by Jack Martin Leith
This article consists of two parts:

  1. The three main co-creation meeting formats
  2. How can co-creation meeting formats be modified in order to incorporate the max4 principle?

Part 1: The three main co-creation meeting formats

What is a co-creation meeting?

A co-creation meeting is a collaborative gathering that takes place over half a day, an entire day or several days, and often forms part of a broader now-to-new intervention.

A co-creation meeting brings together diverse beneficiaries, often in large numbers (the upper limit is constrained only by the venue capacity) and with widely-differing agendas and perspectives, to discuss issues of heartfelt concern, share ideas, pool knowledge, explore possibilities and devise plans for sustained collaborative action.

Why do I call them co-creation meetings?

Co-creation meetings are known by various other names including large group interventions, large-scale events and ‘whole system in the room’ events.

Other ways of saying co-creation meeting

In the world at large, the terms meeting, conference, event and gathering tend to be used interchangeably. I mostly talk about meetings, indicating that people get together to do real work and not to be passive members of an audience. The co-creation qualifier denotes that participants are bringing something new into being, and they are doing it together.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the use of large group interventions such as Real Time Strategic Change, Future Search and Open Space Technology was widespread (and a renaissance is overdue). During that era, I established The Centre for Large Group Interventions, published Leith’s Guide to Large Group Interventions, and wrote Creating Collaborative Gatherings Using Large Group Interventions, which formed Chapter 28 of the Gower Handbook of Training & Development. However, the qualifier large group is misleading as the size of the group is not the issue. What matters is having the right people in the room, which could mean as few as six or as many as 1,000 people.

Download Creating Collaborative Gatherings Using Large Group Interventions (pdf; 10pp), published in 1999 and mostly still relevant.

Type 1, 2 and 3 co-creation meetings

There are three main co-creation meeting formats that I have named Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3. The labels are neutral, by design.

The key distinctions are summarised in the graphic below.

The three main co-creation meeting formats

Type 1 co-creation meetings

Real Time Strategic Change, Whole-Scale™ Change, Future Search, Search Conferences, World Café

Participants in a Type 1 meeting sit at round tables in ‘max-mix’ (maximum diversity) groups of eight, and work their way through a sequence of pre-designed, tightly orchestrated activities with minimal participant discretion with regard to conversation topics.

In The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, John Heron describes three modes of intervention design and facilitation, labeling them hierarchical (a.k.a. direction), cooperative (negotiation) and autonomous (delegation):

“The hierarchical mode Here you, the facilitator, direct the learning process, exercise your power over it, and do things for the group. You lead from the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group. You decide on the objectives and the programme, interpret and give meaning, challenge resistances, manage group feeling and emotion, provide structures for learning and honour the claims of authentic behaviour in the group. You take full responsibility, in charge of all major decisions on all dimensions of the learning process.”

“The co-operative mode Here you share your power over the learning process and manage the different dimensions with the group. You enable and guide the group to become more self-directing in the various forms of learning by conferring with them and prompting them. You work with group members to decide on the programme, to give meaning to experiences, to confront resistances, and so on. In this process, you share your own view which, though influential, is not final but one among many. Outcomes are always negotiated. You collaborate with the members of the group in devising the learning process: your facilitation is co-operative.”

“The autonomous mode Here you respect the total autonomy of the group: you do not do things for them, or with them, but give them freedom to find their own way, exercising their own judgment without any intervention on your part. Without any reminders, guidance or assistance, they evolve their programme, give meaning to what is going on, find ways of confronting their avoidances, and so on. The bedrock of learning is unprompted, self-directed practice, and here you delegate it to the learner and give space for it. This does not mean the abdication of responsibility. It is the subtle art of creating conditions within which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning.”

Source: John Heron, The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook (pdf; 428pp). He is talking about the facilitation of learning groups, but the three modes apply equally to action-focused groups.

+ Read about John Heron
John Heron (born 1928) is the originator of a participatory research method called co‑operative inquiry. He was the founder of the Human Potential Research Project at University of Surrey, and its director from 1970 to 1977. The Human Potential Research Project was Europe’s first university-based education centre for humanistic and transpersonal psychology.

Read more about John Heron and his work (long, informative and worth the effort)

Type 1 meetings, exemplified by Future Search, are high on the hierarchical and cooperative scales but low on the autonomous scale.

These terms hierarchical, co‑operative and autonomous are neutral. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that co‑operative and autonomous are ‘good’, whereas hierarchical is ‘bad’. Those participating in now-to-new projects and associated meetings need to employ all three modes.

In the graphic below, originated by Robert W. Keidel and presented in his book Seeing Organizational Patterns, the design variable named control corresponds with John Heron’s hierarchical / direction mode.

Robert Keidel's three design variables
The next graphic shows the strong correlation between John Heron’s facilitation modes and Robert Keidel’s design variables:
John Heron's three facilitation modes and Robert Keidel's three design variables

Type 2 co-creation meetings

Open Space, BarCamp, unconferences

A Type 2 meeting consists of a series of concurrent, self-determined and self-facilitated discussion groups related to a predetermined thematic question. This type of meeting, which uses the Open Space Technology format, is generally billed as an Open Space event, BarCamp or unconference. The meeting is lightly orchestrated and the process affords considerable participant discretion in terms of discussion topics and time usage.

Type 2 meetings are high on the cooperative and autonomous scales but low on the hierarchical scale.

Type 3 co-creation meetings

Composite

In a Type 1 meeting, all work is done in unison, whereas in a Type 2 meeting, most work occurs in self-organised breakout groups.

