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Navigating Co-design Challenges: How to coax know-it-alls into collaborating

Authentic Co-Design recently hosted a conversation on the challenges of co-design (you can watch it here) and we were thrilled, but not surprised, to have so many of you participate!

Cartoon by Mark Stivers (a little blurry but so good we had to include it)

We know there can be so many internal and external challenges we face when undertaking co-design and one of the themes that came through the session was the challenge of dealing with experts who can become a bit of a ‘know-it-all' throughout the co-design process. Being a ‘know-it-all’ isn’t a bad thing, we appreciate and need to bring in all different kinds of knowledge (and blind spots) to a co-design process. But getting all our experts working together brings with it particular challenges - for example, it can be hard to take into account other opinions without becoming defensive when you have invested a significant amount of time developing your own knowledge base.

So, what can we do to help facilitate a more collaborative approach that builds on and respects the knowledge these participants hold while allowing for different voices and opinions to be heard without damaging any egos in the process? What was interesting about this was that experts (and know-it-alls) weren’t limited to one type of participant or stakeholder, they are involved in all sides of a co-design process, including:

  • The Subject Matter Expert: These are the participants who have extensive knowledge of the topic and feel that the community or other stakeholders have nothing to teach them. They have already found the best solution and are more interested in getting that solution ticked off than compromising. They are often invited to participate in the process directly and have a sense of status.

  • The Lived Experience Expert: These are the co-design panellists who have entered the process (either through random selection or an EOI) with a clear position and do not want their lived experience and knowledge to be challenged. They have a significant amount to gain/lose from the project and might find it harder to think big picture.

  • The Community Engagement Expert: Community Engagement practitioners that are highly knowledgeable and invested in the co-design process and have a fixed idea of what they want the process to look like and how an ideal process would be from their perspective.

Often, we might struggle with one participant displaying these behaviours, and sometimes we are lucky enough to have all three of these groups represented in one workshop. Here are some strategies for managing expectations and getting the best out of each of these participants. The Subject Matter Expert

The subject matter expert is a crucial participant and can be one of the most difficult to manage. They have commonly already invested hours into the issue and understanding how it relates to their subject area and may feel that there is only one correct solution to the problem being posed to the panel. These participants may be internal or external to the organiser of the co-design process and are often volunteering their time outside of work hours to be involved. We find the best strategy for managing this relationship is to:

  • Set up a briefing meeting at least 2 - 3 weeks in advance of the session they will be presenting at. Use this session to explain their role in the process (and how important it is!), the time they will have to present, and what questions they might expect from the panel.

  • Focus on their position as an advocate for a certain outcome - they don’t need to be impartial and can make their case. Removing these barriers and providing the ability to be upfront about their decision-making process and any concerns can help build trust.

  • Where possible, the person that knows the most might not be the best person to present at a co-design panel. You might instead be better off working with someone else in that team who can be informed by the project lead, but present the information in a way that does not appear defensive.

The Lived Experience Expert There are very few people that can enter a co-design environment as completely neutral and often at least a few participants have been attracted to the process due to their long-standing interest in the issue at hand. These participants often feel that they are experts because of the length of time they have been aware or involved in a project and because of the degree to which any decision will affect them. We will often be working with people that are passionate about achieving a particular outcome and might find it difficult to be objective on the issue and take in or trust the information being presented.

  • Where you are aware there are participants highly invested in the issue, consider reaching out to them before the general registration process to see if they would be willing to play a subject matter expert role. This is a great way for them to present their case without struggling to be open to learning new things with the wider panel or with new opinions entering into an issue they are passionate about.

  • If participants still want to get involved in co-design, make sure that the selection process briefs them on what is required of the panel - including the requirement to come into the process with an open mind and be willing to compromise and work with the broader group. Once you have a clear agreement on their role it can make it easier to manage this relationship during workshops.

  • Sometimes there is just too much history and emotion behind an issue for a participant to be able to actively co-design. You might be required to ask them to submit their own individual recommendations or counter-recommendations to the group so that their views can still be heard without causing the group to reach a stalemate.

The Community Engagement Expert The last type of expert whose input needs to be managed is us, the facilitators and community engagement specialists. We often enter these processes with a long list of our own expectations, not just needing to please the client and participants but also to have a process that we believe is robust and best practice.

Making sure we are aware of the bias we bring into the session and managing the expectations of the engagement team can be done by:

  • Have a clear purpose for the engagement that focuses on outcomes rather than outputs. This can help drive you to be present when facilitating and offer some flexibility to respond to not just what the client wants but also what the panel needs.

  • Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect process, every engagement process can and should be different and it is important to think of them as a learning experience that helps us build our knowledge and capabilities.

  • Keep in mind that we want to focus on building a relationship between the people that will remain involved in the project. There is no point in the community trusting the community engagement professionals and not the organising agent that will be there long after we are gone.

Have you come across these competing dynamics in your engagement processes? We’d love to hear how you’ve coped with different experts in the past to facilitate collaboration across the group.

If you are looking for more strategies to deal with different experts, personalities and other co-design challenges we recommend heading straight to and signing up for one of our self-paced courses or the special introductory offer on our upcoming 6-week co-design boot camp!


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