from Conflict to Co-operation revisited

It’s hard to believe it was over 10 years ago that I wrote these booklets, together with the excellent cartoonist and illustrator Angela Martin and our patient and knowledgeable editor, Sarah Alldred (then at Co-operatives UK) now at the Co-operative College.

I’d started thinking some time before that helping co-ops set up effective democratic governance structures wasn’t enough – that within ‘flat’ organisational structures, different behaviours are needed. I realised that would-be cooperators will bring their own assumptions about the way work is organised and about the way decisions are taken, based on previous experience – in private enterprise, local government, education, or the charitable or voluntary sectors. Such assumptions if unchecked could lead to conflict or at the very least undermine attempts to establish a ‘co-operative culture’ in the workplace.

I’d also been working on conflict resolution in co-ops, and thought it would be useful to have an accessible and fun resource that people could dip in to for tips and techniques for handling conflict.

So the idea of ‘from Conflict to Co-operation’ was born. There are five booklets:

Booklet 1 encourages us not to be afraid of conflict but to welcome it as a symptom of the wealth of experience, skills and knowledge that exists in our team. It includes an explanation of how conflict arises, an exploration of five different typical responses to conflict and a script for helping us defuse tensions that may arise in the workplace.

Booklet 2 outlines some basic communication concepts and looks at steps we can take to improve communication, including avoiding misunderstandings arising from cultural or gender differences. We discuss the importance of assertive behaviour for good communication and highlight how the enterprise will benefit from maximum participation by members.

Booklet 3 describes how we can make meetings more effective. How to make them reasonably short and enjoyable, with good decisions taken and with everyone coming away with a clear idea of who’s doing what. We also look at a range of different decision-making methods and the implications of their use.

Booklet 4 explores the tensions that can arise as a co-op develops and to identify tools, techniques and approaches which will help as the co-op experiences growth and change. We look at managing change, policies and procedures to address issues such as recruitment, induction and appraisals or personal reviews. We also discuss a participative approach to strategic planning and summarise four strategic planning tools.

Booklet 5 addresses the vital role of the board. We look at the different roles that board members can adopt, the relationship of the board with day to day management and what to do if you are a board member as well as an employee – which hat do you wear when?

I’m delighted to be able to launch the revised from Conflict to Co-operation booklets in #CoopFortnight 2019. The booklets have been updated and additional material added (especially in Booklet 4). They are designed to be read online, so we can add new material and keep them updated. I hope you will find them useful and enjoy reading them.

Kate Whittle


Peer appraisal in worker co-ops

– or “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” (Hint: You don’t)

Many moons ago, at a worker co-op conference, someone asked me: “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” Good question, I thought, but I hadn’t the slightest idea how to do it. Except I thought then – and still do – that you should never tell your co-op co-worker their work is crap!

Worker co-ops are run for the benefit of the employees – their members – so of course the very last thing you want to do is fire someone. But you do need a way of providing support to your members – and a means of getting everyone on board with quality, timeliness and commitment to your mission and aims.

Appraisals provide members with support as well as providing a structure for holding them accountable. Any kind of business with employees (or volunteers) needs to carry out regular staff appraisals. But it’s how it’s done that interests us here.  In a worker co-op you will find a flatter, more democratic organisation. You may find that all the employees are Directors and you may find a variety of organisational structure – management by General Meeting (GM) or Management Committee, which may have delegated powers, or be representative of different teams or departments. There is also a growing body of worker co-ops adopting Sociocratic tools and structures. So we are not looking for a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

In a private enterprise an employer worth their salt will hold regular employee appraisals so that employees have the confidence that they are doing a good job, and the employer gets to know when people need training, or need new software or equipment, or when she needs to recruit more staff or give more hours to existing staff.

So in a flat, democratically-managed workplace, it’s just as important to have this information, and there are a variety of ways you can do that. You don’t need a hierarchical structure with a line manager responsible for holding appraisal exercises with staff, there are other approaches and this is what this paper aims to explore. Continue reading “Peer appraisal in worker co-ops”

Check Your Principles!

