30. March 2016 · Comments Off on some thoughts on leadership in co-ops · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Meetings and decision making, Team Working, Uncategorized

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Who’s afraid of leadership?

I was once at a housing co-op event, held to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – 8 or 9 of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. There were chairs stacked against the wall, and we all started lugging them to the centre of the room – but it was soon apparent – not just to us, but to the early arrivals who began to sit down, that we had no idea how to arrange the seating, no idea how many people would turn up, no previous agreement whether we would make rows of chairs or a big circle – it was chaos. So much so that some of us began to laugh to try to make a joke of it, while others got more and more frustrated and anxious. We finally got it sorted, but it was obvious we’d made a pretty negative impression on our audience who – no matter how impressive and persuasive our subsequent presentation – had had a clear demonstration of our inability to work as a team and our lack of leadership skills.

I have often remembered that moment and wondered why it happened like that. We were not totally lacking in team skills – in fact one of the impressive things about this group was the way in which they were able to pull together to organise things – but I think there was a fear of showing leadership. An idea that perhaps in a co-operative, showing leadership is wrong. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, and an assumption that a ‘command and control’ style of leadership is the only way.

Leadership theories

Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s interesting to review the many theories of leadership but for our purposes here, let’s look at commonly-held assumptions about what leadership means and what leaders do. In ‘traditional’ hierarchically structured organisations, power is located at the top, and leaders lead from the front. Leaders have authority, take control and attract followers. Line managers tell people what to do, who then have others that they manage in turn. In such a structure it’s hard for individuals to be innovative and creative. Someone at the top who doesn’t understand the day to day realities of work at the ‘coal face’ takes decisions which workers may not agree with but must comply with if they want to keep their jobs. Of course employees can and should join a trade union which will support them and lobby and campaign to change things, but in some circumstances, confrontational approaches can be counter-productive.

So perhaps we need to get rid of the structure and the leaders and all decide everything together? Apart from the impracticability of such a step (you’d never get any work done) Jo Freeman, in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ explains how misguided it is to assume that without a structure, there will be no leaders. Leaders will always emerge, attracting followers by dint of their charisma, power, or resources, but without a structure or a system of accountability, you’ll have no way of getting rid of them.

Leadership in worker co-operatives

So we need a structure. And of course co-operatives have such a structure, where people can be elected to a Management Committee, or Board of Directors, but will have a specific term of office, and will only be re-elected if members feel they are doing a good job. However, like every democracy, it only works if people have information accessible to them about how the co-op is doing and how successful it is in achieving business, social and environmental goals. The MC then is accountable to the members, but they will also need Terms of Reference so they understand their roles and their delegated powers.

Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish”

So how do you show leadership in a worker co-operative?

In contrast to a typical hierarchy, leadership in a worker co-operative is collective. It’s not just the MC who need to be leaders – anyone can show leadership at any time. But what does this mean and how can it work?

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider provides simple and clear advice on how to be an effective leader: be unbiased, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. For example:

lead in a nourishing manner
  • give away control
  • look for opportunities to give others control
  • try to ensure that decisions are taken by the people most likely to be affected (subsidiarity)
lead without being possessive
  • lead by example rather than by telling people what to do
  • avoid egocentricity
  • be’ rather than ‘do
  • be aware of what is happening in the group and act accordingly

“specific actions are less important than the leader’s clarity or consciousness. This is why there are no exercises or formulas to ensure successful leadership”

be helpful without taking the credit
  • be modest, allow others to take the credit.
lead without coercion
  • promote collaboration
  • provide tools for collective working
  • clarify roles, authority and accountability
  • delegate
  • create an environment for thinking

“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. Too much force will backfire; the leader who tries to control he group through force does not understand group process. The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force to act effectively”

The result will be thinking, passionately proactive and creative people who communicate effectively, who understand how to work as a team, how to respond positively to conflict and how to help new members feel at home and hit the ground running.

