One of the resources Better Together has been using as a pillar to drive the principles of engagement is co-design, which is fundamental for better collaboration, commitment and community empowerment. Co-design brings diverse communities together to develop new ideas, innovative approaches and drive collective action.

The Tamarack Institute featured a really interesting article by Lisa Attygalle on facilitating co-design but virtually! This is really challenging but it is needed more than ever given the current online environment we are living in.

We have summarised the key insights of Lisa’s article below hoping they might give you a hint of what you need to look at when including co-design as part of your engagement strategy.

There are a number of excellent frameworks for co-design such as the one from Twyfords. The model below, however, is based on a series of divergent and convergent phases that you work through to:

  1. Share perspectives – Learn about the issues considering different points of view
  2. Form a common vision – Define a shared question, vision, or plan
  3. Build new ideas – Brainstorm and generate ideas that might achieve the common vision
  4. Decide on a path forward – Trim and align the top ideas

Phase 1:
Sharing diverse perspectives

This will allow you to learn together before moving to solutions, ensuring issues are understood from multiple perspectives. The goal of this phase is to create space for participants to share genuinely.

  • Using an online meeting platform (e.g. Zoom, Teams, Skype) after an introduction on the topic, you can use the breakout rooms functionality to organise participants into small, random groups to get things started.
  • Set up a shared document to help with notetaking for all groups considering the following suggestions:
    • Use just one shared document for people to record their thoughts and see the thoughts of others.
    • Make sure the document can be edited by everyone.
    • Include in the document the question/s and space for each breakout group to record their key insights.
    • Make sure you have someone else to provide technical support. Don’t try to facilitate and help with technicalities as it will get challenging.

Below are three suggested activities that you can use to start the process:

1. “Tell Me More” Appreciative Inquiry Exercise
Used for small groups to foster deep listening. You will need approximately 15 minutes plus sharing back time.

Provide one shared appreciative question such as:

  • What’s your experience with (the topic)?
  • What is the thing you care most about as we develop (the topic)?

Organise people in random groups of 3 and coordinate 3 rounds of 3 minutes each. In each round, participants will rotate through these roles:

  • Sharing their perspectives in response to the question above.
  • Listening to and prompt the speaker by saying, “tell me more”.
  • Capturing high-level notes in the shared document.

At the end, ask the groups to discuss their takeaways and record them in the shared document as they will be sharing them back with the main group.

2. Community Conversations
Mid-sized group conversation to explore a shared question. You will need about 20 minutes plus share back time.

Break into groups of 5-8 people to discuss, in about 15-20 minutes, one shared question such as:

  • What’s happening now regarding (the topic)?
  • What’s the change you want to see?

Ask groups to assign a note-taker to record a summary of the discussion in the shared document.

To finalise, highlight as a group, the key takeaways and share back with the main group.

3. Presentations and discussions

Short presentations to share data and perspectives, followed by discussion time. You will need 45 minutes to an hour plus share back time.

Presentation ideas include:

  • Data collected through recent community/stakeholder engagement.
  • Stories from people with lived experience of the issue (where applicable).

Keep presentations to 10 minutes max and focus on key findings. If presentations need to be longer, share them before the session as homework.

After each presentation, go into breakout groups of 5 people to discuss:

  • Was this information expected?
  • What is the good and bad side of the story?
  • How has your perspective changed based on this information?

Allow 8-10 minutes for each discussion.

At the end, get the groups to discuss their key insights and to share back with the main group.

Facilitating Share Back

This is important to move the group from ‘divergence’ to ‘convergence’.

Share backs can take more time than expected, so provide clear instructions beforehand, e.g. each group to have 1 or 2 minutes to share the top 3 takeaways.

Sharing back will create momentum for the next phase: forming a common vision.

Phase 2:
Forming a common vision

What is it we all hope for? What is it that we are all excited to work towards?

The output of this phase could be a goal statement, shared design question, a whole theory of change or a plan on a page.

The following exercises are useful to get people to think about what they want to change:

1. Cover Story Exercise

This exercise uses a frame of a magazine cover to help groups define a shared vision. You will need approximately 35 minutes plus share back time.

  • Explain the exercise and organise participants in breakout rooms of five people.
  • Use Jamboard (Google)/ Whiteboard (Office) or a shared document to have each group create their cover story. Set them up in advance though, it will save you time. See an example from Lisa.
  • Groups to use sticky notes, images, drawing tools to create their cover story.
  • Check-in each breakout room to see how groups are going and answer questions.
  • At the end, bring the groups back to the main room to present their cover story.

2. Critical Shifts
Defines what isn’t working and what is needed moving forward to be successful.

  • Explain the exercise and organise participants into breakout rooms of 5 people.
  • Use a shared document for groups to name the changes they want which must be as measurable as possible. You can set up the page in advance to save time.
  • Check-in each breakout room to see how groups are going and answer questions.
  • At the end, bring the groups back to the main room and to present their changes.

Virtual Synthesis

These exercises help participants move their individual perspectives into shared perspectives. Virtual synthesis options include:

  • Co-facilitator to copy and paste from the individual group pages into a master list and group ideas in themes. This master list is then shared, via screen, in the main group.
  • Ask participants to review the group responses (3-5 minutes) and indicate their top 3. In a shared document, each participant can write a comment next to those ideas. If using Jamboard or Whiteboard, people can draw checks or stars next to their favourite ideas.
  • Once time is up, check the top responses from the group.