We were really pleased to see that the Co-ops Unleashed report from the New Economics Foundation, commissioned by the Co-op Party, referenced co-operatives undertaking a co-op principles audit every 5 years.  We have long advised co-ops to take a look at how they put the principles into practice, offering DIY guidance and an audit service (which provides external validity).  We also frequently deliver training sessions which include a section on the Co-operative Principles. As recently as last month, we delivered workshops with co-ops to discuss and understand what the coop principles mean in their co-op, and how they could be better put into practice.

Who’s afraid of leadership?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-operative leadership, because there are so many varieties of co-operative, depending on co-operative type, organisational structure, and sector of the economy.

In a consumer retail co-operative for example, the hierarchical structure pretty much dictates who holds what power and while of course there are opportunities for career development and promotion, there is less flexibility and those at the top of the tree can control the way authority is delegated to those below them.

I often remember an early lesson in co-operative leadership – or the lack of it!  I was a member of a co-housing group, run as a co-operative and we held an event to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – eight or nine of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. Continue reading “Who’s afraid of leadership?”

Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future 12th October 2017

Next week (12th October) Co-operatives South East is hosting a regional co-ops conference and AGM in Brighton entitled “Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future”.  It is focusing on how co-operatives can forge trading partnerships to reduce unnecessary waste and carbon emissions while boosting their trading activity.  Nathan from Co-operantics is going to be helping facilitate the day, as an outgoing Board member of Co-operatives South East.  He has served a 3 year term in a regional federal body for co-ops as part of our commitment to the 6th co-operative principle (Co-operation among co-operatives).  The full programme can be viewed here and if you are late to booking, use this form. Did we say it’s free?

So what’s it all about?

Sustainability has multiple meanings: Continue reading “Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future 12th October 2017”

Multistakeholder Co-operatives Manchester 30th September

Stir to Action  in collaboration with The Co-operative College, is hosting a one-day workshop on multistakeholder co-ops on 30th September 2017. The workshop will be held at Holyoake House, Hanover St, Manchester M60 0AS and will be run by Kate Whittle of Co-operantics. If you cannot get to Manchester, you can follow the workshop via a webinar.

Kate is a founder member of GO-OP, a multistakeholder co-operative whose constitution is based on the Somerset Rules model, which was developed by Alex Lawrie at Somerset Co-op Services.

Instead of single stakeholder organisations — such as worker or consumer co-ops — the multistakeholder model extends ownership to different types of stakeholder. GO-OP for example has three classes of member: Users (passengers and employees) and Non-users (investors).

With this more inclusive model, more people have a direct interest in the success of the enterprise, and can be represented on the board of the co-operative. Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK, has argued that this model suits enterprises within the Transition movement, “where the single-constituency member models don’t seem quite to fit.”

Another example of a good fit for a multi-stakeholder co-operative is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The aim of the CSA is to share the risk between growers and consumers, to help growers and horticulturalists survive the risks and challenges of growing food. So the CSA will have different groups of stakeholders with different short term interests but a shared long term interest. The multistakeholder model presents an ideal structure to ensure the interests of both groups are clear and taken into account.

Where large amounts of capital need to be raised in order to get the co-operative business off the ground, the multistakeholder model can work well. The co-operative will have two types of members, Users and Non-users, with the Non-users providing the capital and receiving a modest return on their funds as well as the satisfaction of knowing that they are supporting a member-owned and democratically controlled, sustainable enterprise. Control of the co-operative is always in the hands of the Users however.

If you’d like to find out more about the model, join us on 30th September to develop a good understanding of what a multi-stakeholder co-operative is, the advantages offered by this model and some of the complexity. We’ll be exploring some examples of multi-stakeholder co-ops, and there will be a practical exercise thinking about the design of a multi-stakeholder co-op.


Webinar participants will be able to stream live video of the workshop, view presentations and put questions to the facilitator. For a full explanation of attending via webinar, please email

Contact Stir to Action with any questions, or if you would like to pay via alternate methods including cheque or bank account transfer

Away Days – love them or loathe them?

The Away Day – love it or loathe it, it’s an essential element of collective working, but if it’s not properly planned and well facilitated it can undermine all your efforts to work together effectively as a team.

