Co-creation helps you guard against over-confidence in innovation and stay relevant to end-users: Maarten Pieters, Signify


The market is always changing, and the best way to keep ahead is to continuously engage and co-create with your target group, says Maarten Pieters, co-author of The Seven Principles of Complete Co-Creation.

Maarten Pieters is co-author of the book The Seven Principles of Complete Co-Creation (see my book review here). He is the Head of Co-Creation and People Insight for the Design and User Experience Department at Signify (formerly called Philips Lighting), as well as Co-founder of TheCreators, a consultancy specialising in co-creation.

Co-creation is the practice of actively involving end-users and partners as producers in product and service innovation, from concept to launch stages. Maarten joins us in this chat on new examples of co-creation, emerging enabler tools, and the value of co-creation as a core competence for startups and large organisations, 

YourStory: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples you have come across of co-creation?

Maarten Pieters: I like the efforts of Konica Minolta in this field; they have understood that the only way to secure a successful future for their company is to involve end-users and other relevant parties. I really love the progress Signify has made, and we see examples of co-creation popping up within the organisation.

The Brainport region in the Netherlands is another good example. They are showing tremendous growth and are one of the world’s hotspots for technology. This has only become possible because they are teaming up. From the university to the local residents, and from the local business to the government - everyone is involved.

YS: How was your book on co-creation received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions?

MP: Very positive! We felt confident when the book hit the market because we involved many people in writing it: the book was co-created with our audience. But it is still an exciting moment when the first reviews come in.

For me, the most unexpected reaction was when I was at an event and the person who sat next to me had read the book! He immediately started talking about how the customer connection pyramid we describe has helped him explain to his organisation what co-creation is. That was great to hear.

YS: What is your current field of research in the area of co-creation?

MP: We continuously research co-creation best practices. Artificial intelligence has our attention at the moment, and we are quite keen to see how this field will develop from a co-creation point of view.

YS: How big a role does academics play in co-creation? Can co-creation really be formally taught?

MP: It does play a big role. In my role as Head of Co-creation and People Insight at Signify, I see the value of, for instance, designers or engineers improving their co-creation competences through practice and training.

Our book is also used by students at universities and it is recommended by professors to their students. Co-creation is a crucial competence for any employee, and students can really benefit from building their experience in this field early on.

YS: Which are some of the co-creating companies you admire the most today?

MP: LEGO, because of its exemplary role. Signify, because we are working on making it part of the organisation’s DNA. And Blink Education, because they understand that their success depends on them co-creating with their users and have made the 'co-creator' a core function.

YS: How should co-creators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

MP: Vision is good. But not from a place of ego. Co-creation brings together the best of both sides – the initiating organisation and the end-users.

YS: What are some effective ways of dealing with legal conflicts over intellectual property ownership in a co-creation activity?

MP: Most importantly, it is about creating transparency from the start. One must have clear agreements in place when co-creation efforts begin; that will avoid any conflicts later.

YS: How would frameworks of frugal innovation and lean startup connect with your co-creation model?

MP: They would strengthen it. The point we are making is that regardless of your approach -- whether it is agile, lean, or frugal -- doing it in co-creation will lead to better outcomes. Co-creation is complementary to these other approaches.

YS: Many startups seem to be doing co-creation quite naturally. How should they ensure that they keep this advantage even after scaling up and becoming successful?

MP: It seems to be easier for start-ups to co-create, but it doesn't mean they are taking full advantage. This is partially due to the fact that at some point people think they know all the answers; they get too confident. The power of co-creation truly comes to life when it is done in an ongoing manner.

The market is always changing, and the best way to keep ahead is to continuously engage and co-create with your target group. This way, you know when you have to change course. When scaling up, co-creation should remain a strategic focus.

YS: Most of the examples you have cited seem to be in the consumer sector – what are some unique challenges to co-creation in B2B networks? How can they be overcome?

