The difference between co-creating and creating
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
My creative process looks remarkably different when I'm making greeting cards than when I co-create.
When I make greeting cards I work by myself. I have a vision in mind, look at my supplies and begin cutting up pieces of colored paper to assemble. There's no rhyme or reason to how I compose my cards. I focus on doing the work, not articulating boundaries to do so. Ultimately, the process of doing the work inspires me to shift how I achieve my vision.
As I continue to experiment, I might abandon my original idea entirely. This happens when something new emerges as I look at the colors, shapes and textures together. Other times I persevere with my original vision, encouraged by how things are developing.
There have been instances where my final design fails to meet my vision, which feels disappointing. Other times, the cards turned out better than I ever imagined possible. My pinwheel greeting cards (made in memory of my friend's daughter Quincy Lou) remain my most favorite design to this day.
Either way, when making greeting cards, the process of give and take is entirely in my own mind. I am beholden to no one else, except my own standards and expectations. And I'm allowed to shift those on a dime should I choose to.
I many ways, the process of co-creating looks entirely different.
When I wrote A Misfit Entrepreneur's Guide with a community of co-creators, the creative process had well-articulated boundaries. I started by sharing my vision for the book - to help misfit entrepreneurs enjoy freedom through entrepreneurship by becoming masters of their journeys.
Co-creators signed up to contribute because they believed in the vision. We shared a common purpose. But that, in and of itself, is not enough to succeed at co-creating something.
From there I developed and shared more specific boundaries for the co-creating process. Those I communicated via a visual dashboard. I framed the consistent boundaries as Agreements. Here's a snapshot of some of our Agreements:
Be true to yourself
I own the copyright for the book
The other boundaries were more fluid and evolved with the process. Dates invariably changed. The questions we were pondering as a community of co-creators were my way of asking for targeted feedback - an important element of a successful co-creating process.
Unlike when I make cards, I have to stay true to and honor the boundaries of the co-creating process. This is where the creative process really differs from how I make cards. When making greeting cards I can make changes to the medium I am using on a whim. I might abandon cut paper for paint. I have even experimented with multi-medium cards. At points, I've let my daughter color in the card or will incorporate her art. Because I'm working on my own, I can let inspiration entirely shift the direction of my work.
But such whimsical changes don't fly when engaging in a co-creating process.
I often see leaders struggle to successfully manage co-creating efforts because they treat it like an individual pursuit. They let their own whims in the moment dictate things. A shared standard that was once in place is no longer there. Feedback that was sought is suddenly null and void without sufficient explanation. Decisions that were supposed to be made by a team are now driven by an individual.
When this happens, the integrity of the co-creating process is undermined.
Shared boundaries are essential when co-creating because they offer a container for everyone's efforts. The creative process is inherently filled with uncertainty. Boundaries provide a familiar structure which allows for more creative contributions.
When those boundaries are broken, chaos ensues. If the leader doesn't have to follow through on shared agreements, why should anyone else? The presence of so much uncertainty sparks fear and as a result, trust erodes.
As this happens, co-creating projects tend to either fizzle or become individual pursuits (unless there's an intentional effort to course-correct with the collective).
Without sufficient trust, there is a greater need for control. The foundation that held the collective together disintegrates. And individual needs, especially those of the ego reign. Without a shared understanding and mutual respect for boundaries, the co-creating process becomes a series of power plays.
It’s true, while writing A Misfits Guide I retained the right to make final decisions and owned the end Product. You could argue that gave me the power. And I choose to engage in a power with dynamic creatively. When it came to developmental feedback, we were equals. I had to approach those conversations open and willing to listen because that was our norm for engagement.
Letting go of how the book developed was an exercise in serving a higher purpose. It wasn’t about me. I had to put my own ego aside in order to allow the book to evolve into the best version of itself possible. Listening to and incorporating the feedback of co-creators made it a better read than I would have on my own (even with an editor).
My co-creators were engaged and enthusiastic contributors because of the shared boundaries established early on. Paramount to the process is a shared understanding of how decisions will be made. I was clear from the beginning that I would make final decisions. If I had a co-author we would have shared that responsibility.
Pre-determining who and how decisions will be made in a co-creative process might feel awkward to do in the beginning. But it is as essential to a successful co-creating process as following the boundaries is.
When I lead teams in co-creating retreat experiences, we designate a small design team to work with me. I establish who is responsible for making final decisions and how with the leader from the beginning. We convey that to the design team and do our work together. Because we follow the process and shared working agreements, we end up with a highly engaging retreat. The team goes deeper than they would have otherwise because they had a direct influence in the design.
That is possibly the ultimate distinction between individual creation and a co-creation process. Recipients of my cards are engaged in a spectator sport, watching from the sidelines. Co-creators are in the arena with me. This distinction changes everything about their own relationship to the work and ultimately the end product.