So in our housing co-op example, should we have been dreaming about the best seating layout for our meeting? Well perhaps not, of course there are circumstances where simply delegating a few tasks will avoid such a muddle. If someone had shown leadership by asking everyone what would be the best layout, then suggesting we divide up the tasks between us: someone to stick up notices so people know where to come, a couple of people organising chairs, a couple of people making tea, someone putting the recruitment leaflet on every chair – etc. Simple stuff, but someone does need to take that initial lead.

Here’s some useful reading on leadership in collectives by Alanna Krause

12. October 2015 · Comments Off on Strategic planning in worker co-operatives · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Strategic planning

or ‘How to make God laugh’ – Woody Allen

Participative strategic planning is a means for engaging all members in planning the future direction of the co-operative business. In this way we can avoid conflicts caused by lack of information or misunderstandings about ‘how we do things here’. It’s strategic planning done in a co-operative, collaborative and participative way.

Strategic planning is a way of coping with change and planning for the future. It aims to accomplish three tasks:

  1. to explore and clarify direction for the medium to long term, identifying desired outcomes
  2. to select broad strategies that will enable the co-operative to achieve those outcomes
  3. to identify ways to measure progress

Co-operatives use the process to build member commitment by involving them in the creation of the plan, but how you go about it will depend on your co-op’s structure, how long you have been established, your economic sector and the complexity of your business

One approach is to hold an annual Away Day aiming to integrate new members, facilitate interaction between different teams, and discuss co-operative performance and future plans.

It’s helpful to clarify the language of strategic planning before you start – so you can at least agree a common understanding. For example:

Strategic work is about where you want to go, it’s about the long term and involves setting aims and objectives, goals and outcomes – or draining the swamp?

Tactical is about how you’re going to get there, agreeing a route or a map. It’s more reactive and perhaps opportunistic, involving setting milestones towards the achievement of goals and organising timetables, action plans and rotas.

Operational is about the journey, it focuses on the short term day to day outputs, crisis management and fire-fighting – or fighting the crocodiles?

So make sure you look up from time to time from fighting the crocodiles to see if you can find time to drain the swamp!

Key questions for strategic planning:

  • are your co-operative vision and values clear, agreed and owned?
  • how well do you understand the market? Is it growing, shrinking, or flat-lining?
  • how well-informed are you about suppliers & competitors?
  • how fit is the co-operative organisation? Purring along nicely or bit bumpy?
  • are members ready to act?

 Strategic planning – beyond the systems approach

In a recent (2014 & 2015) Co-operative Skills Seminar on Strategic planning for worker co-operatives, we discussed how existing management tools are inadequate for worker co-ops, since they are based on ‘systems’ thinking, which assumes controllers and controlled. Instead of thinking about organisations as machines, controlled by managers pulling levers, Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire talks instead about ‘complex responsive processes’ with high participation and constant change. He describes organisations (including co-operatives) as processes of human relationships and communication where people create and are created by the organisation and where no one can plan or control this interplay.

The seminars presented some tools and techniques based on this understanding of business as a series of interactions and conversations between people at all levels of the business.

Tools and techniques for participative strategic planning

Active Business Planning uses project management techniques, researching information on size and characteristics of the market, acceptable pricing, level of sales, etc. simultaneously and using the knowledge gained in one area to amend others. Active business planning uses a timeline (GANNT) chart to identify the dates of starting and ending each business planning action.

Agile is an approach to business planning based on techniques typically used in software development as a response to unpredictability. In contrast to traditional project management, with its sequence of: define aims – market research – product development – market strategy – implement strategy, the Agile approach is iterative and incremental, with all activities blending into several iterations and adapting to discovered realities at fixed intervals.

RISK ANALYSIS is a slightly different approach, involving looking at all the risks to your co-operative business and quantifying them in a table according to:

    1. How likely is it to occur?
    2. What impact would it have on the business if it did occur?

You then multiply (1.) by (2.) to get a rough and ready way to prioritise action. The final two columns in the table encourage you to think about how to prevent the risk from happening and if it does happen anyway, how to minimise the impact on your business.

