards in schools in conjunction with teachers.

Blink, a publisher of children’s books, conducts visits to families at home. It also conducts regular trainings for its employees on how to observe and interview children and parents at home and in school.

MVNO GiffGaff has its online support centre run by the user community. Users provide ideas and suggestions to the company about its strategy; about 10 percent of these ideas have been implemented. Telco *bliep used co-creation to come up with features such as the “share your credit” button; its marketing was driven by youth co-creators and not traditional advertising. immersed in the world of Dutch children to find out motivations for learning English, and discovered that English music could be the means and driver to learn English. Its successful language education product was co-created with children, teachers and software experts.

Heineken and InSites Consulting engaged with clubbing fans from Tokyo, Milan, Sao Paulo and New York to co-create the Nightclub of the Future project. Clubbers shared insights in an online community, and aired frustration with problems such as long lines at the counters.

IKEA shares its research publicly through two reports: Life at Home (rituals) and The Curiosity Report (design trends). It aims to co-create on a global scale by opening up its product development, engaging with startups, and setting up makerspaces.

Tesco conducted research into customer needs for online shopping, and leveraged its physical supermarkets as vantage points (in contrast to WebVan, which went bust around the same time). Nike co-created the Nike+ platform with runners to share insights on workout statistics; this benefited users as well as Nike.

The Helping Hand app was designed to make online grocery shopping easier for seniors. It took them into confidence to address their fears and concerns over privacy and design.

The Better Reykjavik online consultancy platform lets citizens take a part in agenda setting, voting on plans, and budget allocation for projects. Philips Lighting regularly consults with end-users to avoid the trap of “expertise bubbles,” validate assumptions, and learn new terms and descriptions that can be used for effective marketing.

Royal Melbourne Hospital involves patients in designing services, and even as co-recruiters in interviewing candidates for positions such as customer service representatives. Zappos has created an open “holocracy” instead of a hierarchy, and shares corporate insights on its website; it also offers free company tours for visitors.

Crowdsourcing platform Battle of Concepts helps tap ideas from college and university students. The Aawaz online platform enables citizens to take part in small deeds in the areas of climate change and poverty alleviation.

Brazil’s Natura Cosmetics shows its commitment to values such as environmental consciousness, sustainability and transparency. Seventh Generation and Patagonia are other companies with such commitments, authenticity and transparency.

Social media startup Buffer openly shares information about all its employee salaries; all employees use JawBone UP to share personal health data and discuss collective well-being. The Dutch Triodos Bank transparently publishes information on its website to show that it stays away from speculation and short-term investment. BlendHub promotes transparency in the agri-chain by publishing information on ingredient sources and preparation methods.

KLM has effectively used social media as a channel for crisis communication. Tools like Lego Serious Player have been used to promote collaboration between participants at events such as Global GovJam.

Firms like Honda, Best Buy and Hyatt are tapping user contribution to improve products, better serve customers, generate new business, reduce costs, and boost employee performance, according to Intuit co-founder Scott Cook.

Some traditional companies are moving in the right direction. For example, Microsoft’s early approach was characterised by secrecy and lawsuits. “However, even this large tanker has shifted gear and started experimenting with co-creation,” the authors explain.

Not all user engagement experiments such as crowdsourcing have led to success. For example, Henkel asked users to come up with package designs and vote on the best design – but ended up not going with the winning design; this caused frustration among the public.

The road ahead

Emerging issues to address in the field of co-creation include the role of co-ownership of the solution, and even co-ownership of the organisation. In the long run, market research can also evolve into a co-creation of insights.

“Co-creation as a service” (CaaS) will emerge as co-creation morphs from a business function into a platform service. Co-creation will help define new roles in organisations, and even in sense-making in a rapidly changing world.

Management focus will increasingly shift to identifying co-creational moments in customer journeys. New co-creational content management platforms will emerge, that match co-creational tasks and information to varying levels of customer involvement, as predicted by cognitive scientist Olaf Hermans and consultant David Pinder.

Co-creation can become the glue between organisational functions to serve customers, according to Paul Thursfield, Service Design Lead, Philips Lighting. In co-creation, consumers become partial employees and employees become partial customers, as described by B. Cova, marketing professor at University of Pisa.

Co-creation can throw up surprises beyond the earlier ideas; it is important to stay curious, advises Fatima Fattouchi, manager, JIP Noord. Co-creation requires courage, patience, endurance and never-ending passion for the target group; it is wonderful and addictive, adds Jorien Castelein, co-founder of Blink. “Once a co-creator, forever a co-creator,” the authors enthuse.

In sum, this book is a must-read for organisations of all sectors and sizes. It provides valuable and actionable insights for innovators and entrepreneurs, and opens the door to collaboration between co-creators across the world.