Corona Conversations #3: Lessons from a Co-Creative Conversation; Why it actually isn’t just talk.

This is the third of three articles originally published on in connection with the public Corona Conversations in April and May 2020 by Dr Steve Ellis and myself tackling sense- and decision-making, agency and collaboration in the post-pandemic world. 

If the future of all communication in the pandemic-prone world is online, we need to look at how to ensure the quality of that conversation. It turns out the problems we face are bigger than sketchy connections and noisy microphones…

The first instalment of the public online Corona Conversations took place last Monday, exactly one month after the UK went into lockdown. This article is an honest look at what can be learned about the format of the conversation from this first experimental event. This first event was attended by, in random order, academics, engineers, financiers, tech entrepreneur, educators, social inclusion specialists, knowledge management advisers, business consultants and other walks of life.

As the conference designer, my main concern was how to transfer the living and lucid interpersonal experience of the Co-Creative Conversation from the controlled environment of a classroom or conference hall to the synthetic environment of the online conference software. Those who have read the previous article on social media may find this a noxious bout of confirmation bias, but after this experience I’m not convinced that the regimented format of the Co-Creative Conversation, nor even perhaps real human engagement, can be replicated online without a substantial changes to both software and human attitude.

Does this look connected?

Co-Creative Conversation: Out of the maze

The Co-Creative Conversation is not a conference, it’s not a webinar, it’s not a meeting in any sense of those words. A Co-Creative Conversation uses the theories underpinning Cooperative Learning to micromanage engagement to ensure equal participation and individual accountability. And that’s just for starters. Cooperative Learning is a surgical tool that can organise human interaction to achieve virtually any outcome. Would you like nursery children to learn manners? Done. Would you like graduates to learn about the impact of historical communism on contemporary Russian politics? You have it. Would you like delegates to uncover why your business or organisation is not working as well as it should? Bingo. Cooperative Learning turns each and every human being in any context into a resource for themselves and for their peers.

But this transformation does not happen automatically — it’s not enough to sit people down in a group and tell them to talk. Rather, this transformation happens because there is a structure that supports trust, equality, responsibility. And because there is a rigorous application of what has now become a buzzword in education: direct instruction. Using direct instruction, the teacher sets up every individual to succeed, whether it’s the new girl in a Year 2 class in a village primary school or it’s the head of human resources at a global mining corporation. Cooperative Learning operationalises the social constructivism which is at the heart of all human learning: “I think the integral should be 57, what do you think?” — “I used this phrase to open my persuasive text, can you give me some feedback please?” or “I assume the problems with you tech supporters is that they are not getting enough training, am I right” — etc.

In other words, Cooperative Learning can do anything, simply because Homo Sapiens working effectively together can do anything, whether it is killing a mammoth or building a space station. ‘Effectively’ being the key to understanding the undisputed success of Cooperative Learning in education,* because the combination of direct instruction and targeted conversation helps get everyone to understand the common goal. Or “Singing from the same hymn sheet with their individual voices,” as one headteacher once mused.

How it works?

We cannot work together effectively if we all want to do different things because we interpret the procedure, let alone the goal itself, differently. And this precisely is where a lot of problems grow proportionally to the size and complexity of organisations. In this regard, the Co-Creative Conversation is the logical next step in the evolution of Cooperative Learning. It uses many of the same tools as one would apply to children and young adults in learning environments to delegates of any age. It also recalibrates the process from the usual deductive approach of the classroom to a inductive foray into the unknown based on ‘trigger’ input from the facilitator.

This is much in the way of the traditional Knowledge Café. However, where the Knowledge Café concept is a series of unstructured discussions, the Co-Creative Conversation guides and scaffolds delegates to keep them on task and on point, distribute time equally between peers, give adequate and meaningful feedback, and share newly produced knowledge with precision and diligence. If desired, it also produces a written log of each individual’s thinking process, replete with timestamps, for later data mining and further application of the freshly generated knowledge.

It actively supports (and in some cases enforces) the humility and patience needed for the participants to sit and listen until they get your x-minute window to contribute — not an easy task if you are a go-getting, hyperactive manager raised on hitting solutions fast and with a bias for action. Or, adversely, for an academic who wants to spend an hour analysing which theory is most suited to actually analyse the problem at hand.

“I’ve certainly not given up the idea and I am absolutely ready to learn from this and to improve.”

This specific conversation was to be built around three trigger questions, “What are you seeing differently?”-“How should things be different?”-“What are you going to do differently?” Each trigger question would be followed by (ideally) 10 minute discussions in 4-man breakout groups, each discussion preceded by a timed personal presentation where each individual would have both right and responsibility to present their understanding, and followed cross-fertilisation of ideas between teams, again micro-controlled to ensure the knowledge was diligently passed on and feedback would be brought back to the “home team.”

And that’s just the basic outline. But, alas, this is the age of the machine.

Ghost in the machine

In a room with 4 to 8 tables with four delegates each, where the facilitator has a commandeering view, can move freely, and monitor unobtrusively, discreetly approach individuals to keep them on task, guide and support as needed, this is no small feat. In a Zoom meeting, it is impossible. In a Zoom meeting, the much vaunted breakout room feature I intended should mimic the teams blinds the facilitator to what happens inside the individual rooms unless he inelegantly enters them as a delegate, invariably interfering with the sharing process, much like the quantum physicist gawking at an elusive atom.