Appreciative Inquiry is a more positive, ‘glass half full’ approach. It involves four stages:

  1. DISCOVERY Focus on what’s working, build on success. What are our strengths? What do we enjoy? What do we want to do more of?
  2. DREAM Use our strengths and what we want to do to create a shared vision of the future – what might be?
  3. DESIGN Co-create a design to make it happen, based on our values & principles
  4. DELIVERY What will be? Sustain the vision through empowering people, learning, adjusting, improvising

Check Co-operatives UK for information on when the Co-operative Skills Seminar series will be repeated. Along with Strategic Planning the series includes:

  1. Communication
  2. How to manage without a Manager
  3. Communication and working with conflict
  4. Being a Good Co-op Member

29. September 2015 · Comments Off on A new service from Co-operantics: Appraisals and Personal Reviews · Categories: Communication skills, Coping with conflict, Meetings and decision making, Team Working

Co-operantics offers a unique new service in support of co-operative performance assessment

As your co-op develops there will be a growing need for skills assessment and analysis of where skills gaps might exist across the whole business. You may also want to think about quality controls, standards, targets or best practice, to ensure that all employee members are offering the best customer service, meeting agreed targets and complying with best practice while the co-op delivers the member benefits, terms and conditions that your members want. To achieve this, the co-op will require some kind of assessment, to ensure these standards are being met.

If these assessments are not carried out, members will be unaware whether or not they are meeting performance standards, there can be role confusion – duplication or gaps, which can cause tensions or conflict. If the assessments are carried out inadequately or if they are seen as a mere tick box exercise, they can cause resentment and frustration or – even worse – a feeling that you are being ‘got at’ or punished for some misdemeanour. If personal development and work related aspirations are not met, you risk losing valuable members from your co-op.

Achievement of goals and compliance with standards can be assessed using an Appraisal – which identifies the tasks, skills and knowledge involved within a job description and assesses performance. A more holistic, person-centred approach is the Personal Review, which focuses on personal development and members’ strengths and weaknesses so that strengths can be built on and training needs assessed. The training needs assessment could then be the basis for a Personal Development Plan – an excellent and proactive approach to career development, building up members’ skills and knowledge as part of continuing professional development for the benefit of members and the co-operative itself.

There are a number of ways in which your co-operative can address performance assessment, and Co-operantics can help you choose the right one, details below.

Designing an appraisals or review system Your Co-operantics consultant works with nominated member(s) of your co-op to review the processes you currently use and proposes improvements. This will usually take the form of a combination of workshops and consultancy.   We focus on how a new system will mesh with and reflect the ethos and strategy of the co-op, supporting workers and members to reach their full potential and the co-op to meet its members’ needs.
Member personal review  Individual members identify key elements and skills involved in their job description, then carry out a preliminary reflective review. The Co-operantics consultant then comes in and carries out a second review, in which we aim to challenge the individual, and help them to clarify their answers. The final step is to work together to identify personal improvements, training requirements and personal targets for creating a personal development plan.
Co-op Member competency appraisal Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘co-op member competencies’ from ‘job competencies’, drawing up a standard list of co-op member competencies that every member must fulfil. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training or development plans.
Job competency appraisal Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘job competencies’ from ‘co-op member competencies’, drawing up a list of job competencies attached to every job description. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training or development plans.
Buddy system  Each member has a ‘Buddy’ to support them – a bit like a personal HR worker. Co-operantics will mentor the Buddies – providing them with training and support. Like the personal review above, the member carries out a self-assessment review and discusses it with their Buddy. The Buddy then presents it and their recommendations to the committee, but without the member being present. The Buddy monitors progress on Action points agreed by the co-op, so the co-op decides improvement actions, rather than the member.
KPIs/personal targets  Co-operantics will run a training seminar on KPIs – what they are and how to use them for performance management. Worker-members are allocated Key Performance Indicators relating to their job role. Regular review meetings are held to assess performance against KPIs and discuss related issues.

Co-operantics can help you to address performance assessment, working to support your HR team or sub-committee or taking on delivery of the entire task. We can advise on the most appropriate approach depending on the type and culture of your co-op, the number of members and the sector you are working in.