It can be a jolly, a social get together, a chance to stand back, review progress over the last year and plan for next year, or a look at the longer term. It can be an opportunity to review organisational structure, or a space for looking at the way you work together – at processes rather than tasks. But not all at once! It can be tempting to try to cram as much as possible in to the day, but that’s a mistake. When people are taking time out from day to day operations to look at issues in more depth, it’s a frustrating waste of time if important topics can only be touched on briefly.

This is a precious time – after all if there are say 10 of you out of the office or warehouse or shop for a whole day that is a cost of 10 person-days to the co-operative. So make sure you spend that time wisely.

In our experience there are a variety of ways in which it can go wrong:

  1. Lack of consultation with members about aims & content (people will not feel ownership, so will not engage)
  2. Agenda with too many aims &/or lack of prioritisation
  3. Lack of planning
  4. Wrong venue (too small, not enough wall space, inadequate seating, too dark, no outside space)
  5. Too many presentations, not enough discussion (does not encourage participation, boring)
  6. Too much time spent in whole group discussion (ditto)
  7. Pointless ‘team building’ exercises or inadequate exercise de-briefing
  8. Lack of a final feedback session (missed opportunity to learn which sessions worked well and which did not)
  9. Running over time (cardinal sin, people have got lives, and other commitments)


Ideally the Away Day will be a regular event, so that over time you will learn for yourselves what works and what doesn’t, but first of all you need to agree what you want to achieve:

  • Do you want to involve all your members in thinking about the future?
  • or celebrate the achievements and identify the challenges of the past year and share members’ expectations, hopes (and maybe fears) for the coming year?
  • or find out if the structure is working effectively? Are people clear about who has what authority to take decisions, where one role ends and another one begins, member rights and responsibilities?
  • or discover if your appraisal or peer support system is working effectively? Do members feel supported? Are you missing opportunities for people to share their training needs or ambitions for career development?
  • or review policies and procedures, for example is there an effective mechanism for dealing with conflict when it arises?

As we said above, if you try to do all these things you will end up feeling rushed or disappointed that there are topics which have not been properly explored and discussed, so it’s important to focus and identify those issues that need to be addressed as a priority.

5 ways to ensure that your strategy day doesn’t go wrong

  1. AIMS: Decide and prioritise what you want from the day, involving all the members in agreeing Away Day Aims. What is your priority right now?
    1. Team building
    2. Strategy development
    3. Policy development
    4. Review progress in previous year
    5. Review processes – the way you work together

Don’t try to cram too much in.

  1. VENUE: Find a venue which is accessible, big enough for you all to sit in a circle, with space for smaller group work, with an outside space you can use (weather permitting), with a kitchen and an urn for making hot drinks; order lunch and cake (cake is essential) from a local co-op or social enterprise .
  2. PLAN: Make a plan, starting with start and end times, including 15 minutes morning & afternoon breaks & at least 45 minutes lunch break. Also a 15 minute feedback session at the end of the day. This will give you an idea of how much time you will have to achieve your aims, probably around 5 to 6 hours. Develop a timed Agenda and circulate in advance. Write up on a flip chart so that everyone can see how much time there is for each topic.
  3. PARTICIPATION: Plan the day so that you alternate high-participation activities with less participative ones. High participation = small group discussions, exercises; Less participative = presentations, whole group discussions.
  4. FLEXIBILITY: Be prepared to drop an exercise if you can see or are told it isn’t working; have alternative ideas up your sleeve, be prepared to let a discussion go on longer than anticipated in the plan if it appears to be exploring something important or if people are saying we need more time for this. Remind people of the Agenda, more time on this topic means less time for the next one!


We think this is such a great opportunity for people to work together in a very different way to the day to day operational tasks, so it’s important to invite all the stakeholders. If there are probationers or volunteers who are willing to put in the time then they should be there.  If there are Board members or Directors who are not involved in the day to day work they should be invited too. It should be made clear that this is not a decision-making forum, but that decisions arising out of the Away Day will be taken at the next members meeting or AGM as appropriate.