MP: One clear issue with co-creation within a B2B context is that often the different parties in the full chain are not involved from the start. Often, only representatives of the users are present in sessions, or the end-user is never considered.

It is key to first map out the full system to understand their part in it, and to then engage with all to make sure everyone supports the outcome and find value in it.

YS: Complete co-creation works well if the users also have skills in production. But what about the making of complex products like X-Ray machines and helicopters, where the end-user does not have these production skills?

MP: Users don't always have the domain knowledge, that is true. But that is not always needed in the co-creation context. The point is that everyone brings their piece of the puzzle to the table.

A doctor, for instance, may know all about the medical condition with regards to diabetes. But do they understand what it is like to have it? What a patient has to go through each day? You see now that many recent diabetes solutions are focused on the experience of the patient. I can guarantee you that the patient has played a very big role in this.

So, even when building a helicopter, users can be involved though they may not know anything about the mechanics. A passenger could be part of the full development process, working on the flight experience from a passenger's point of view.

These considerations extend to the pilot (also a user of the helicopter), and a medical staff member (also a user from a B2B point of view, who could help design the best way to help people in need when using it). Even the cleaner could have a say to help make the cleaning process effective and efficient.

You have to think about the whole ecosystem and the different people who use or experience the final output. After all, a helicopter is not only an engine.

YS: What are the Top Three success factors for government and industry to work together for co-creation?

MP: Relevance (value), broad support, and effectiveness.

YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of the co-creation model? Any recent examples you can cite in this regard?

MP: The same way a for-profit entrepreneur does. The main difference is purpose, not how to get to value. For instance, at Signify we co-create with different organisations to help them solve social challenges, such as bringing light to those who don't have direct access to energy grids. This is part of our social responsibility programmes.

YS: What have been some achievements of your portal TheCocreators? For example, are there regular meetups of co-creators, an annual conference, a newsletter, an online discussion forum?

MP: Our main focus is reaching people via speaking at events as this suits our agendas; we are busy working full-time. I simply use Linkedin for sharing relevant experiences (this includes our Linkedin Group: TheCocreators’ co-creation network and discussion group), as well as publish various blogs and articles on different media.

Our aim is to create yearly gatherings, but this still needs to be arranged. Actually, if anyone is interested to help set this up, feel free to get in touch!

YS: You rightly point out that digital content/collaboration platforms can enable co-creation activities. What are some useful tools you have seen in this context?

MP: This has developed strongly over the last years and more and more of these platforms and tools are being created. We mention various in the book, such as Batterii, Battle of Concepts, or the platform of the municipality of Reykjavik.

The main point is though that there is no one solution - everything depends on the stage you are in, the question or challenge you are facing, and the context in which this has to take place.

YS: Thank you for showing how co-creation has been successful via examples from the Netherlands. Is there something unique in Dutch culture that makes co-creation succeed?

MP: We are a small country but with very engaged and entrepreneurial people who have learned that collaboration leads to a win-win. Examples of this can be found throughout our nation’s history -- for instance, in the way we battle the sea to keep our country from flooding, and how we live in a society where class differences are not well regarded.

In co-creation, everyone can add their piece of the puzzle and one needs all pieces to successfully solve it.

YS: Would you say co-creation comes naturally to the millennial generation - or is there some work to be done by them to improve co-creation?

MP: I think this is not a question of being millennial, though younger people seem to be more inclined to collaborate. I think it is a question of willingness to be open and put aside your own ego. That is possible for all generations, but requires work!

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

MP: Undecided. Our first focus is publishing the book in Dutch, which will happen by the end of this year.

YS: What is your parting message or advice to startups and aspiring entrepreneurs?

MP: We all have dreams and aspirations, we all want to build a bright future, but we can't do it ourselves and none of us holds all the answers. Regardless of technological skill, expertise in a certain field, or knowledge of a market, creating a valuable product or service requires many different elements to come together.

Co-creation is the glue that binds all. Make co-creation the way of how to do things and stick to it!