Organizational leaders increasingly recognize the value of client advisory boards to help guide company strategy. Focus groups that invite multiple clients to share their insights around existing company products and services have been around for a long time. However, when it comes to true co-design with a single client, companies often get cold feet. In my experience, organizational leaders may see an opportunity to work with a client to co-develop a new offering that will benefit both parties, but three primary factors hold them back: an unwillingness to be vulnerable with clients; concerns about sharing confidential or proprietary information; and a lack of knowledge about how to enter into the process successfully. However, with the right approach, all of these concerns can be mitigated and the results are powerful.

Below are nine strategies for a successful client co-design session:

In advance of the session…

  1. Prepare your organization. Create a cross-functional sponsor team within your organization to help identify the areas of insight you hope to gain from your customers. With these insights in mind, gather the right information (and right amount of it) to share with your customers.
  2. Involve your customers. Engage your customers early in the planning and design of the event to ensure buy-in and enthusiasm. As part of this process, identify areas of strategic interest for your customer and use them to inform the exploration you do within the session.
  3. Be ready to share openly and honestly. Logistically, this means getting the necessary MSA’s and NDA’s in place prior to the meeting. From a process standpoint, it means truly sharing your strategy with each other and being open about not just your goals, but the challenges and risks involved. As you pull together the information you want to share at the session, don’t shy away from revealing a few warts and scars. An area your company struggles with might be exactly the place that your client can offer the greatest support and opportunities for innovation.
  4. Make sure each participant will play a role. Co-design sessions work with varying numbers of participants, the key is that everyone must participate. No bystanders. Often when companies invite their clients in for a meeting, they line the perimeter of the room with onlookers. While this may stem from a desire to be attentive, it undermines the ability to establish a collaborative dynamic in the room. Those co-designing feel onstage and differing levels of participation remind people that they are operating within an organizational hierarchy.


During the session…

  1. Get to know each other personally. Co-design involves trust. You can’t expect people to partner if they haven’t had the opportunity to get to know one another. Design-in opportunities for participants to connect on a personal level. Host a social event the night before. One client I worked with organized an evening of archery lessons and wine tasting (the alcohol came after the arrows). Once you kick-off the meeting, prompt individuals to share a more personal side of themselves through a simple ice-breaker question (What is your favorite movie and why?) or questions requiring more vulnerability (Who has inspired you in your life and how? What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?).
  2. Get on the same page. Before diving into the details of each of your businesses, align around a shared view of the broader environment in which you both operate. One exercise we like to use is called History of the Future. In this activity participants help populate a large scale, physical timeline that stretches from the past into the future. The timeline is divided into various industry specific swim lanes to help group events in a meaningful way. Through co-creating this visual the group becomes grounded in a shared language and point of view.
  3. Go Broad: Spend a portion of your session being as generative as possible in your approach. Create space for in open-ended dialogue intended to allow internal and external stakeholders to deepen their understanding of each other. While the initial impetus for a co-design session, may have emerged out a specific problem statement, don’t miss the opportunity to engage in unedited brainstorming around what may be possible in both the near and long-term. Using prompts such as, “What are 10 different ways we can come together to create value for current or potential customers?” will help stretch your thinking and uncover unexpected areas of opportunity.
  4. Go Deep. Step back and assess the opportunities that emerged during the idea generation phase. As a group, begin to discuss and prioritize top opportunities. Once these are identified, go deep and build out a preliminary business case for each. By engaging first in broad brainstorming and then in focused problem-solving, you will learn a great deal not just about what opportunities are at hand, but about how you and your client can work together on a solution.

After the session…

  1. Leave with Plan. Don’t close-out the session without identifying next steps with committed ownership from both sides. You don’t have to arrive at full action plan, but you want to leave with clarity around what is happening next and who is accountable. Just as you created an internal and client-based sponsor team in preparation for the session, you will want to establish a joint working team to take the emerging opportunities forward.

Planning for and delivering a co-design session is the first step in a truly collaborative journey with your top clients. The session helps ignite your collective thinking and accelerates you along the path towards developing solutions that will have a positive impact on your business and your customers. As you move forward, continue to be open, honest, and inclusive in the way you work together. The success of any solution rests as much on execution as it does on the initial idea.