The key to co-creation: Courageous dialogue

Karim Benammar Rajiv Ball
Article by: Karim Benammar, Rajiv Ball
The key to co-creation: Courageous dialogue

Creative leadership education at THNK is completely interactive. This applies to teamwork on projects, to coaching sessions, and also to our discussion of creative leadership qualities and paradigm shifts in our forum sessions. In these sessions, we engage established experts and young disruptors in what we like to call courageous dialogue. We make use of interactive formats and powerful questions and dialogue techniques. We create an atmosphere of safety and trust, which allows for vulnerability and breakthrough insights.


Our aim is to create knowledge within a group, to think together interactively. For this we have experimented with and developed a format which differs from the usual academic lecture. Traditional lectures enforce a distinction between an active speaker and passive receivers who consume knowledge. Since our aim is to further creative leadership, we shift this to co-creation through dialogue revolving around a guest and his or her ideas; co-creating involves everyone and makes them co-responsible for the outcome.

Beyond the lecture model

The traditional way to impart knowledge has been the lecture and question-and-answer session. The message is usually completely fixed before it is communicated. The question-and-answer session allows the audience to get clarification and to put in critical comments. But it is also often unfocused, because questions are dealt with haphazardly as they are raised.

We have relegated the knowledge transfer element of a lecture to individual preparation. Before the forum session, participants read texts – blogs, articles, or book chapters by the expert or by those that inspire him or her. Participants watch online lectures or TED talks. The topics of the discussion are thus known beforehand, as are the creative leadership qualities of the guest. The knowledge you get from working through the preparation material is similar to actually listening to a lecture, but you have much longer to think about it. In a lecture you can be overwhelmed by the amount of detail or technical information, or taken in by the rhetoric. Alternatively, you may have heard it all before, especially if you’ve read the book.

Forum attendees fully participate in each session. We believe that creative leadership means trying to achieve a form of group intelligence which makes use of the knowledge and experience of everyone present; a joint exploration of themes, ideas, hypotheses, and experiences. We aim for a dialogue with the expert in which everyone present feels comfortable sharing their own questions on the topic, their current hypotheses, their uncertainties and doubts. The interaction helps the expert to clarify and communicate their knowledge and their own creative leadership qualities. Dialoguing about a topic allows for a great variety of formulations. The key is to support our experts in turning their tacit, implicit knowledge into explicit formulations.

courageous dialogue
@THNKschool goes beyond the traditional lecture format and makes use of interactive formats and powerful dialogue techniques, creating an atmosphere of safety and trust, which allows for vulnerability and breakthrough insights. Click To Tweet

The forum format

There is no podium, there is no raised stage; the expert sits among the participants, on simple cubes. The moderator interviews the guest at the beginning of the forum session to set the stage for the dialogue. The goal is to put the guest at ease, to make the link between the personal and professional aspects of their lives, to touch on creative leadership elements, and to situate the dialogue by linking it to recent events. Simple, open questions generate the most interesting and heartfelt answers: “How did you get to where you are today?”; “What are the milestones on your journey?”;“Where do you see your project in five years’ time?”; ”What is the thing that keeps you awake at night, the problem you have still not solved?

Then we move into small group discussions in which we dig deeper by focusing on a single topic. We use different formats for this: rotating groups which engage the expert in turn; the expert circulating around participant groups; the fishbowl, where participants come to the front when they want to join the conversation while others watch; and live demonstrations or workshops by the expert.

Three creative leadership skills are needed for courageous dialogue: First of all, the skill to ask powerful questions; Second, the ability to engage in dialogue; Third, the ability to interrupt and push to go deeper.

courageous dialogue

In a THNK Forum, there is no podium, there is no raised stage, and the guest speaker sits among the participants. We have different formats for group discussions: rotating groups that take turns to engage with the speaker, having the guest speaker circulate around each group, inviting participants to come to the front when they want to join the conversation while the rest watch (we call this the “fishbowl), and live demonstrations or workshops conducted by the speaker.

1. Powerful questions

The table below distinguishes between different question archetypes. We have a tendency to ask leading or closed questions, which can be answered by a simple yes or no. We have a tendency to ask rational, brain-based questions, rather than questions which deal with emotions. We have a tendency to ask questions which concern the past, or problems, rather than questions about the future and about solutions. We have a tendency to ask questions which are professional rather than personal, dealing with the professional solution to a dilemma, rather than with a personal engagement.

key to co-creation courageous dialogue question archetypes

Being able to ask powerful questions is a creative leadership skill. Questions are more powerful when they straddle the different archetypes in the table. A closed, rational and professional question about the past may be perfectly acceptable as a clarification question. Overall, though, we need to correct our preference for these types of questions. Open, emotional, personal question about the future allow for much more space in the answer: “where do you feel these developments are taking us?” This allows the person to think on their feet, helps them in the direction of their thinking.

2. The art of dialogue

Dialogue is a key skill of creative leadership, but it is by no means easy. Even a conversation between two people requires cooperation, a willingness to listen to each other’s perspective, a desire to understand the other, and a joint commitment to a meaningful outcome. With three or four people, there are shifting alliances and interruptions. With a larger group, the structure of interactions follows a group dynamic all of its own.