Please get in touch with us if any of the above options sounds right for your co-operative. Alternatively, we are happy to discuss other ways in which we could support your performance assessments.

kate@cooperantics.coop

nathan@cooperantics.coop

27. April 2015 · Comments Off on Induction of new co-operative members · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Meetings and decision making, Uncategorized

The 5th Co-operative Principle, “Education, Training & Information”, serves as a useful reminder that one of the keys to success for a co-operative lies in investing in your members.  As well as job-specific and co-op specific training it’s important to help new co-op members understand that all co-ops share the same history, values and principles and philosophy as part of an international movement.

Our co-operative induction session picks apart the fundamentals of what it means to be a co-operative and enables new members to gain an understanding of how co-operative principles apply to their co-operative and their role within the co-op.

Co-operantics induction training includes:

  • What is different about a co-operative business? Different types of co-op
  • The history of the UK co-operative movement
  • Co-operatives as an international movement
  • Review of some essential co-operative skills: communication skills, participating in meetings, decision making
  • Rights and responsibilities of membership; member job descriptions and member agreements

We can offer a bespoke session for your new members; alternatively, if there is sufficient local demand we will run a regional session together with new members of other local co-operatives.  Contact us for more information or to discuss your needs.

Here are some testimonials from a recent Induction training with newer members of Essential Trading:

  • Really informative & good handouts. Be good to see others have similar training
  • Interesting
  • Very informative!
  • Very happy with the workshop especially the history of co-ops covered
13. February 2015 · Comments Off on Got the picture? · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Uncategorized

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Pictures & diagrams can help us to simplify complex relationships. Imagine, for instance, if you were trying to describe all the lines of communication in your co-op. If you try it in words it might run to 30 pages, but you could probably sum most of it up in one (albeit complex) diagram.

coopukbk5unicycle1b

How the different parts of your co-op might relate to one another?

That’s not the only reason you might find diagrams useful:

  • Some people understand images better than words
  • Some people don’t have the time or attention span to commit to a long written document
  • It is easy to “zoom out” and get an overview, to spot fatal flaws in a process or proposal

When trying to develop a new strategy for our co-op (e.g. new marketing strategy, or new way of organising the workload) one of the best tools I have found is to try and assemble the ideas in a diagram or picture – even if it is just words connected with arrows.

Have you ever spent a day working hard to develop a strategy or process, the group creates a diagram and then someone is given the soulless job of spending half a day turning those pictures into 4 or 5 pages of words. Somehow, the meaning gets lost in translation. Not enough people read the document because it’s just too much, too dense or becomes more complicated once it is put into words. Those that do retreat to solitude so they can focus enough to understand it. Readers have to construct a mental diagram to make sense of it. There is scope for people to not quite “get” the plan or get it in the wrong way. When the diagram is presented, everyone looks at it together, they challenge it and describe what they like or dislike, they grab the pen and make corrections, suggest improvements, add the missing parts or spot the “fail”.

Here are some sweeping observations I’ve made watching groups of people presented with diagrams or strategy documents:

  • Diagrams tend to provoke questions, challenges, declarations of not understanding (which is a good thing), identification of faults and problem solving suggestions. They also provoke physical interaction – people crowd together around the image.  Emotional responses such as enthusiasm or rejection are declared.
  • Written papers prompt semantics (arguing about the meaning of words), arguments about grammar, boredom, yawning and switching off. Discussion papers provoke a retreat into solitude.  It is difficult to gauge responses as emotions are guarded.

I’m not saying there isn’t a need for detailed procedures or guidance to accompany the overview – that is the next level of detail – but if developing understanding is the first goal, why do we turn pictures into words?

Diagram

Example: An overview of the strategy for developing new services for members in a co-op, and recruiting other service users as members. How many words would this take to desribe?

Among the services that Co-operantics offers are:

  • Faciliation of strategic reviews/away days
  • Reviews and development of your governance and management
  • See an overview of typical services here

If you are looking for those services please get in touch

 

29. July 2014 · Comments Off on Generating and nurturing a strong co-operative culture – Top Tips · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Tools, tips & techniques

There’s been a lot of talk about co-operative governance and culture recently, so when our friend and fellow co-operator Siôn Whellens, of worker co-operative Calverts Design & Print, said “Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast” it got us thinking ..

