3. How to visually plan a participatory creative process

Marc Rettig
11 min readAug 23, 2017


This is the last article in a three-part series. Part 1 is Participation is great, but workshops are weak tea. Part 2 is Simple sketches make your participation strategy clear.

Part one of this series argues that many or most efforts of substance require the participation of people who come together from across boundaries and differences. Participation, it says, is strategic.

Part two describes a basic visual language for sketching a participation strategy, created by an expert in collaborative decision-making, Sam Kaner. Those sketches help us get specific and visual when working with long-term plans.

The basic language covers a lot of situations. But I didn’t have to use it long before I wanted to include things in my sketches that the basic language doesn’t cover. So let’s play with extensions to the basic language.

Extending the language

Over at The Collaborative Leaders Network (where Sam Kaner is one of the practitioners), they use this visual language to show participation strategies for different goals and contexts. It is interesting to see how they play with the visual language to capture nuances essential for understanding each story.

Marking special roles

In this strategy map, they use capital letters to distinguish key roles.

Source: Collaborative Leaders Network, collaborativeleadersnetwork.org/strategies/collaboration-incubator

Iteration and ripples

Here’s another one.

Source: Collaborative Leaders Network, collaborativeleadersnetwork.org/strategies/collaboration-incubator

As I read the green field behind Stage 5 , it signals iteration. The wavy “impacts” in Stage 7 are an attempt to indicate the long-term impact of the effort on the community’s ability to continue working in new ways, carrying on the shifts born in the initial stages.

Hey, notice this important pattern

A particular pattern appears repeatedly across the strategies on the Collaborative Leaders Network site. This has been a consistent pattern in our own work, but never so easy to point out to others. It’s this:

The people who live the situation are the best source of expertise about the situation. Pairing them with process expertise is a great way to move the situation forward.

In the diagrams, it looks like this:

So, for example, Stages 3 and 4 in the “community transformation” example above:

Our students sometimes wonder, “If it isn’t enough to use our design expertise to ‘solve problems,’ then what is our role in community or organizational shifts?” Well here is one answer, in a picture: help the community bring its possibilities, lived experience, and creative imagination to bear on their own challenges.

Changing context, context immersion, learning journeys

When a diverse group of people comes together to shift their collective situation, many different points of view arrive with them. Each sees the situation from his or her own perspective. Each has presuppositions, judgments, and preconceived ideas about what could or should happen.

To help people drop these lenses and let go of their presuppositions, to set the stage for alignment around a common understanding, we often include some kind of “immersion experience” or “learning journey” early in a participation strategy. Together, the group has an experience that helps them see each other and/or the situation through many points of view.

Immersing in another context

These methods are so common and so effective, I need a way to visualize it in planning. I need a way to show that we are going together into a new context.

How about round braces — a symbol that partners with the phase-marking square brackets, and suggests a kind of enclosure? And maybe a looping line to get the inside the braces, suggestive of travel.

Round braces and shaded background indicate a new context, and a looping line signals that the group is going into that context for the next steps. The label at the top names the new context.

Bringing another context into our world

Sometimes it is impossible to go into the other context. Sometimes we must bring people from that context into our world, to tell us their stories, to show us their world, to challenge and refresh our view of the situation.

People from an outside context coming into the team’s context. I use round braces to show context, rather than a circle which indicates a cohesive group. And while it may not always be the case, in this example the visitors represent diagonal diversity of their context.

Movements in the creative process

Kaner refers to his practice as “participatory decision-making.” Looking at what he and his colleagues actually do, it clearly goes beyond decision-making.

When I look for a blanket term for my own work (and the work at Fit Associates, SVA DSI, and CMU Design), I too often fall into academic mode. I’ll say something like “systemic participatory co-creation.” But that’s embarrassing, because it’s three $20 words all in a row. I’m spending sixty bucks just to confuse people.

I come from a history of design practice. I hold a deep regard for the creative process, and am entranced by the power of emergence.

My work is to equip people to create together.

Deeply. Across differences.

I say this to explain why I want to tinker with further extensions to Kaner’s diagrams: I want to take it from participatory decision-making to participatory creativity.

Kaner certainly does embrace the creative process in his work, but he uses different language than design people use. Look at his diagram of decision-making, and compare it to the nearly ubiquitous “double diamond” of design. Both portray the necessary movement between “open mode” and “closed mode.”

Left: Sam Kaner’s “participatory decision-making.” Right: a double-diamond design process. Both diamond shapes represent the same journey through broadening and narrowing of uncertainty, options, and agreement.

When we plan for participation at Fit Associates, when we design workshops and sequences of group activities, we intentionally set goals that correspond to the creative process.

Here are some ways I am beginning to extend Kaner’s diagrams, as we sketch plans from this “systemic creative process” point of view.

Creative process

My own working model of the creative process is well described by Hugh Dubberly’s Model of the Creative Process. His model essentially boils down to:

When we support co-creation, we aim for a group of people to move through this process together. A participation strategy will reflect this, so for my purposes I need appropriate elements in my visual planning language.

Here are some suggestions.

Listen, observe
The “listen / observe / immerse” symbol is the shape of the divergent stage of the creative diamond, and I like that it also signals an eye looking forward.

I’m not sure whether the “reflection” symbol will have the same meaning for others as it has for me, but to me it is the shape of going down under the surface and coming back up again. It is the lake of uncertainty, the place where our perceptions and interpretations get into conversation with our values and experiences, and the values and experiences of others. It is the place where you can’t see until you enter the depths.