A well planned, inclusive, participative and well facilitated Away Day will provide a strong foundation for your work together. Members will be motivated, communications between different departments or teams will be more effective, working practices will be improved, decision-making will be more efficient and the co-operative or social enterprise business will benefit.

We have run Away Days for co-operatives and social enterprises many times, and we’d love to help you run yours! We are experienced at planning, facilitating and evaluating Away Days, ensuring that they are effective, participative and fun.

Contact or

and we will get back to you for a chat about your needs.

Chairing (or facilitating) meetings – whose turn is it to speak?

A colleague highlighted an important issue when she asked about the order in which the Chair allows people to speak. Normally when you are chairing or facilitating a discussion you note (you can write it down) the order in which people are raising their hands and invite them to speak in that order.

However, what if one person is asking for information and another person is giving that information, but the next person to raise their hand wants to speak about something else? As my colleague rightly pointed out, if the Chair sticks rigidly to the order in which people are raising their hands, the flow of the discussion can be interrupted by questions or comments relating to a totally different issue.

So what’s the answer?

I refer you to this great quote:
“Let’s cherish each other and listen to each other like jazz musicians do”, Richard Holloway (former Bishop of Edinburgh)

We know that although it’s the Chair’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the meeting to support her or him in that. So if your question doesn’t relate to the current issue, don’t raise your hand until you can hear that the discussion has moved on. We all need to take responsibility for the meeting being fruitful and effective, so we need to think – is my contribution helping this discussion?

So it’s not always about rules – the rules are there for a reason, they’re a structure but they are not the answer to every situation. We can make all the rules we want but in the end people’s attitudes and awareness are more important.

Here’s a link to an excellent TED talk on precisely this topic, I think it’s wonderful!

the what, why and how of multistakeholder co-ops

Co-operatives are set up for the benefit of their members – be they shoppers in a consumer retail co-op, employees in a workers’ co-op, tenants in a housing co-op or savers and borrowers in a credit union.

These are single stakeholder* models, where there is just one class of member, but they do not take account of the range of different stakeholders that might be interested in the operations of the co-operative, for example in the case of a worker co-op that might mean suppliers, users of the co-operative’s services, customers, or local people who might be willing to invest or buy loan-stock.  In the case of a consumer co-operative that might mean employees, suppliers or local community groups.

*stakeholders can be described as: ‘individuals or groups that can affect or be affected by an organisation. Stakeholders can come from inside or outside the organisation. Examples include customers, employees, members, shareholders, suppliers, non-profit groups and the local community, among others’.

multi-stakeholder-graphicThe multi-stakeholder co-operative model addresses a multiplicity of stakeholder interests and turns it into a strength and greater sustainability for the co-operative.

(image courtesy of

Picturetank – a Société Coopérative d’Intérêt Collectif (or SCIC) – is based on the photographers’ co-op Magnum, formed at the close of WW2 with the radical idea that the photographers (rather than the publications themselves) should hold copyright control of the images. However, Picturetank goes a step further with the involvement of all workers as well as photographers and outside supporters in a multi-stakeholder model.

Starting up with 15 photographers and a single web designer, the co-op hosted, managed and published their work through their website, As the organization rapidly grew to 100 photographers, clients began requesting commercial services such as marketing and management of sales, so they began to recruit more staff and offer more services, adopting a more organized, business-like approach. However, as they grew, founders were reluctant to give up the democracy and inclusiveness they had enjoyed since the co-op’s early days.

One of the main balancing acts that Picturetank must perform every day is between the needs of the individual member photographers and the needs of the agency as a whole. Picturetank’s founders wanted to provide a platform for affiliation, but stop short of full integration—they did not want to impose group standards or requirements on the artistic work of any one individual photographer.

“Co-ops reflect the triumph and struggle of democracy. Disagreement and conflict are as much a part of democracy as the power of collective action. Managing disagreement and resolving conflict in a productive fashion are part of crafting an effective democracy. While everyone knows the consequences of destructive conflict, the advantages of constructively managed conflict include greater understanding, enlightenment, and consensus.”  – from ‘Solidarity as a business model’ Co-operative Development Center, Kent State University, USA

Membership of a multi-stakeholder co-operative is organised in two or more stakeholder groups which might include consumers, producers, workers, volunteers or general community supporters. So rather than being organized around a single class of members, multi-stakeholder co-operatives have a more diverse membership base.  This means that the co-op’s mission – their reason for existing, can be broader than that of a co-op with just one class of stakeholder, and will recognise the interdependence of interests of stakeholders.