And so during Co-operatives Fortnight, Co-operantics talked to seven very different co-operatives, with the aim of exploring how co-ops develop and maintain a strong co-operative culture. We found a range of approaches, differing according to member relationship and size of co-op. Clearly the challenges facing a large consumer co-operative, with members meetings at most quarterly and communications between meetings restricted to the odd newsletter are different to those of a small worker co-op, where people spend all day every day together. Perhaps this is why the issue of co-operative culture is such a live one in worker co-op circles, since they have to make it work to survive.

“…the culture created the policies and the culture is the thing that keeps us checking the policies, otherwise we’d probably forget about them. The most powerful influence is practice and custom”

Cath Muller, Footprint

The first thing we observed was that ‘culture’ is there anyway, cultural norms, custom and practice will be a strong influence on your members whatever you do, and it’s up to you to make sure that it’s a strong ‘co-operative culture’ that is being nurtured and absorbed by your new members. Here’s some Top Tips to help you do just that.

  1. Shared vision

Make sure that everyone knows not just what you do but how you do it. Strategy sessions, regular communications such as newsletters, publicity and promotional materials, your website – all can highlight your shared values and vision of how you do things. The Phone Co-op makes it abundantly clear in all its materials that the reason it offers good quality services is because it is run by its members.

  1. Excellent communications

We agree with Suma’s Bob Cannell, who quoting Ralph Stacey says that organisations (including co-ops) are best described as a collection of processes of human relationships and communication. Some worker co-ops use multiskilling and job rotation to ensure that members are aware of what is happening in different departments. Suma are considering providing training to improve people’s interpersonal communications skills. Good communication is central to being a successful co-operative business.

  1. Induction of new members

Vital for ensuring that new members ‘get’ the culture as quickly as possible. ‘Sitting next to Annie’ might seem a practical approach but it is not enough, and Annie might be a bit cynical, and know her way round the rules, with a damaging effect on morale and initiative. No, take the training of new members seriously, provide them with a mentor or buddy and recognise that not everything can be taught, a lot will be picked up by watching people’s behaviour in the workplace and during meetings. Some co-ops start the process before people are even members, and Radical Routes co-ops in particular benefit from shared cultural values.

“Writing down what you and other co-op members have been doing over the past three months can help reinforce co-op cohesion and culture”

Jane Ferrie, Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op

The Conversations highlighted a range of ways in which new members learn co-operative culture: observing other members in the workplace, during meetings, being part of decision-making, working together, training, mentoring, buddying, writing and involvement in the wider co-operative movement (especially Radical Routes co-ops).

  1. Structured and appropriate approach

Whatever your approach, it needs to be structured, otherwise ‘an awful lot’ can ‘fall between the cracks’ with members taking ‘a long time to feel comfortable enough to speak up’. You have a responsibility to teach new people how to do something no-one learns in school. Most people don’t go to meetings where 20, 30 or 50 people sit around in a room and discuss things. It can be intimidating! But we can learn how to do it, and you can adopt ways to make it less intimidating, such as using small group discussions as part of a larger plenary.

  1. Ignore Co-operative Principles at Your Peril!

– for example Principle 5: Education, training and information. If you are finding collective working a challenge there may be a temptation to resort to hierarchy, which can create a new set of problems and diminish self-responsibility. If a collective approach isn’t working, maybe members don’t know what is expected of them, how they’re supposed to behave or they need support or training.

  1. The Member Job Description (or Member Agreement)

A Member Job Description can be a useful resource. It sets out what co-op members expect of each other (and themselves). It could include what you can expect from your co-op, and what the co-op in turn expects from you. It could include norms of behaviour in meetings – for example we expect members to have read the papers and turn up on time, to have an opinion and to be prepared to share it. To be ready to attend training or to learn the ‘core tasks’ that we have agreed everyone needs to know how to do. It’s up to you!

So, finally, Siôn was right – co-operative culture does indeed eat co-operative governance for breakfast!