Converge, make
The “converge, make, prototype” symbol is the shape of the convergent side of the creative diamond, and signals an eye looking back. So as we diverge, we open our senses and look at possibilities and points of view we haven’t considered before. As we converge, as we create, we keep an eye on what we have learned and intended.

Experiment / probe
The “experiment / probe” symbol is something we’re not used to seeing or talking much about in the worlds of design and decision-making. But,…

Working in complexity means looking for ways to attract beneficial patterns of behavior and relationship. We aren’t simply deciding what product to make or what business to start.

So we create portfolios of experiments, aiming to learn what kinds of things spark new patterns, whether those patterns attract people to keep doing them, and whether those patterns are beneficial to people and system. It’s not convergence. It is exploration and experimentation.

My choice for this symbol has two sources. The obvious one is its mimicry of the design diamond, because experimentation is a cycle of opening and closing the range of possibilities. The other inspiration is from old-school computing days: this is the test-and-branch symbol in a flowchart.

An example using creative process symbols

A few years ago we worked with the “futures group” in a major car company to explore this question: “We’ve noticed some socioeconomic trends; if those keep playing out, what car should we be making in 10–15 years?”

It’s a long story, but the part that’s relevant for this example is that our team played the role of “process authority” on that project, in two ways:

  • we curated a series of “strategic immersion” trips, allowing the company team to soak in the contexts, cultures, and lives where those trends were playing out;
  • we lightly facilitated reflection and sense-making, using activities designed to help the team see openly, setting aside their prior assumptions and Western cultural lenses.

I used this example as a way to play with Kaner Diagrams and my proposed extensions, to see what it would look like to capture our explicit intention to encourage the team through a process of suspending judgment, opening their sense of possibility, then making time later in the process to narrow or converge again to a set of opportunities and proposals. Here’s what came out.

First, three major stages covering the first six months of a one-year effort. I’ve added detail to the first stage.

To spell it out…

  1. The company executives gave a mandate, a schedule, and a budget to the team of technical experts (engineers, designers, and planners). That’s the blue ‘E’. They worked with the ‘P’ — the process team (us), to make a strategy for the work.
  2. In the first stage, the whole team moved into new contexts: China and Mexico, with the goals you see listed.
  3. The next two stages were “concept exploration” and “planning and design.” I’ve only expanded the first stage to show what’s inside.

This is meant to show that, for each of the two immersion trips, we held to a strategy of deep immersive experience followed by reflection and sense-making, supported by the Process Team. And we deliberately encouraged the team to hold off on narrowing, on converging to specific conclusions and concepts, until the two trips were over and they had spent time absorbing the experiences. This was reserved for Stage 2 (which I’ve abbreviated in this sketch, just as an excuse to use the “converge, make, prototype” symbol.

I don’t know what this example looks like to you, but I can say this: I wish I had this notation back when we were planning the work.

It works with a pen and a napkin

If we were sitting around with beers and started talking about Stage 2 of that project, we might start sketching with a pen. This is another good test of a sketching language: we should be able to use it to think together without a computer — just a pen and a scrap of paper.

Even when it’s this rough, if you and I were working together we could run our eye over the shape of this plan, this collaboration strategy, and check for its qualities.

  • Are we making sufficient space for participation of the people who will live with these concepts? Shouldn’t they be involved all along rather than only in the testing and experimentation?
  • What about executive authority? How do we feel about the fact that it makes no appearance in this sketch? Does that put the effort at risk?
  • What about reflection? When a team gets deep into concept exploration, people often gain insights that challenge their starting assumptions. Why is there no explicit place for reflection in this plan, to update assumptions and revisit intentions?
  • Is the process too closed? That word “test” carries some experts-and-customers baggage. Consider how this phase might benefit from a more participatory strategy.

Yes? That’s the kind of conversation I want to be having at the napkin-sketch stage, and that’s why I’m excited to start using these diagrams in the wild.

Next steps

I’m going to keep playing with this.

  • Explore further extensions to the language
    For example, the invisible aspects of a situation are very often the real reason behind the choice of this or that approach to facilitating collaboration. If there is inherent conflict between parts of the system or community, or some past trauma that’s still present in the life of the group, we may not be able to move into creativity or decision-making until those things are addressed. This may require a different strategy than we would suggest in a happy, healthy, connected situation. Would it be useful to make this kind of thing visually explicit? What would it look like?
  • Try to diagram useful cases
    Go back to programs and projects past (both our own work and others’ work we have found inspirational) and try diagramming them. Then use them in the classroom to see if it helps people understand the strategy, and make useful comparisons between different cases and strategies.
  • Look for useful archetypes
    At Fit Associates we have identified a few genres of approach to creating in social complexity. Some are bottom-up, some are more top-down or expert-in. Some emphasize supporting and connecting what’s already happening, others explore for the new. Some are particularly crafted for situations of conflict or trauma. I’d like to visualize generic versions and/or cases of these, thinking that the exercise may turn up useful patterns, and at the very least would help us all “get the picture” of these different approaches.
  • Try teaching this language to others
    …then invite them to use it in making plans and report back on the experience.

Here’s a rough first capture I made while reading Combating Malnutrition in the Land of a Thousand Rice Fields (pdf), a report on Jerry and Monique Sternin’s first experience with the Positive Deviance approach in Vietnam. I’ll flesh this out as part of my next steps, but I thought I’d show what it looks like as evidence that, hey yeah, you can really just sketch participation strategies.

Marc Rettig is a principal of Fit Associates, where he and his colleagues spend pretty much all their time on work that somehow relates to long-term creative participation.



Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Okay Then