Add to this the actual glitches and bugs that means some delegates do not wind up in their allotted breakout room, but instead find themselves marooned in the (virtual) main conference hall and the fact that the software cannot remember where it has previously placed delegates, so that it accidentally regenerates identical teams when people are moved to share information. And on top of this you have the usual issues of connectivity, noisy microphones, incorrect sound settings and odd angle head shots. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and so forth might be acceptable for online learning and staff meetings. They are not, however, up to scratch when it comes to the high reaches of Co-Creative Conversation.

Human, all too human

Aside from the mechanical issues, there is also the issue of how people engage when they are sitting in their own dining room and the line between the private and public sphere is deeply blurred. A consequence of this is that people make last-minute decisions not to join or are delayed by issues that would be irrelevant if the conversation was taking place in conference room this-or-that at their institution’s headquarters. The piecemeal entry of delegates wound up stretching the opening sequence before the breakout sessions far beyond the 10 minutes we had planned. And once people start introducing themselves, as one would normally do, it is rude not to give everybody an opportunity. Once this happens, the facilitator has let go of the crucial control that is a prerequisite for a successful Co-Creative Conversation.

One consequence of this was that the the planned prompt question “What are you seeing differently?” had lost its punch because it had already been dealt with. As a consequence, swept away in the general melee, once I presented a short input, which rehashed some of the topics laid out in the previous articles on the need for this type of conversation and my concerns about social media in Corona times I made a decision to simply let people continue the same conversation in the breakout rooms.

This really only compounded the problem, as it left me stuck in the main conference room and allowed the completely unmonitored delegates to launch into areas or topics which spread the focus of the overall conversation too thinly. Again, the loss of control is a loss to all. And yet, as one of the delegates remarked to me when (yet another) glitch left us alone together in the main hall that he could easily see how this would work if I was physically present, but that as soon as people go into the breakout rooms, people forget all about the initial turn taking that would have brought everyone’s valuable thoughts to the table. Instead, we find the people who feel they have little say falling silent and missing the opportunity for themselves and their peers to unpick their knowledge, and the more verbose and self-confident quickly stepping in to hear themselves saying the same things they said yesterday. As exciting as this may have been for some delegates, this was not a Co-Creative Conversation. It’s just talking. If I’ve learned anything from this first experience, it is that I need a great deal more assertiveness in that eerie synthetic space that may be the future of both learning and conferences.

David Gurteen, the Godfather of conversation, was kind enough to spend the entire evening with us in spite of my amateurish facilitation (let’s call a spade a spade) shared some tentative thoughts which brilliantly sum up everything that I learnt from the event:

  • Make the purpose of the session absolutely crystal clear and make the question(s) totally clear. (In other words: Keep it simple, stupid!)
  • Connection before content: Give people plenty of time to get to know each other and small group conversation, maybe share profiles before the event.
  • But the prompt question in the group chat and broadcasted to the breakout rooms.
  • Make one person in each room the host and fully brief them beforehand (I love this, and look forward to trying it in the next instalment. It ties in beautifully with empowerment and responsibility being at the heart of the Co-Creative Conversation).
  • David made a very strong point, that going straight into a turn-by-turn series of monologues at the start the small-group conversations may backfire. Some people have nothing to say and might wind up making up some impersonal nonsense just to please or simply talk about something else, and feel very uncomfortable to boot. In David’s terms: “They need to talk from passion, not from obligation.”
  • Maybe give people instructions in material to read beforehand. (Doctor Steve Ellis, my partner in crime, interestingly suggested that the delegates I has to produce a short think piece in advance which might help take care of the above problem)
  • To build strong relationships between the participants, and also to have a strong shared context, you almost certainly need to run several sessions with the same group of people over a period of time. (Certainly will do).

Again, control or freedom — in which situation and with which group of people at which stage in the proceedings will bring about the most creative conversation is the question that hovers above any questions actually asked.

To end on a positive note, I’ve certainly not given up the idea and I am absolutely ready to learn from this and to improve. I’m even considering teaming up with a programmer to design software package designed specifically to facilitate Co-Creative Conversation. Because while there are many downsides, they are hopefully teething problems. And the upsides should not be scoffed at. Suddenly one does not need to worry about the usual logistics of getting a specific group of people into the same room at the same time. In theory they could be anywhere in the world — if only the software would work and the facilitator remembered that, in spite of all the tech, his role as the same as it always is: to form safe social space which lets all delegates participate in working towards a common goal.

As Steve Ellis rightly pointed out is that given where we are, and that the virus is not going away anytime soon, we just have to get better at this type of engagement. The alternative is bleak, insular and wholly backwards thinking about self preservation only. If we are not really careful we will be focussed too much on simply getting ourselves and our organisations back to where we were which, with all the inequality and inequity is not actually a good outcome for many. Is that really the best we can do??

Further reading is the business end of

*) “Over 40 years a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have provided consistent evidence about the benefits of collaborative learning.” Education Endowment Foundation (Accessed 1 May 2020)

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