I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


What is co-design and why should I incorporate it?

Co-design was championed as a progressive method for learning and teaching by Paulo Freire. It was known as critical pedagogy. I asked all interviewees to what extent they thought co-design was useful within their organisations.

The benefits are huge—in the short, medium and long term:

  • it makes people feel trusted and capable
  • it gives people a sense of ownership over their work
  • it inspires creative thinking and collaboration
  • it is motivating

“People want to be able to self-determine. They want to be trusted. They want to feel like they can be successful. They just need the basic building blocks to be clear about what’s needed and what good looks like. Then a manager’s job is to support somebody to deliver that in a way that works. Good teachers do that too.” Ruth Marvel

But it’s not a panacea. Co-design has its limitations and needs to be used thoughtfully and with good structures in place.

  • it works only if people have the bandwidth to cope with creating their own work pattern
  • you have to make sure you are asking the right questions at the start otherwise people will feel lost
  • you must share objectives and timelines at the start so that there is forward momentum
  • build in extra time because it takes longer than if you just tell people what to do

“It can feel like paralysis if there’s not strong enough direction,” says Carey Oppenheim.

What’s the best practice then?

Have a very clear idea at the start what you want to achieve from the project that is going to be co-designed. As the leader, or lead-facilitator, your role is to firmly delineate the parameters of the project:

  • aims
  • objectives
  • timeline
  • skills needed
  • resources available

The project needs a well-facilitated kick-off session or workshop, where the team (especially if they don’t know each other) has an opportunity to understand the project and to ask questions and to engage with the others involved.

Different team members will need different levels of support, structure and guidance. When people are given space to shape the project and how they are going to work, the leader, or lead-facilitator, needs to check in constantly—a bit like you’re Miles Davis giving people freedom to improvise while also ensuring that everyone is playing in time, in tune.

As with many projects, momentum will build quickly at the start, but might fade at different moments for different team members as they each face different obstacles. It’s important to plan for varied energy levels, to check in regularly, and to build in time for the team to re-energise and have fun.

Be prepared for mistakes, and build in time to use them as learning opportunities.

At the end of the project, make sure there is time to celebrate, and also time to reflect on:

  • what went well
  • what we could have done more (or less) of
  • what we’d like to do differently next time


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s