Offline Synthesis

By now the group will have a sense of the shared vision, but it will still need a bit of fine-tuning. Review the cover stories, note keywords and phrases, and then draft a vision statement. Share it with the group for their input and approval asking:

  • Does this capture our shared intent?
  • Is anything missing?

You will return to the vision statement through the remainder of the co-design process as you move forward.

By now, your group will have reached some form of a shared vision which is critical and a starting point to build new ideas.

Phase 3
Build new ideas

This is about embracing the possibilities, dream big and think creatively. Your role in this phase is to create the virtual space to brainstorm considering the shared vision. This is a divergent phase so the process might get messy.

Some ideas you might want to consider for brainstorming are:

1. Virtual Brainstorm Session

  • Invite participants to think in a constructive way using a few grounding rules for brainstorming:
    1. Defer judgment
    2. Encourage wild ideas
    3. Build on the ideas of others
    4. Stay focused on the topic
    5. One conversation at a time
    6. Be visual
    7. Go for quantity
  • Work with breakout groups of 5-7 people to brainstorm. Here are two ways in which you can do this:
  1. Simple Brainstorm (30-45 mins) – Individual brain dump for 3-5 mins and sharing with the group afterwards.
    • A shared document should be used to capture ideas in a way that is clear where to add the brainstorming work.
    • Encourage groups to theme their ideas so that similar ideas are put together.
  2. Conversation CafĂ© Brainstorm (20 mins) – Label the shared document with a different theme area on each page.  Then add headings for Discussion and Ideas.
    • Start each group on a different theme and get groups to brainstorm about each theme for 10 minutes.
    • Get everyone back to the main room and provide instructions to move to the next theme.
    • Each group will add to the previous group’s brainstorm.
    • Continue until all groups have contributed to all themes.
  • At the end of either brainstorm session, ask groups to choose their top 3-5 ideas and share them with the whole room.

2. Discovery and Action Dialogues

A process to create solutions through a series of seven progressive questions. It requires between 30 and 60 minutes to be completed:

  • Send participants to breakouts groups of 5-15 people
  • Set up a shared document for each group with the following questions:
    1. How do you know when problem X is present?
    2. How do you contribute effectively to solving problem X?
    3. What prevents you from doing this or taking these actions all the time?
    4. Do you know anybody who is able to frequently solve problem X and overcome barriers? What behaviours or practices made their success possible?
    5. Do you have any ideas?
    6. What needs to be done to make it happen? Any volunteers?
    7. Who else needs to be involved?
  • Groups can make their way through these questions in a way that makes sense to them so the conversation flows.
  • Check-in every breakout room to help people manage their time.
  • Ask each group to record their main takeaways and top ideas.

After this phase, participants tend to be excited about the new ideas and eager to see what can be made real.

Phase 4
Aligning on ideas

After phase 3 your participants will be connected, they will understand their shared vision and will have given a whole lot of ideas. There’s momentum but it might still feel messy…. Here is where you start with phase 4.

The goal of this phase is to work together to understand:

  1. The viability of ideas – Will the idea work? Will it solve the problem? What resources would be required?
  2. The energy behind the ideas – What are people excited about? Who has the time, energy, skills, or power to make it happen?

Once these 2 components are understood, a plan forward can be created.

Developing the Top Ideas

What ideas you want to develop depends on the complexity of the project. Here are some ways in which you can do this:

From the list of ideas brainstormed in phase 3, get participants to select which idea they want to work on:

  • If you’re doing phase 3and Four in one session: At the end of phase 3, ask each person to select the idea they are most interested in for a further brainstorm session. Group participants who have selected the same idea in the same breakout room for this process to happen.
  • If phase 3 and 4 are separate sessions: you could send out a survey where participants select an idea to work on, or you could ask them to name their preferred idea when they RSVP.

Facilitating the Idea Exploration (20-50 minutes + shareback)

  • Set up a shared document for recording ideas.
  • Groups will spend 15-45 minutes discussing the idea to name the features, benefits, what it might look like, and the steps to make it real.
  • Get each group to present their refined idea to the main group.

Prioritise Ideas using the Effort/Impact Matrix

Before doing any prioritisation, bring the shared vision to the screen and ask participants to use it as a guide to evaluate the ideas that have been brainstormed.

The key question is: To what degree will this idea help achieve this vision?

The Effort/Impact Matrix provides a collective process for prioritising ideas. Here is how it works:

  • Set up a shared document with the matrix (here’s a template).
  • Ask participants to take the top ideas and plot them on the matrix. Do this as a group activity.
  • This can be done as a whole group discussion or in smaller groups and then you can compare across the matrixes
  • Debrief – What are you most excited about?

Another option is to look at the balance between passion and resources available:

  • List all top ideas in a shared document for all participants to access.
  • Ask them to add their name in red to the idea they are most passionate about.
  • Ask them to add their name in blue to the idea they are currently working on.
  • The ideas that have a good balance of red and blue names are the most promising ones as there are the energy and skills to implement!

After you finish phase 4, you can start planning.

We hope you have found this series of articles useful. You can find out more about this and other interesting engagement topics on the Tamarack Institute website.

Good luck with your next virtual co-design session!