Doing ‘with’ others not ‘for’ others

‘Doing with not for’ is the core mindset that underpins co-design practices. This mindset is what differentiates co-design from other forms of design like human centred-design, user-based design or design thinking as well as from other forms of community engagement like consultation.  ‘Doing with not for’ is the “co” in co-designing as well as other ‘co’ approaches, such as co-planning, co-delivering, co-evaluating and co-production.

Looking for opportunities to ‘do with not for’ is a starting point for creating change in communities because it involves supporting people to create change themselves. Helping people to build their own capability through ‘doing with not for’ enables self-determination (e.g. to have options and to be able to direct one’s own life). The importance of ‘doing with not for’ cannot be underscored enough for the work of co-design and regional innovation.

The mindset is fundamentally optimistic. It involves seeing the potential in others and seeking to create opportunities for people to take on roles and responsibilities over the course of initiatives and activities. This can result in a shift in how people see one another and work together, and sometimes in how people see themselves.

The reflections and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 21 August 2018.


Quick Summary


What it means – in the context of leading, supporting or participating in co-design

  • Seeing people with lived experience as having valid and valuable perspectives
  • Building capability and creating opportunity for individuals, groups and communities to contribute and take on leadership
  • Supporting mutual learning
  • Going further than consultation or ‘elevating the voice of the user’

What helps

  • Inviting different perspectives into a co-design process
  • Preparing people who will be involved for participation – creating safe/brave spaces
  • Not expecting a change in behaviour immediately

What hinders

  • When power gets in the way of self-determination
  • In a co-design session…Professionals having difficulty working differently
  • Conditions that lead us to ‘do for’ instead of ‘do with’ – time constraints, resource gaps, reactiveness

What it means – in the context of day-to-day work

  • Not providing all the answers – even if that’s the expectation
  • Inviting others to take on ownership
  • Creating a cycle of receiving and giving back, or ‘paying it forward’


What it means in the context of leading, supporting or participating in co-design


In a co-design process, a mindset of ‘doing with not for’ fosters an environment in which people with lived experience, together with people with other perspectives (and who are more commonly engaged), contribute to solutions and actions that hold value for all involved. In addition to building buy in, trust and even pride, there is evidence that solutions that are developed with people with lived experience and that meet the need from their perspective are more likely to have the desired impact. 

Using this process, problems and opportunities are framed from many perspectives. As a co-design initiative progresses, people build the capability to take on actions and leadership. Ideally the people who step up and are empowered are not just “the usual suspects” (e.g. typical project owners, facilitators, convenors, decision-makers, or leaders) – and so the result is an increase in service users’ or other community members’  capabilities. This approach helps address the imbalance of power that can (inadvertently) occur when governments, services or other professionals engage with communities. At the same time, this building of capability is the essence of the change that many social efforts seek to catalyse.

Seeing people with lived experience as having valid and valuable perspectives

When ‘doing with not for’, we see people with lived experiences as having a valued perspective and as creative and vital contributors, given the right conditions. People are seen as deserving of having an active and equal role in the decisions that shape their lives – decisions typically made by professionals on their behalf.

By contrast, when looking through a service lens, we sometimes see people as requiring professionals to help them understand, improve or fix their lives. It can lead to seeing people and framing situations in terms of deficits  – instead of seeing their strength and resilience.

Co-design in a community requires a range of voices and perspectives to understand the complex challenges the community faces, as well as to discover better ways of tackling those issues. To create this value together, it requires that people to value each other, create space for each other, and see one another.



Building capability and creating opportunity for individuals, groups and communities to contribute and take on leadership

‘Doing with not for’, requires a focus on capability building for individuals, groups and communities. For individuals, look for ways to support the skills, habits and resourcefulness needed to solve problems and take on a new role and/or responsibility. Across community, look for ways to create the capacity to work together, solve problems together, build and heal relationships, and tap into the resources that exist already.

Over the course of an initiative, facilitators look to step further and further back as local and community leadership emerges. Ideally facilitators and convenors look for opportunities for others and enable leadership to emerge. Perhaps a service takes a solution forward, perhaps people with lived experience can lead testing, etc.


Supporting mutual learning

‘Doing with not for’ is about seeking to learn, design, and find better ways forward together. All involved are all learning and offering knowledge: people with lived experience, community members, professionals, facilitators. The group acknowledges that collectively there is not an answer yet for the challenge in question, and the group aims to find out how to progress together.  

