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If the conditions aren’t perfect to co-design, is it better to not co-design at all?

Updated: Mar 27

Sometimes I hear from our clients that they are hesitant to co-design with the people they support because they feel the conditions aren't perfect. In this article I thought I would provide my thoughts on the question, ‘if the conditions aren’t perfect to co-design, is it better to not co-design at all? Let's get into it!

When is the best time to Co-design?

There are many reasons why it may not feel like the perfect time to co-design with the people you support. It could be there is a quick turnaround time for the project, you are under-resourced, there isn’t a large project budget, or maybe you don’t think you can get absolutely everyone involved. The best approach is usually to try co-design from the beginning of a project and to work through these challenges so you do have everything you need, as co-designing from the start allows organisations to foster relationships and build understanding over time, laying a stronger foundation for collaboration and meaningful change. 

The problem with choosing to not co-design based on the conditions not being perfect, means the absence of community involvement, and that perpetuates the status quo of excluding their perspectives. Often the conditions aren’t perfect, so I always suggest working out ways to make sure it's still effective and meaningful within those constraints, otherwise it can be very easy to continue to work in conventional ways.

What if a project has already started, should we include people mid way through?

In some situations, leaders inherit projects already underway or maybe someone suggested the idea of bringing clients into an existing project after it has kicked off. In these cases, I’d say co-design can still add value if communities are engaged at the current stage. For example, getting input during prototyping allows their perspectives to shape solutions. While not ideal, I still do think this approach is preferable to no co-design involvement.

One scenario where co-design may not be appropriate in this scenario is if the organisation's intent is disingenuous. For example if leaders have already made a decision and are looking to use co-design to "reverse engineer" a predetermined solution rather than value diverse perspectives. Do not waste community time and effort if decision-making power will not truly be shared.

What if you aren’t super experienced?

No one starts as a co-design expert, organisations should focus on continuous learning. We all need to build our co-design muscles by meaningfully including diverse groups wherever possible. If you aren’t experienced though, get some support to help you rather than saying no to using co-design. Some examples of this are partnering with a more experienced practitioner in your organisation, or hiring a consultant or contractor to help guide you through your first few projects, whilst you build your skills. This prepares teams to more effectively engage all stakeholders over time.

While co-design can be a powerful tool for fostering collaboration and driving meaningful change, it's essential to start early, engage communities throughout the process, and avoid disingenuous approaches. By building skills through practice and committing to an open, collaborative process, organisations can harness the full potential of co-design to address complex challenges and create inclusive solutions that truly reflect the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders, even if the conditions aren’t perfect.  Because in the organisations we work in, the conditions often aren’t.

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