Box 2.6 Leading transdisciplinary co-production
Authors: Catherine Durose, Beth Perry, Liz Richardson and Rikki Dean
3 min read
Interest in co-production reflects a growing demand and interest for a more socially accountable form of knowledge production. Yet, the challenges presented by co-production are often underplayed in comparison to its potential, and the question of leadership in co-production is often marginalised as a ‘second order’ question. It is critical to ask: who leads, for what purpose, and how? Where leadership is discussed, particular leadership strategies for co-production are often assumed or extolled. Critical perspectives about power and positionality in co-production – and what this means for leadership – are rarely reflected upon.
It is often argued that co-production must be flexible and recognise diverse forms of leadership according to the relationships among the different participants and their respective involvement at different stages of co-production (Bussu and Galanti, 2018; Simon et al., 2020). This diversity includes the opening up of leadership to involve actors from different backgrounds (Hartley and Allison, 2000). But what would this wealth of diverse forms look like in practice? Co-production necessarily brings together people with not only different forms of expertise, but probably also different interests and views. This raises substantive questions of power, and the purpose and practices of leadership.
We asked what does ‘good’ leadership in co-production look like? What different views do those involved in transdisciplinary projects have about leadership? And how do they differ? Are there trade-offs in managing different pressures, for instance, between being directive and inclusive, innovative and accountable, open to what emerges and sharing power? Do the existing models reflect leadership practice in co-production projects?
Developing co-productive leadership models
We found that people had strong agreement on characteristics of ‘bad’ leadership. They also agreed that leadership needs to take questions of power differentials seriously. But there were different views on what ‘good’ leadership looks like: for instance, in terms of what power differentials actually mean or how much direction people need. We identified four clusters or viewpoints on good leadership in co-production: creative leadership, outcomes-focused leadership, visionary leadership, and egalitarian leadership.
- Creative leadership is marked by the presence of creativity, and the ability of a group to move. Those advocating creative leadership focus on relationships as a precondition for creativity, allowing for unexpected outcomes, and also enabling co-production to adapt to changing circumstances, respond to group dynamics and preferences, and address inequities in power within the group.
- Outcomes-focused leadership defines the purpose of leadership as ensuring activity towards an outcome. Proponents are concerned that without this focus, processes can become meaningless and people get disappointed. Good leadership in co-production is about getting things done, rather than focusing on group decision-making and collective voice. Decisions should be taken by whoever has the most appropriate skills and capacities. Relationships of trust, clear structures, and transparent processes support this priority. Lower priority is placed on addressing inequalities in power.
- Visionary leadership emphasizes being visible and articulating a vision, but also being prepared to listen to people and to modify that vision. It focuses on having empathy and awareness and holding people to the sense of purpose.
- Egalitarian leadership in co-production focuses on creating a shared, inclusive process for a collective purpose or identity as an outcome in its own right. This means the group taking ownership of the process so that decision-making is shared.
Each viewpoint has a unique emphasis regarding questions of purpose, practice, power, structure, and decision-making in co-production leadership, as summarized in Table 2.1. There is agreement across viewpoints, for instance, that acknowledging power dynamics between participants in co-production is crucial, but they differ on how far leadership should transform power relations. Viewpoints are divided differentially on the importance of structure; for instance, whether leadership is exercised through formal structures or a more relational leadership approach. There were also complex differences between the viewpoints on how decision-making is exercised and by whom.
Table 2.1 Similarities and differences in viewpoints on good leadership in