Mutual learning means that single individuals, people in power or decision-makers don’t have all the answers – and are ok with not having all the answers. ‘Doing with not for’ asks people to come with their knowledge but to also look to others to have knowledge, and then seek solutions together. In this situation, groups may sit with uncertainty, “the grey”, longer than usual.


Going further than consultation or ‘elevating the voice of the user’

Consultation and elevating the voice of the user are important and useful processes, e.g for government, services and organisations, but ‘doing with not for’ through a co-design approach goes much further in how people with lived experience are engaged as partners. It means involving people in creating solutions, making decisions and taking action around things that impact their lives. In co-design, ‘doing with not for’ is also emphasised because consultation and bringing in the voice of the user are often enough to bring power back in balance.


What helps?

For initiatives that take a co-design approach, facilitators take the mindset of ‘doing with not for’ early and often, looking to thoughtfully engage people over time so that they are able to contribute in meaningful ways.

Inviting different perspectives into the co-design process

In the beginning, to engage people for co-design, particularly in workshops and collaborative sessions, it is important to seek a diversity of roles and perspectives, for example:

  • People from across ‘the system’ and working at different levels – this could be service providers, teachers, police, justice representatives, community leaders, bureaucrats, academics, people in frontline roles, people in senior roles, decision-makers, subject matter experts, etc.
  • People with lived experience – people who have lived experience are those who are intended to gain value from these efforts – they are the people who professionals and community members are focused on supporting. They may be facing a number of challenges, significant disadvantage, excluded from the system, or disengaging from the system.
  • Provocateurs – people play a power-equalising role, for instance between young people and adults. Having this role can make a co-design approach less uncomfortable and shift the power dynamics so that it is less obvious that there is a power-differential at play. People in this role may also be better able to ask the silly, obvious or sensitive questions. 

As facilitators work with people to prepare them to participate, it can be helpful to provide coaching around the aspects of their perspective that will be useful.


Preparing people who will be involved for participation – creating safe/brave spaces

In the early stages of an initiative, there can be a bit of ‘doing for’ in order to set up the conditions, situations and experiences that enable people to participate. In particular, there is a lot of set up involved if co-design is a new way of working. This process is important to ensure people feel prepared and safe entering into conversations where there are different forms of power present.

Once people have agreed to participate, a convenor or facilitator can support people to understand the initiative and prepare to participate. This doesn’t necessarily mean naming the roles listed above, but it does mean having conversations about what productive participation can look like, as well as understanding any needs that people may have (e.g. accessibility, pace, style, cultural considerations, use of pronouns).

A facilitator or convenor may help prepare people to participate by discussing:

  • What behaviours are helpful or unhelpful (see video and guide)
  • How to create safety for people involved, e.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTIQ communities
  • How to be mindful of power dynamics, for instance avoiding dressing in work clothes that may reinforce power imbalances

Sometimes it  involves providing training or information on co-design methods and/or mindsets.

Over time and with the development of greater capability, facilitators and convenors are aiming to involve others as early as possible – for example, in the planning process. In order to develop willingness and capability to participate, it may be necessary to go slow at the beginning and build relationships in order to go faster later.


Not expecting a change in behaviour immediately

The way that people perceive the co-design process as well as one another can shift over time. Whereas it is not uncommon for participants to express uncertainty and skepticism about ‘doing with not for’ during the discovery phase, the value of having people with lived experience involved really stood out for them when prototyping began. For instance, when a service provider works with a young person to test and develop ideas, it is much easier to understand why testing is important, but the value of the young person’s perspective becomes more clear as well. It is through the experiences of working together along the process that shifts in mindset emerge.

Sometimes people are actively resistant to the perspective of those with lived experience. It can be helpful to try to understand the assumptions that people may be holding and their motivations. For instance, what have they experienced that has led them to be resistant to working with young people or creates a barrier to valuing what young people have to say?


What hinders


When power gets in the way of self-determination

Systems are known for absorbing power over time. It’s one of the risks of working with systems (refer to section of ‘understanding and leveraging systems’). Keep in mind that the aggregation of power is typically inadvertent – an unintended consequence. Vigilance around the balance of power and ‘doing with not for’ is important to avoid this issue.