But how is it possible to reconcile the inherent conflict of interest between workers, for example, who we may assume will want the highest wages for their hours worked, and consumers who will be looking for lower prices?

If we look at one example of a single stakeholder model – the credit union, it’s clear that this happens every day, because while attempting to meet the needs of their members, credit unions must address the conflicting interests of borrowers who are looking for low interest rates and savers who want higher interest rates.

Multi-stakeholder co-operatives however celebrate a diversity of interests in the short term, and common needs in the long term, whilst recognizing their interdependency.

In Quebec, such cooperatives are called ‘Solidarity’ cooperatives specifically to highlight this organisational structure which emphasizes commonalities rather than focusing on differences.

elephant-blindfolded-peopleWe could contrast single stakeholder with multi-stakeholder co-ops in a scenario like this one of blindfolded people touching different parts of the elephant and finding that it’s like a fan, a spear, a tree, a rope or a snake. Each of them can only understand their own situation, and can’t see the big picture. We sometimes fail to recognise the interdependency of the different roles we play in the economy – I am a worker but I am also a consumer. Like I am a car driver (occasionally) but also a cyclist and a pedestrian.

Multi-stakeholder cooperatives by their nature seek out different information and new perspectives. But to be successful they also need to know how to share this information in ways that make it meaningful to members of the other groups. Co-operative skills – knowing how to communicate well, running effective meetings, understanding different approaches to taking decisions, knowing how to cope with the day to day conflicts and how to avoid unnecessary ones – these skills are essential for all co-ops, but especially so for multi-stakeholder co-ops.

Some of the examples we looked at in a recent workshop run by Cooperantics with Stir to Action included – along with Picturetank – multi-stakeholder co-operatives from a wide range of economic sectors:

Ecological Land Co-op purchases agricultural land and subdivides it into a number of ecologically managed residential smallholdings. ELC has three types of membership sharing voting rights:

  1. Investor Members invest money in the co-operative, have 25% of voting rights and receive returns on their investment;
  2. Worker Members are employees and volunteers, they also have 25% of voting rights
  3. Steward Members are ecological land managers and hold the remaining 50% of voting rights. Majority voting rights are awarded primarily to Steward Members as they are the principal beneficiaries but generally do not have the capacity to both run their smallholding and serve on the Board of Directors.

Black Star Co-op is the world’s first co-operatively owned and worker self-managed brewpub, owned by 3000 individuals. Incorporated in 2006 as a worker-consumer hybrid co-op, Black Star opened up for business in September 2010. Black Star aims to educate peers about cooperative ownership and values—while enjoying quality food and drinks.

GO-OP Co-operative was founded in 2009 as a multi-stakeholder co-operative based on the Somerset Rules. Its aim is to reduce the social and environmental impacts of travel by providing mutually owned, high quality and inclusive public transport services that encourage people to choose more sustainable options. Its ambition is to be the first co-operatively owned train operating company in the UK.

Weaver Street Market was founded in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1988, and has since become the largest retail multi-stakeholder cooperative in the United States, with 18,000 consumer households and 200 employee owners. It runs three grocery stores, a restaurant and a food production facility. This successful multi-stakeholder co-operative is owned and governed by consumer and worker members.

Webarchitects is a multi-stakeholder co-operative, with membership from clients, partners and investors as well as workers. It was set up in 2011 to provide internet based services for socially responsible groups and individuals. The co-op uses free open source software wherever possible, and aims to minimise fossil fuel usage and ecological impacts and provide sustainable employment.

Much inspiration for this blog was found reading the excellent guide to multi-stakeholder co-operatives produced by the Co-operative development Center at Kent State University in the U.S.: ‘Solidarity as a business model’. Highly recommended if you’d like to know more.