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

 

Can co-ops offer their members a better work/life balance?

In private enterprise 58% of those in full time work believe they have no influence in the workplace, increasing to 70% for part-timers. (Source: YouGov polling, commissioned by Co-operatives UK May 2015). So it’s only if your employer offers good terms and conditions of employment, including flexible hours, that you will be able to benefit from good work life balance. And of course in private enterprise, employers need to prioritise return on investment for owners and shareholders.

Co-operatives on the other hand are run for the benefit of their members. So in worker co-operatives, where employees are the members, we might assume that one of the benefits on offer would be working hours flexible enough to ensure that members can meet family, education, leisure and social commitments – in other words, a good work life balance.

But there are different types of co-operatives – offering membership to tenants, savers or consumers – and it’s useful to distinguish between them. Consumer retail co-operatives (the familiar high street ‘Co-op’) are run for the benefit of the consumer – or shopper. They are managed like any other supermarket, except that profits are shared with members rather than external shareholders, and members can be elected to the Members’ Council and have a say on business issues. Although employees can be members, the co-operative is not run primarily for their benefit. Issues like work life balance will be covered in a contract of employment and dealt with through the HR department.

In a worker co-op however, the members are the employees and the co-operative is run primarily for their benefit. Members will have influence in the workplace, and will be able to contribute to discussions on the products or services that are sold, on the way work is carried out and on terms and conditions of employment, including work life balance.

“If only …”

But does it happen? Frustratingly, it can be challenging for worker co-op members to be able to achieve good work life balance, for several reasons, for example:

  • In the start-up period, founder members will often work for very low or no pay, in order to get the co-operative off the ground, so any talk of work life balance will be accompanied by a rueful smile …
  • Members have a responsibility to contribute to management decision making, leaving less time for other commitments
  • the co-op may decide to support the local community or people on low incomes and keep their own wages to a minimum, so members may need to work long hours
  • there may be a limited understanding of the enterprising nature of co-operatives, with a lack of research into potential markets which could provide the financial sustainability to permit members to achieve better work life balance
  • the co-op may be going through a period of change, cutting back on costs in certain areas to spend on new premises, additional equipment or raw materials

How easy is it for members of a large worker co-op to achieve good work life balance? Bristol’s Essential Trading is a worker co-op with over 80 members and is one of the UK’s ‘top 100 Co-ops’ according to Co-operatives UK.

Richard Crook from Essential says:

“… the realities of running a democratic business mean there are increased time demands over and above operational needs that might ordinarily be expected from an employee. Things like reading minutes, attending meetings, writing proposals, reading proposals, dealing with ‘people management’ issues, etc. all seem to add to the ‘work’ side of the see-saw – but at the same time because they can occupy the cerebral side of work rather than the physical, they do have an annoying habit of popping into one’s head during what should be ‘life’ time. Hence it often feels like the line is blurred between ‘work’ and ‘life’ in a worker co-op. People do really commit to the worker co-op they are members of, arguably sometimes too much for their own health and well-being, but this is done I think because they feel they are genuinely contributing to something alternative and often life-changing.”

What we can do to help co-ops be more sustainable?

Join them! Co-ops make an important contribution to the solidarity economy, they have an important part to play in that they (especially worker co-ops) offer an alternative form of business to the capitalist model. Business doesn’t have to be like Dragons Den or The Apprentice!

Buy goods and services from them! Co-operantics has (home) offices in Southampton & Bristol and in Bristol that means saving with Bristol Credit Union, buying organic vegetables from Sims Hill Shared Harvest , eating in Café Kino! Showing international solidarity at Kebele, enjoying music & workshops at The Folk House, reading news and views via The Bristol Cable, getting open source ICT from Bristol Wireless, going to the movies with Cube Cinema, reading about Re-enchanting the Forest with Vala Publishing, taking a trip round the harbour on a Bristol Ferry Boat, buying wood from Bristol Recycled Wood Co-op, and wooden gifts, logs and charcoal from Forest of Avon Products. We also get electricity from Co-operative Energy and phone & internet through the Phone Co-op (also the only UK supplier of the Fairphone – the first mobile phone made with materials from non-conflict zones). And too many more to mention – check out the CUK Directory for more UK co-ops.

So let’s do it! Let’s make 2016 the most ‘co-opy’ year yet!

Seasons Greetings and all the best in 2016 from Co-operantics.

Strategic planning in worker co-operatives

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