What this shift in power means, ironically, is that the people that the system is designed to serve are at risk of becoming (more) disempowered over time. What is often seen is the minimisation of the voice and perspective of service users and community. As a result, these people may be excluded from decisions and activities that affect them. Over time, this can lead to diminished capability for people to do for themselves and disempowerment. The disadvantage they face may be compounded by this dynamic. When working on a project in a co-design group it may mean that people do not feel safe being present or contributing. 

Power is not easy to discuss. Power comes in many forms and where power is held is reflected in social and economic participation, decision-making and influence within communities. Looking for opportunities to ‘do with not for’ creates mindfulness around power. It helps people stay attuned to the impact that actions have and continually monitor and refine practices. Through ‘doing with not for’, people become more aware of where power is held and develop ways to share that power.


In a co-design session…Professionals having difficulty working differently

Community members, people with lived experience and professionals working meaningfully together can require a new set of behaviours, including sharing power and letting go of assumptions. When providers are asked to participate in a co-design session, they have to leave their role – but not their insight – at the door. Maybe it seems obvious, but service activity isn’t appropriate during a co-design session. Suspending existing roles is not easy. At times, professionals may default to talking for people with lived experience, e.g. services may talk for young people, or they may jump to a helping response. Other times, professionals may be so concerned with ensuring that people with lived experience have a voice that the professionals don’t share at all. If the objectives is to combine the perspectives and experiences of all involved, then there is a need to hear from all involved.

Allowing time to ease into this different way of relating to one another as well as providing structured activities at the start that help people get to know one another can allow connections to build and make the working time more productive.


Conditions that lead us to ‘do for’ instead of ‘do with’

There are conditions that make ‘doing with not for’ challenging. Here are a few examples:

  • Time constraints – when working toward intense time constraints, it can be hard not to jump in and ‘do for’. In that situation, weigh up what’s important in the context: meeting the deadline or sticking to the ‘doing with not for’ approach?
  • Reactiveness – when busy, it’s easy to shift into a mode of reacting. In this mode it can be challenging to ‘do with’ – to take the time to step out of the normal flow of day-to-day to work with someone.
  • Resource gaps – When it seems that people or an organisation don’t have the capability or resources, it may appear that there is no option to ‘do with’.

In these situations, if there is an intention to ‘do with not for’, take a moment to assess the potential impact of ‘doing for’, consider the options and make a decision about the best way forward. If ‘doing with’ won’t work in this moment, find other ways to stick to the intention along the way.


What it means – in the context of day-to-day work

As so many people doing the work of regional innovation hold roles within community, it is worth mentioning that holding a mindset of ‘doing with not for’ is useful in day-to-day work as well.

Taking a ‘doing with not for’ approach can help someone in a role with relative power to avoid contributing to situations in which people or organisations form unhelpful dependencies, use more power than is needed, or take decisions and actions on behalf of others in a way that disempowers them. There are many roles in which ‘doing for’ is the purpose and expectation. This includes some service provider roles and some government roles, such as council roles. But there are times when ‘doing for’ may not be helpful. Perhaps it results in support or services people don’t want, or fosters an unhelpful dependency or victim mentality. Perhaps it leads to professionals’ roles accumulating more power than intended. Perhaps it leads to people developing the habit of taking decisions and actions on behalf of others in a way that disempowers individuals and diminishes capacity across community. The mindset of ‘doing with not for’ seeks to retain and build self-determination, capability and capacity within individuals and across community.


Not providing all the answers – even if that’s the expectation

Even when professionals or organisations are expected to have answers, it may not be helpful to provide answers — it may be far more constructive to find answers together. Taking a ‘doing with not for’ approach is an intentional way to build capability, develop capacity and learn together. To achieve that means resisting the habit of providing answers.


Inviting others to take on ownership in the solution

When put in a situation of being expected to have answers, it can be helpful to have strategies to open up a way for others to bring solutions as well. When problems are presented, one strategy is to play it forward. Ask, “how might we solve this?” This kind of approach creates the opportunity for others to present solutions as well — and to then take those solutions forward.



Creating a cycle of receiving and giving back, or ‘paying it forward’

There may be situations where ‘doing for’ is the most appropriate action, but it is still important to avoid creating an unhelpful dependency and to avoid diminishing the capability for others to ‘do for’ themselves. In this case, creating an expectation and environment of reciprocity can be a strategy that makes ‘doing for’ a part of a natural community activity. It creates a ‘pay it forward’ mindset – it creates a virtuous cycle of sharing, of give and take, of caring for one another.




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