Co-creation: learn from the masters.

Posted on Friday 29 July 2011 at 10:43 am in category: Whatever
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This was written for The Creative Impulse

Of course I should never have tweeted that I would write a blog post for anybody, about any subject.

Because within minutes, @CreativeImpulse asked me to write something about co-creation. Of course I was too proud to just say I wouldn’t do it, so here I am, writing about ‘co-creation’, something I’ve never thought about before, and a subject I would’ve never come up with myself. But here we go...

To understand what co-creation is about, we should go back to the origins of it. Co-creation has of course been around for years. I’m pretty sure Neanderthals already worked together to a common goal, maybe by pure instinct, learning lessons along the way. There are however examples of co-creation that go ever further back than that. To really get to the essence of co-creation, we should look at the inventors of co-creation, that have perfected the art over millions of years: Ants (arguably you could also say ‘bees’, but for the sake of this blog post I will keep to one insect, if you don’t mind)

Ants are a beautiful example of co-creation. One ant can’t get a lot done, they need to work together. How do they do it?

A clear common goal.

Although the goal of the sub-groups in an ant colony might be different, eventually they are working towards the same goal. One group might be focusing on getting food, another nursing the infants, but everything they do is helping towards their main goal, to keep the colony going. When people co-create the goal usually is not to keep the group alive, but what we can learn here is that there should be a clear, common goal that everyone is working towards.

Division of labor.

An ant colony is divided into a bunch of sub-groups. They have workers, soldiers, drones, one or more queens, and there may be more groups, depending on what species of ant you look at. These sub-groups have specific tasks, and do nothing but that task. They might not even know there are other tasks, and they don’t care. This is also how human co-creation should work. At the start of the project, the required labor should be divided into specific tasks, and these tasks should be assigned to someone, or a group of co-workers. In reality, people will always try to get involved in someone else’s task, or criticize what the others are doing. This should be kept to a minimum. Do as the ants do!


Ants have means of communication. They communicate with chemical signals, called pheromones. This is not recommended for people, but what we can learn here is that communication is very important when trying to co-create. Use everything you have access to: E-mail, phone, social networking, online docs (the cloud). There are endless possibilities here, but make sure that it is clear from the start which medium is used for what, to avoid issues. Communication is good, but there needs to be somebody on each end of the line for it to work, so make sure there are clear instructions for communication channels.


Ants can learn from each other in all kinds of ways, but it is sure that they understand the concept of interactive teaching, like for example the process of tandem running, where knowledgeable ants lead other ants to new discoveries. This concept can almost be carbon copied to use in co-creative processes.

No mercy.

Ants are notoriously merciless. If the weaker ants in the colony need to form a dam in a body of water so the workers can get to the other side, it will be done without question. No dear readers, I am not saying you should slaughter the less productive people in your co-creative group, or follow orders like a division of Waffen-SS soldiers. What we can learn from this, is that sometimes it is necessary to leave people behind that can not keep up with the pace of developments. If you want to be a successful co-creator, sometimes you will have to change the team, get new people involved, and leave behind weaker links. I know this sometimes goes against human nature, but remember how the ants do it. There is a goal, and it will be reached, it does not really matter how.


One important thing to keep in mind that a co-creative process should have a ‘Queen’ (yes, this could be a guy as well). The Queen will have to make decisions. Divide the labor, set goals, make rules for communication, and show no mercy.