It’s a rude awakening. I have arrived in Saint-Etienne, France, where the temperature has dropped down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 85 degrees earlier that morning in Mumbai. A cold suburban train from the Paris airport to Gare de Lyon and a TGV train down to Saint-Etienne, watching the snow-covered French landscape at high speed. I’m here for a workshop with a French bank, hoping to activate an economic community among the small business customers of the bank.
The temperature drop outside is huge, but the one in the room is even greater. Participants in the workshop are reluctant, to say the least. They simply don’t see the point of building a customer community. Yes, they care about Saint-Etienne, the 400,000 inhabitants city where they live, and a former mining town which struggles to find its next economic source of growth. But no, they do not see any role for their bank in activating the local economy beyond what the bank already does, i.e., gather savings and make loans to local businesses. “This is for the government to do”, one of the participants tells me in the uniquely dismissive style of my compatriots. This has to be the toughest workshop I’ve done in five years.
By mid-afternoon, there is a noticeable thaw. The bank advisors around the room are willing to contact one of their customers and ask them to describe their personal community network. The idea is to start with individual networks of individual small business owners, then see whether these individual networks somehow converge into communities we can engage on a larger scale. It’s a start. For the first time, participants start building on each other’s interventions, without my having to prompt every single comment with a question. This approach feels more concrete to them than any conceptualization of what communities and platforms can do: if co-creation starts with one advisor and one customer at a time, they’re willing to suspend disbelief and try it. I look out the window and notice the snow has stopped falling. By the time I sit down, I notice my shirt is soaked, in spite of the cold in the room.
The following day, we are in the small town of Montbrison, in the center of France. I have spent a good deal of time lying awake the preceding night, trying to mentally devise a more effective way of engaging the audience, but also still struggling with my Indian jet lag. By the morning, a miracle has occurred. The people at the workshop are warm. They’re ready to go. Ideas for communities fly around the room. They know exactly whom to engage to get started. It feels like an invisible hand is guiding us to co-creation heaven. Life is wonderful again. Thank you, Montbrison.
I sometimes wish I could predict how audiences will react to co-creation. The only thing I’ve learned is that I’m consistently wrong. My “sure thing” workshops often end up in agony, while my “fear of the unknown” workshops sometimes end up in blockbuster success. One of the teachings of co-creation is that you never know what lies beyond the initial engagement process. I guess I have to re-learn this lesson every day. I have to take my own “let go” medicine. It makes for anxious moments, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.