This doesn’t mean that governance isn’t important – far from it. Written policies and procedures are

  • helpful for new members getting to grips with how things work
  • essential for saving time – you can look it up, no need to hold a meeting!
  • and a guide to what has been agreed in the past, so you know where you are when changes in the co-op’s external environment affect how you do things.

Thanks to all the co-operators who took part in Co-operantics Conversations: Cath Muller,of Footprint Workers Co-op, David Charles of Sanford Housing Co-op, Dave Morris of Hamwic Housing Co-op, Jane Ferrie, of Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op, Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op, Sion Whellens of Calverts Design & Print Co-op and Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods Co-op.

You can read the interviews by following these links (they open in a new window):

16. July 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #7 · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Coping with conflict, Meetings and decision making, Team Working

Conversation #7 is with Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods.

Suma is the UK’s largest worker co-operative and largest independent ethical wholesaler and distributor. It is the market leader in the wholesale natural grocery market.

Founded in 1976, they have been operating from Elland in Yorkshire since 2001. They are also the largest single pay organisation in Europe with all 190 workers earning the same hourly rate regardless of whether they are picking orders, working in personnel or developing new products.

Last year saw another record-breaking set of accounts as Suma turned over £34 million with sales throughout the UK, and to over 50 countries internationally. Suma is run democratically by members, and was awarded Co-operative of the Year 2014.

Hi Bob,

My first question is:

Q:               Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?

A:                It’s a mixture of all three at Suma. We agree basic principles and on some issues quite detailed rules (e.g. good behaviour) because members are very concerned about those things. Over time habitual behaviour does build up custom and practice which sometimes takes over from old rules agreed in the old days.

And there is a Suma culture but it’s a shifting fog when you try to say what it is. We tend to ask members what they want in terms of behaviour. Eg the Suma member job description merely set down how members wanted their colleagues to act as members (and by inference themselves too). It’s recently been refreshed by popular participation and a couple of changes made.

Essentially what is important is the real living relationships between people which is a constantly shifting web of complex processes of relating. You can’t write them down in set rules but you can agree limits to behaviour. You have to understand that blindly following rules will cause more trouble than good. In coops there is no Big Daddy or Big Mummy boss to force employees to be like obedient but surly children obeying ‘their stupid rules’.

So members in a worker coop will suddenly revolt against their own democratically agreed rules. It’s exciting.

Q:               How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative? Here’s some ideas for starters:

  • Observing colleagues during the working day
  • ‘water cooler’ or lunch break gossip
  • Behaviour of members in meetings
  • Ease of participation in meetings
  • During the induction process

 A:                All of the above. We spend nine months training people to be Suma members before they are voted in (or occasionally not). There is always explicit culture which can be taught and implicit culture which is under the surface and can only be experienced.

Suma trial members (as we call our trainees) work alongside members and colleagues from day one and we expect them to talk and find out ‘what’s really going on’ and to talk to their minder (mentor) or to us in Personnel at their reviews.

It’s great when a TM says ‘you said Suma was xxx and it’s not!’ And we say ‘now you understand the paradoxical nature of this place. Everything is to be played for and you need to become a player and not a bystander if you are to be a proper participating member. If you don’t like what you experience try and change it!’

Q:               What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

A:                This is the classic ‘learning from Annie’ idea in HR lore. Annie is the most experienced worker but she’s also really cynical about the show, also knows all the cuttable corners, all the ways round the rules etc. So just throwing them into the deep end can have a catastrophic effect on morale and initiative.

In Suma the most difficult thing to learn is how to get changes made (at any level or significance). The only way to do that is by experience of trying. It’s like punching fog or struggling with an octopus or goading a cart horse ( if you are too aggressive it will kick you). So learn from other members’ experience and try not to make all the same mistakes.

Mentoring is crucial for many triallees as we call our trainees. Person to person communication is the thing. Don’t talk about people, talk to them.

Much traditional HR is about doing things to people or forcing them to fill prescribed boxes (competences for example). We want our trainees to surprise us with things we hadn’t imagined, new ideas that are ‘outside the box’ and then put those ideas into action if they can and learn from the experience for future attempts.

Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A:                Yes, we are always on the lookout for new ideas. Worker coops are such weird places of employment. All kinds of standard HR techniques just don’t work. Performance appraisals for example don’t work with multi-skilled self-managing members. Think about the power relations in a normal appraisal and you can see why.

Disciplinary and especially grievance processes can and do destroy worker coops by disrupting the internal relationships to such a degree that managing the business becomes impossible. So we pioneered the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration instead. Bad behaviour has to be controlled – but not by Big Daddy. There is no hidden boss to make these procedures work.

More recently we are getting into how we can improve our members’ interpersonal communication skills. Yorkshire folk are not known for Italian level conversational skills. But it is in everyday conversation that the practical management and governance of worker coops gets done. If you can’t have that awkward conversation with your annoying colleague you just suffer in sullen silence for years. And the level of cooperation in your team and the coop suffers.

Q:               Do you use a member job description?

A:                I think we invented the concept of a member job description in 1995. It’s a crucial and central part of our Suma culture and underpins all our people processes from recruitment to retirement.

It’s in use all over. I find bits of it in documents from US and Canadian worker coops as well as in the UK. If anyone would like a copy of the new one please email me bob[at]suma.coop.

Q:               What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A:                People have become more interested in pay and security and maybe less in ethics and principles. Not surprising given the state of the economy outside. Suma is a little haven of good jobs. There are fewer political worker coop warriors like me these days who believe worker cooperation is a revolutionary activity. But I’m seeing some welcome signs of a strengthening demand for economic democracy amongst younger people in the aftermath of the tax avoidance scandals and the obscene concentration of wealth in the 1%

Suma is a great example to them that it is possible for working people to run their own businesses without an executive elite so we can enjoy the full fruits of our labour

Thanks a lot Bob!

Check out Suma Wholefoods and follow Suma @SumaWholefoods & Bob @bobcannell

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

 

09. July 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #5 Sanford Housing Co-op · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills

Co-operantics Conversations #5 is with David Charles of Sanford Housing Co-op – the oldest purpose-built housing co-operative in London. Founded in 1973, it has been transformed from a wasteland into a cosy, green and welcoming environment. Sanford Walk is home to 125 tenants, living in 14 houses and 6 flats.

Hi David,
Thanks for speaking to us. My first question is:

Q: In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or a co-operative ‘culture’ within the membership?

A: The co-operative culture.

Q: How do new members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: Behaviour of members, not just in meetings, but generally. We have very little in the way of inductions.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: An awful lot falls between the cracks and is only learnt when it becomes a problem. People can feel unwelcome, as if they are outside the group. It can take members a long time to feel comfortable enough to speak up – some never reach that point. It favours people who are outgoing and gregarious, who will ask questions and get involved without any encouragement. On the pros side: it requires very little effort on the part of the coop; it is down to the member’s own initiative.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: New member workshops or training afternoons; having new member mentors or go-to contacts.

Q: Do you use a member agreement? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership). If no, why not?

A: I don’t think so, not beyond our tenancy agreement and P&Ps (which most people haven’t read). Why not? Because it’s more work, I suppose, and because we don’t have much in the way of expectations either way.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time? If so, why do you think this is?

A: The culture changes in waves. We’re currently riding one particular wave, with more and more of a certain kind of person moving in, which pushes other kinds of people out. But that’ll change again in the future, I’m sure. We’ve had all kinds of waves over the past 40 years. Why this particular wave now? Perhaps it’s a new generation of graduates who are more aware of environmental and community issues and want to make a difference to people and planet. The housing market is also increasingly expensive, which makes our membership process much more competitive, so we have many more potential members to choose from – but, rather than broadening our membership, our demographic has narrowed because people like to choose people like themselves. So more and more people sharing the same mindset.

Thanks a lot David!

Check out Sanford Housing Co-op
So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, (feel free to add any further thoughts) and send to:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!
Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Co-ops Fortnight 21st June – 4th July – is the perfect time to come together and promote the vibrancy and strength of our sector. Co-operantics will celebrate Co-ops Fortnight with a series of ‘Co-operantics Conversations‘ where we will ask co-operators how they build and nurture a strong co-operative culture.

