Laying the ground work

‘Laying the groundwork’ is the initial stage of the co-design process. In this stage, strong foundations need to be developed for work to move forward, and for the initiative to be set up for success. In this stage there is a strong sense of something forming that could impact on the community, but that there are many unknowns. It is common during this stage to feel both the hope and excitement of an opportunity as well as the uncertainty of navigating complexity with no clear answers yet. It is often only in the next stage, developing insights, when the initiative really feels like it has taken shape.

The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 27 November 2018.


Quick Summary

What does it mean: 

  • Wearing three hats
    • Alchemist
    • Detective
    • Film producer
  • Knowing when you are ready for the next stage

What helps

  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Framing
  • Working with the funnel of scope
  • Visualising the outcome

What hinders

  • Multiple agendas and lack of boundaries
  • Funding cycles


What does it mean?

Laying the groundwork is the early days of an initiative. It is a fluid and formative stage – not straightforward at all. There is no step by step process that can predictably lead you through laying the groundwork. The goal is to create the readiness – to be ready enough – to take the next steps and commence an initiative. You may have to try a number of approaches with different stakeholders in order to build buy-in and move forward. 

Wearing three hats

One way to think about this stage is to think about wearing three hats: the alchemist, detective, and film producer. 

The alchemist

The alchemist looks for the energy and magic that can sort through opportunities and create the space for something to happen. The alchemist connects and weaves people together, seeking out the right ingredients for meaningful chemistry. 

It is vital to read the energy of the community and/or stakeholders and find where there is energy for work to be done. Be sensitive to timing and understand what will and won’t happen at a given time. Find the right timing to make things happen for all stakeholders.

The detective

To be a good detective you need to be able to look for leads and clues. Where is there insight and knowledge in community? Who holds the information? Detectives seek to understand what is already known and where it is possible to have further conversations. Detectives straddle the line between opportunism and strategy. 

The detective looks for:

  • What’s already known: such as data and reports that already exist, and perspectives and histories known to stakeholders
  • Luck: sensing where the stars are aligning and what’s emerging
  • A theory about what’s happening and what action will make a difference. Try working with the below narrative version of a theory of change.

The film producer

Telling a good story is at the heart of transformative change. The film producer wants to work with narratives and storytelling in order to show what the future could be to potential stakeholders, and to inspire stakeholders to join in. Creating stories also helps to move away from individual narratives towards connecting common narratives. 

This can include:

  • Collective sensemaking to identify the narratives that exist about community
  • Creative storytelling processes that reflect the community and makes the change story tangible
  • Creating transformative narratives through approaches like visioning and futuring. The key to this storytelling technique is to be open about not having all the full picture (yet), but paint a picture of possibility.

Testing these hats will help you to know when you are ready for the next stage.

Knowing when you are ready for the next stage

You may never feel ready for the next stage, even if there comes a moment when it’s time to move forward. In the stage of laying the groundwork, you keep making connections, keep moving in a direction and keep working to create readiness so that when the time is right you’ll be able to act and move forward. 

Things that help the feeling of readiness are:

  • Setting intentions, touchstones, principles and guides that help you to remain action oriented and guide how you engage
  • Iterate as you go to gauge what’s successful and where the gaps are
  • Develop a project brief that sets out the objective, theory of change, outcomes, etc
  • Articulate the principles of your project. This could be a simple one pager about what is needed to make it work


What helps?

Stakeholder mapping

Finding the right people to be involved in your project takes time and intention. Stakeholder mapping is a helpful way to visualise who’s who and what role they may play in your process. It is critical in an initiative to include diverse voices, if not a representation of every voice in the system. Each voice has an important role to play.