The practice of active listening is a crucial skill of creative leadership – really hearing what is being said, being able to repeat it for confirmation and building trust. Active listening in which we really take in what is being said, rather than thinking about what we want to say next. If we are honest, we will find that we often do not really listen to what someone is saying, because we are occupied with formulating what we want to say next. If we were asked to repeat what we’ve just heard, we would not be able to.

How do we interrupt? How do we ask follow-up questions? How do we get to the heart of the matter? How do we push our guests on content, without being pushy on a personal level, but as a way of getting to the heart of the issue together? This is where the skill of the moderator, who holds the energy of the whole session, comes in. A good moderator will need to use their own barometer to decide when to let the dialogue unfold, when to interrupt for clarification, and when to nudge it in a specific direction. The goal is to create a cooperative space in which we learn from each other. It is not about personal ego but about the shared curiosity and shared passion which drive us, the shared purpose that we share of wanting to have an impact on the world.

courageous dialogue
#Dialogue is a key skill of creative leadership. It is not about personal ego, but about the shared curiosity and shared purpose which drive us. Click To Tweet

3. Going out of your comfort zone

We are proposing a creative leadership model for thinking together as a group. It’s not without challenges. One of the challenges is that we are very much used to the old paradigm, which is sitting back and listening to a lecture, then asking critical questions which do more for our ego than for the topic. Some of us like to show off our own knowledge on the topic, want to showcase our own creative leadership, or want to trip up the expert on some small mistake. Even if we are eager to learn more, we put ourselves in a position, not of a co-creator of knowledge, but of a passive recipient of understanding.

The lecture paradigm is comfortable for everyone. It’s comfortable for the audience, because they can sit back and listen, they can doodle or play with their smartphone. It requires a minimum of active engagement, which we are all familiar with from the long hours spent in that state at school. It’s also comfortable for the person giving the lecture. They have probably given the presentation many times over; if it’s written down, it’s a question of reading it correctly. If the talk consists mostly of slides, it’s a question of commenting on them and making sure of not going overtime. The PowerPoint itself tells the story. To be sure, some people do it very well; they have an engaging, or very humorous stage presence – it can be enjoyable, but it remains unidirectional and doesn’t involve co-creation.

Our creative leadership dialogue format is uncomfortable, because it requires active participation and active engagement. Participants ask the questions and structure the dialogue; they share the responsibility for an interesting outcome. It requires commitment and courage. The experts in creative leadership are encouraged to ask questions of the participants, to make it a true dialogue; this means it’s a two-way street, and participants need to abandon the comfortable position of being the only ones asking questions.

The forum format is also novel for the expert, and sometimes proves to be surprisingly uncomfortable. We thought we would be making it easy for our experts – just come as you are, and dialogue with forty participants – no lectures, no preparation, no PowerPoint. We are realizing that we are asking them to do something a lot harder. The lecture is literally something to hold on to. It can feel vulnerable to be sitting there, having to think on the spot and to be open to where the discussion is going. Our return guests find it much easier the second time around, when they know what to expect and get into the spirit of the dialogue more – not pushing their knowledge onto the world, but pulling in different perspectives and taking it from there.

courageous dialogue
The spirit of dialogue involves not just pushing your own knowledge into the world, but also pulling in different perspectives from others. Click To Tweet

An open mind

Creative leadership is interested in a communal inquiry into what we don’t know, both from the perspective of those asking questions and from the expert perspective. What does it take to really have an open mind? The skill of the moderator lies in holding and directing the energy of the session, pushing for clarification, follow-up questions, contrarian views, or getting deeper into the issue. The format, setting and moderation skill allow for respectful inquiry and building up trust, vulnerability and honesty about what we know and don’t know.

This brings us to the less tangible aspects of dialogue. It’s also a question of vulnerability, trust, and safety. We trust that everyone is of good will, that we are not participating to play ego games that we do not want to be put on a pedestal or put others on a pedestal. Creative leadership is not about promoting ideologies. We do not invite manifestos – if we wanted to be convinced by rhetoric, we could watch a great speech online. There would be no need for an interactive session. We are excited about different perspectives on creative leadership and on paradigm shifts coming from different cultures, different lives, and different professional experiences.

courageous dialogue
True dialogue is about vulnerability, trust, and safety. Click To Tweet

Vulnerability and insights

Trust and safety allow for vulnerability. Creative leadership involves being open about our uncertainties over our ideas, approaches, and models. To discuss our hopes and fears for the future of our product, our business, or the human endeavor. The vulnerability to be wrong, to be open, is what we create through this format and this set-up. It is also one of the key tasks of the moderator to nudge the dialogue towards this state. The goal is to reach an understanding of the world that you didn’t have before. Was there a meeting of minds?

Creative leadership is about being courageous enough to ask powerful questions, to engage in dialogue, and to create an atmosphere of trust and safety in which difficult and open questions can be explored. It’s more like an improvisation than a set piece, more jazz than playing to a score. We all improvise around a given melody in our co-creation and co-production of knowledge. And when we hit the right notes together, it’s magic.

To discover the power of co-creation and courageous dialogue, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.