Exploring Group Dynamics in Co-Design: A Theoretical Investigation

February 15, 2023

by Darwin Muljono, service designer

This article about group dynamics is based partly on one section of my past graduate thesis work and my practical experiences observing and conducting facilitation in different co-design workshops for many years. Rather than a fully-established theoretical law or sociological model, think of this as a preliminary exploration for those curious about facilitation and/or group behaviors.

It has been common knowledge that variability in participants’ backgrounds, skills, knowledge, and so on would create more innovative and creative outcomes. It also seems evident that people of different personalities or powers act differently in different groups. And it is often the case that different personalities and/or power dynamics also contribute to or impede the flourishing of group creativity.

Behavioral Categories for Collaboration

I will briefly outline a few group behavioral categories that experienced facilitators may recognize:

  1. Combining-cooperative; when participants spend most of the co-design session working together while contributing and building up layers of ideas on top of each other.
  2. Diverging-unity; when participants come up with different ideas in the beginning, but later they manage to tie the different concepts together into a relevant whole.
  3. Diverging-disunity; when participants come up with different ideas in the beginning, but they never manage to tie them into any relevant ideas or a systemic whole. 
  4. Dominant-non-cooperative; when one or a minority of people in the group are the most outspoken and dominant in the co-design session.

These, admittedly, are very rough categorizations of group dynamics; however, they carry with them real sociological phenomena. For example, combining-cooperative behavior occurs at a synergistic level where, according to Rasmussen, “participants recognize themselves as aligned, attuned and integrated,” resulting in the creative spirit emerging out of “informal, spontaneous communication between colleagues engaged in a common problem.” (2003)

We must also acknowledge that only some of these behaviors are emerging spontaneously. In many cases, interventions by the facilitator are necessary to ensure group cohesion which would result in productivity. Some group behaviors in co-design sessions usually begin with diverging ideations and concepts, which in themselves are quite desirable for innovation and creativity. However, without the right interventions, such as specific and proper tools and methods in place like ‘CrazyEights,’ etc., the consequence could result in either diverging-unity or diverging-disunity

Bear in mind that diverging-unity does not mean that only one outcome results from the group dynamics. Instead, there is unity and/or coherence of whatever different ideas come out of the co-design sessions. This kind of exchange and synthesizing of ideas is called a ‘dialectic’ in philosophy, which roughly means new ideas come out of opposing or contradictory ones as a result of a synthesis. We could say that combining-cooperative and diverging-unity tend to result in a productive-dialectic, whereas diverging-disunity tends to result in unproductive-dialectic.

But perhaps the one that needs to call to our attention the most is concerning dominant-non-cooperative behaviors, especially co-design sessions with participants that, while they might have a diverse background, history, skills, and knowledge that are supposedly creating the right conditions for innovation, there is also a difference in efficacy and/or, as hinted earlier: agency

The Lone Loud Voice in the Room: A Deeper Look

As defined above, in dominant-non-cooperative behavior, one or a minority of people are the most outspoken and dominant. Regarding the difference in efficacy, some participants may exhibit more confidence in their creativity, level of expertise, etc., during workshops than others. This is problematic because it may increase social pressure on others, which further exacerbates group cohesion and encourages ‘free-riding’ behaviors among other more ‘quiet’ participants. Another situation relates to differences in agency§. One could immediately conjure up a co-design session where the dominant voice being present are those who are usually in positions of power. And, especially if the culture in the organization performs abysmally in openness, solidarity, engagement, respect, and so forth, the result would be an absence of any meaningful and productive results.

§Usually, when we think about agency, especially in game theory or philosophy of action, we generally understand it as ‘the capability to act’, specifically relating to intrinsic or natural features of an agent or a component. In the realm of the social, however, the problem is much more nuanced. For example, we should take into account whether there are coercive elements inherent in the system that would inhibit those capabilities (and thus, agencies).

Another interesting consideration is that power imbalance contributes to the efficacy problem pointed out above. Imagine a person in a higher position of power, whether it’s a director, or executive, in the session who may be in the ‘background’ (or, as they say, “just being an observer”) during the session, may incentivize those who already have high efficacy to be even more outspoken for the purpose of scoring contribution points or to exhibit behaviors that outperform others.

There is no perfect solution to this problem. Design consultants may be able to mitigate the likelihood of dominant-non-cooperative behavior to happen as they have the benefit of being outsiders who don’t tend to dwell in the organization’s politics and having the advantage of being able to ask many naive questions that are otherwise the internal employees were too afraid to ask.

More than Tools and Methods: A Glimpse into the Realm of the Spiritual

Before starting any co-design sessions, good facilitators would set expectations of the rules and behaviors for the participants, which includes equalizing and eliminating any sense of power imbalance that would present in the session, for example, one of our ‘rules for engagement’ in a co-design workshop literally says “all voices are equal.” Any good participatory session demands people to bring all their knowledge, talents, curiosity, and sincerity to solve problems. But realistically speaking, how effective would it be to level set expectations? Because outside of a co-design session, which is a minuscule amount of time relative to standard working hours, those participants would resume their boss-worker relationship. Thus, while trying as we might disseminate power and increase agency for everyone, there will be some residual or lingering relationships present in the session. This brings up one critical question: To mitigate dominant-non-cooperative behaviors, namely, to truly conduct co-design and co-create sessions where participants truly have agency in the face of power imbalance, i.e., design by people, what kinds of approach should designers take?

As we’re reaching the end of this writing, it would be senseless to provide a one-line recommendation or solution without much rigorous or coherent argument. We should take faith that whatever forms the solution should take needs to be done iteratively and collectively. At the same time, we should not simply disburden ourselves of the problem without tying some loose ends. Perhaps, a rough sketch of some underlying principles would provide us with some hints in approaching this problem and would serve us some satisfaction.

One of the goals of Harmonic Design is to help organizations transform themselves to be more service-oriented. What immediately comes to mind is perhaps introducing the specific tools and methodologies, such as service blueprinting, moment maps, experience mesh, etc. To use those tools effectively, we must understand at least the basics or have the mindsets of ‘service logics’ or ‘participatory design’ or ‘systems thinking,’ for example. But if experience has taught us anything, we understand that while those conditions are necessary, they are not always sufficient to address the problem above.

In studying complex systems, we understand that component interaction is only part of the story. How those components (or agents) interact and the meaningfulness of those interactions are arguably much more important. What we can draw from this is that the tools and mindsets need to be accompanied by an “all voices are equal” belief system. That is, while practitioners can set rules of expectations, the “all voices are equal” needs to come from the inside, as in from the organization as a whole, not merely the individuals in the organization.

This means that the organization needs to have the culture that will make such a belief and, therefore, the way people interact possible. While it might not always be feasible to radically change the material conditions of the people in the organization to achieve§§, we might be able to approach it from the habitual conditions; after all, design is a discipline of the practical! The basis of these habitual conditions should be rooted in attributes that relate to equality of some kind: collaboration, respect, openness, reciprocity, and love, just to name a few. So, perhaps the most challenging task we have is to approach any organization, if the organization doesn’t have it already, from the perspective of, to borrow Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase, “spiritual transformation.” 

§§For example, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, epidemiologists, have done extensive research about how a more equal society, especially in terms of wealth and economy, would have better outcomes in overall well-being, such as health, social cohesion, psychological well-being, and so forth. 


Rasmussen, L. B. (2003). The facilitation of groups and networks: Capabilities to shape creative cooperation. AI & Society, 17(3-4), 307-321.

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