Voices you could consider are:

  • Voice of intent – those people responsible for decision making and sponsorship
  • Voice of lived experience – service users, young people, community members, beneficiaries
  • Voice of those making it happen – those with experience working towards the outcomes you’re seeking, people who can help you think through ideas, those who can challenge you, service professionals, key informants, external provocateurs
  • Voice of design – the person or team trying to create something new or solve the issue

You should also consider what stakeholders and voices you may need at each phase of the process. For example:

  • What roles will you need, and who might take on each of those roles? 
  • Do you need people who create the conditions, knit together different initiatives, or roll their sleeves up and participate in co-design?
  • Consider the voices you may require beyond your community like service ‘head office’ or state government.


One of the methods you can use at this stage is ‘framing’. Like how photographers test lots of angles to get the photo that really captures what they’re hoping to show, a ‘frame’ – sometimes used interchangeably with ‘lens’ – is a way of looking at a situation. The way we choose to frame an initiative will shape the overall direction of the initiative, and how people think about what they’re trying to do. A useful frame for an initiative is productive and generative – it leads our work to positive and fruitful activity. The example of framing below shows many different ways you could frame an initiative focused on youth crime.

<insert screen grab of ‘working with different frames’ slide>


Working with the ‘Funnel of Scope’

One of the tools you can use to also help you frame an initiative is a ‘funnel of scope’. The funnel of scope helps you judge whether you’ve framed your initiative too high or  too low. If you’ve framed your initiative too high, too broad and/or too abstractly, you will have little hope of creating the outcomes you seek. If you have framed the initiative too low or too small, any action you take won’t make a difference in outcomes. When you’ve framed your initiative just right, it’s tangible enough to be able to take action and (over time) make a difference.

Visualising the outcome 

It’s often hard for stakeholders to visualise something when it’s in this early malleable stage. If stakeholders can’t see what the end game is, they are unlikely to contribute meaningfully to the process. This is where your film producer hat comes in handy to create a picture or tell the story of the potential future outcomes in an engaging and inspiring way for your stakeholders. 


What hinders

Multiple agendas and lack of boundaries

During this stage there may be multiple stakeholders holding multiple agendas and outcomes they are working towards that don’t specifically align to your initiative. Often a process of creating a shared agenda will help stakeholders work toward common goals. However, sometimes stakeholders still try to drive their own agenda, or act in their own/organisational interest in a way that does not serve the broader group or initiative. This can be a setback, and so when developing a common agenda doesn’t work, a range of additional strategies can counter this, including:

  • Setting boundaries – Creating an opportunity area map to show was is in focus for this project and what is out of scope. This is helpful when stakeholders draw in tangential threads that may not align with your outcomes. When this happens you can bring out your opportunity map and visually reiterate what’s in and out of context
  • Including and reflecting the different perspectives – Making sure everyone’s knowledge is reflected in the work by collaboratively outlining the rules of engagement so no one’s voice is being too dominant. When this issue comes up you can use this as a reminder of what everyone’s agreed upon
  • Balancing the voices – Thinking differently about balancing the mix of stakeholders and managing dominant voices by choosing when they’re involved, how you set up group sessions, or reminding people of the community purpose

Funding cycles

If you’re trying to make something happen in community it will likely require funding. We’ve heard from community initiatives that funding cycles may not align with this phase. Laying the groundwork may have to be done from substantive roles, at the tail end of another project, or using bridging funds, etc. Funders may be unwilling to commit to early work, including the Discovery phase, as they often want to fund something tangible, something that has evidence behind it. But there are ways to manage this dynamic.

Helpful strategies for securing funding for this stage include:

  • Finding existing budgets, funds and roles that are in your community
  • Seeking funding that is offered to cover an initiative that people want to address
  • Working quickly and to get some key questions and a theory of change in place to lay out for the funder why this needs to take place and what outcomes you expect

In this stage, be kind to yourself and hold different expectations than you would for other stages. This is worthwhile work, even if it takes time. When the time is right, you might just find a little magic and luck in the mix too. 😉




Related Capabilities:

  • 2. Maintaining Energy and Passion
  • 3. Staying ground and connected to community and place
  • 9. Bringing others along on the journey
  • 16. Communicating effectively
  • 5. Thinking and acting strategically towards the broader goal