Co-Creation – A Primer from the Harvard Business Review

What is co-creation anyway? Depends who you ask.  For us it most often means adding the voice of the user into the innovation process, not as passive respondents, but as active participants.  Of course, CK Prahalad author of the co-creation manifesto “The Future of Competition: Co-creating Unique Value with Customers,  got first dibs at defining co-creation by popularizing the concept back in 2000 as creating value through collaboration with partner companies and with active customers

In a more recent article in the HBR, Edelman’s Stefan Stern outlines the top Do’s and Don’ts for successful co-creation.

Everyone says they are in favor of open innovation and co-creation. We have all heard about the wisdom of crowds, bringing the outside in, and have bought the t-shirt which states that “none of us is as smart as all of us.”

But what is co-creation, really, and how do you do it right? Co-creation involves working on new product and service ideas together with the customers who are going (you hope) to buy them. It turns “market research” into a far more dynamic and creative process. (The term co-creation was of course popularized by CK Prahalad.) It’s easy for the C-suite to sign up to co-creation. But very often it goes against the grain of how they built their careers in the first place. This does not come naturally. Where to start?


I had a great conversation about co-creation recently with the people at Sense Worldwide, a London consultancy. Well — I say “conversation.” Mostly I was listening. The content of this conversation was not really co-created. But Sense’s chief executive Jeremy Brown and director of strategy Brian Millar gave me some terrific pointers on co-creation, which I want to share with you here.

 “When you need to transform a brand or product, you can’t just do the same things better,” Brown said. “You need to do something new. You tap into the creativity of your consumers.” Brown and Millar told me that Sense has been running co-creation, both in global online communities and in workshops around the world, for over a decade.

 They have established some co-creation Do’s and Don’ts.


  1.    DO forget everything you know about recruiting people for research. Traditional research looks for the typical user and avoids extreme users, those professionally involved with the category, or in product design.  These are your prime co-creators; the designers, the professionals, the bloggers, the rejecters, the extreme users, and the hackers.
  2.   DO have an open mind on who you bring into co-creation team. Diversity drives creativity.
  3.   DO create a community, co-creation is a process and works best when there is a sense of community among co-creators.
  4.   DO meet face to face – even if your co-creation team is online, do get the team together at least once a year at a co-creation summit.
  5.    DO look beyond the ideas – the art of co-creation is in looking for the big themes that underpin individual ideas.
  6.   DO get your top people involved in the co-creation team workshops.
  7.   DO co-create for someone – have a target user in mind, and focus on co-creating for them.
  8.  DO prototype – prototype, prototype, prototype; make your ideas real with prototypes.


  1.   DON’T run a ”make us an ad” campaign – it isn’t co-creation, and will almost inevitably be won by advertising professionals doing a bit of moonlighting.
  2.    DON’T make your team to big too fast.
  3.   DON’T underestimate the work required in keeping an online team energized.
  4.   DON’T present co-created ideas to your design team as a fait accompli. Nothing will alienate the team faster. Get them involved in the co-creation process. Get them to think of co-creation as a way to get better briefs and new places to explore.
  5.    DON’T criticize stupid-sounding ideas. They’re often attempts to solve an intelligently-defined problem.

 That’s it. Simple. But not easy. 


– Stephan Stern, 2011