As a result of criticism levelled at poor governance at The Co-operative and the Co-operative Bank, there’s been a lot of heat and not a lot of light shone on the topic of co-operative governance. Experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of co-operative culture. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much that co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas.

Our first Conversation is with Siôn Whellens of Calverts Co-operative: Design & Print

Hi Siôn,
My first question is:
Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?
A: We don’t have lots of policy codes, but we do have a lot of accepted procedures, developed by consensus decision making over the years. So often, ‘the way we do things’ has its roots in policy decisions and rule-making from a long time ago, before most of the current members can remember or tweaked from time to time.
Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?
A: Watching the way clients, customers and neighbours interact with us; social media and our website; the reputation of the co-op; observing colleagues during the working day, ‘water cooler’ or lunch break gossip, behaviour of members in meetings, ease of participation in meetings and during the induction process.
Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?
A: People can take as long as they need to ‘get’ the culture (which can also be a disadvantage, but mostly it’s an advantage); it’s a mixture of ‘hard’ learning (e.g. understanding financial reports, environmental policy and procedures) and ‘skills’ learning (modes of discourse and interaction). It’s cheap, efficient and humane because it doesn’t rely on hard power or a management cadre, although it does rely on goodwill and the ‘soft power’ of the group.
Q: And the disadvantages?
A: We tend to assume that given enough time, people will align with and find their positive place in the culture, so we don’t ‘hand hold’ that much and we don’t review members’ performance as members, so it can take a long time to resolve problems.
Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?
A: More formal training in co-operative knowledge and skills during the probation year (quite likely to implement, if the current worker coop skills training and other events like Worker Weekend continue); a system for formal peer appraisals (always rejected!)
Q: Do you use a member job description? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)
A: No! It might be difficult to introduce one, unless there was something we could borrow and tweak, because when things are going OK people say ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke’ and when things aren’t going well people have other priorities.
Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?
A: Less overtly political as the business entered its golden phase and early members moved on; less ‘office politics’ (i.e. internal caucusing and organising around ‘agendas’), as the average age changed from 25-ish to 45-ish, and also because it led to conflicts which caused a lot of grief and nearly destroyed the co-op. We grew up.

Thanks a lot Siôn!

Check out Calverts Co-op: Design & Print and follow Siôn @Scumboni

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

At the recent Worker Co-op Weekend (an excellent get together of 20+ worker co-ops & about 30 people, held in West Sussex last weekend) there was one topic which came up again and again – the Co-operative Member Job Description – or the ‘Job of Membership’ as it is called at Delta-T Devices, a worker co-op specialising in instruments for environmental science.

So what is it, and why do we need another job description on top of the one that describes your work tasks and responsibilities?

The member job description tells you what you need to do to be a ‘good co-op member’. It describes the behaviours and skills required for you to participate effectively in the co-operative, and it reminds you that as a co-op member, you have responsibilities as well as rights. Responsibilities to be prepared for meetings – to read papers in advance, have an opinion and turn up on time. A responsibility to be a good communicator – and if your communication skills are not up to scratch, a willingness to attend training.

Suma Wholefoods, the UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler/distributor first developed the member job description. They use it in induction – potential members are recruited on short term contracts and their first job is to ‘become a member’. It’s only after successfully demonstrating that they understand what is required of Suma members that they are accepted into full membership. Only those people who are able to meet those requirements are accepted.

At Unicorn Co-operative  Grocery, the member job description is used in recruitment as well as induction, peer appraisal and training. Job applicants are sent a copy of the member job description so they are aware from the beginning what it means to be a member of Unicorn.

So the member job description can help you to get the right people in the first place, support effective induction into the co-operative, set standards of behaviour, provide a framework for peer appraisal and provide guidance for training.

We will be addressing what might be useful to include in a member job description at the co-operative skills seminar: ‘Being a good co-op member’ at Hamilton House in Bristol on Tuesday 3rd June. Book here!