Type 3 meetings are a judicious blend of Types 1 and 2, providing the right balance of hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

This is the generic format of a Type 3 co-creation meeting:

Generic format of a type 3 co-creation meeting
The strengths of the Type 1 format compensate for the shortcomings of the Type 2 format, and vice-versa.

How I came to create the three distinctions

I have been designing, producing and facilitating co-creation meetings for three decades, having experienced Open Space for the first time in 1988 (the ‘Technology’ appendage was added a year later — read more) at the Sixth International Symposium on Organisation Transformation (OT6), held in Djurö, near Stockholm, Sweden.

OT symposia, OT1 to OT7
As an aside, Harrison Owen devised Open Space specifically for OT3 in 1985, and it became the format for almost every OT symposium from then on. It was used as an organisational intervention for the first time in 1989.

“And then, in 1989, Open Space escaped. Within a period of less than a month, Open Space was utilized with two vastly different groups in widely separated areas. Polymer Chemists from Dupont wrestled with the future of Dacron in the USA, followed immediately by a group of scholars and executives in India considering the issue of Learning in Organizations. It both cases, everybody sat in a circle, identified what had heart and meaning for them, and collectively organized a multi-session gathering in less than an hour. Something rather strange was taking place.”

Source: Opening Space for Emerging Order, by Harrison Owen.
On returning to the UK, I convened and facilitated a number of pro bono Open Space meetings before running my first professional one, for a prominent management consulting firm, in the early 1990s.

A little later, I learnt how to design, organise and facilitate co-creation meetings using Real Time Strategic Change, Future Search, SimuReal and other formats, and subsequently established The Centre for Large Group Interventions in 1995.

During this period my client list included Royal Dutch Shell, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Guinness Ireland Group (now Diageo Ireland) and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Going beyond the brief

Clients would usually specify the method they wanted to use for their co-creation meetings, but by the late 1990s I was either including a period of Open Space in Real Time Strategic Change and Future Search meetings, or sandwiching the largely autonomous Open Space process between pre-designed, tightly-orchestrated work sessions in which everyone participates.

Eventually, I abandoned the brand names and recipe book processes, and began custom-designing each co-creation meeting in tandem with the client team and in accordance with the Rich Co-creation principles that will be described in a future article.

My initial labels for the three formats were Tightly orchestrated, Loosely orchestrated and Hybrid. These were later replaced by the value-free designations Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 (revisit comparison chart).

Part 2: How can co-creation meeting formats be modified in order to incorporate the max4 principle?

Various research studies reveal that the maximum group size for a proper conversation is four. Five is just about OK, but, in larger groups, one or two people are likely to dominate; the conversation will probably break into two, even three; someone may be excluded from the conversation; and group energy will be low.

Read more about the max4 principle

In the remaining part of this article, I will suggest how the formats of Type 1 co-creation meetings (notably Real Time Strategic Change, Whole-Scale™ Change, Future Search, Search Conferences, and World Café) and Type 2 co-creation meetings (using Open Space Technology) might be modified in order to observe the max4 principle.

Type 1 co-creation meetings

Real Time Strategic Change, Whole-Scale™ Change, Future Search, Search Conferences

The format I am about to describe achieves three important aims:

A discussion group never has more than four members, in accordance with the max4 principle.

The format enables those who tend towards introversion to participate and contribute fully.

“Groups where conformity suppresses the generation of ideas have a tendency to produce, at best, barely adequate solutions, and, at worst, poor and predictable solutions. The best method is for each member of the group to spend significant time alone working on ideas, and for the group to assemble to discuss ideas these individuals have developed.”

Source: Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Occasional Paper No.6—An Officer and a Problem Solver (via Ed Brimmer).
The risk of groupthink is minimised.

The 1–2–4–8 way of working

Participants are seated eight to a table, divided into two groups of four, as shown in the graphic.

Applying the max4 principle to type 1 co-creation meetings
First, people work on their own.

Next, they share and develop their ideas and perspectives in pairs — not in fours, as introverts will probably feel more comfortable sharing their initial thoughts with an individual rather than a group.

The conversation then continues in the group of four.

Finally, the two groups of four consolidate their ideas and perspectives in readiness for a whole room report-out.

Pooling and sharing at the whole-table, rather than half-table, level provides an additional layer of anonymity and halves the number of report-outs.

Type 2 co-creation meetings

Open Space

If the session is a group discussion or a presentation followed by Q&A and it has more than four participants, then I suggest you follow this format. A time period from 12:00 to 13:00 is used as an example.

If session is interactive and has more than five participants, follow this format. An 11:40 to 12:40 timeslot is used as an example.

12:00 Session host introduces the topic, gives a short talk and poses a thought-provoking question. If the host is unable to formulate such a question, he or she can fall back on the default question: “So — what did you make of it?”

12:20 People form groups of four and discuss the question.

12:40 Groups merge; people continue to discuss the question.

13:00 Session ends.

If deemed necessary by the meeting design team, any significant insights can be captured for later sharing, either during or after the co-creation meeting.

This is a shameless repurposing of David Gurteen’s excellent Knowledge Café format, which you can explore further here, or by visiting David’s dedicated Knowledge Café website.

Type 3 co-creation meetings

Composite

A Type 3 meeting is a composite of Types 1 and 2. The strengths of each compensate for the shortcomings of the other. This graphic shows the default sequencing of the two formats:

The generic structure of a Type 3 co- creation meeting

Please send me a message if you are planning a co-creation meeting and want to incorporate the principles and practices covered in this article.