It’s Co-ops Fortnight!

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]
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.

Co-op member job description

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!

Co-operative Skills Seminars: ‘Strategic planning and managing change’

Part of Co-operative UK’s Co-operative Skills Seminar programme, Strategic Planning and Managing Change is a completely new seminar, designed to meet worker co-operative training needs identified by the Worker Co-operative Council.

The content was influenced by the Worker Co-op Code of Governance, by our recent work with Unicorn Grocery in Manchester and by Bob Cannell’s work on co-op friendly management techniques (Oct 2010 Break Free from our Systems Prison) as well as experience with other worker co-operatives addressing issues around change.

However since this topic is so broad, we will be circulating a brief questionnaire to everyone who books for the seminar, in an effort to ensure that the content is relevant and pitched at an appropriate level for participants. Additionally, we would be happy deliver an in-house version of this seminar, tailor made for the requirements of your co-operative. Please get in touch if you would like to know more.

The seminar aims to help you improve participative strategic planning, helping your co-operative grow or change, and covers:

  • exploring your shared goals and what motivates your members
  • participative strategic planning tools
  • typical challenges
  • change management techniques

Book here!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from us at Co-operantics – we hope 2014 brings us all peace, happiness and co-operation.

Here at Co-operantics Towers we are very excited about a new series of seminars we are working on with Co-operatives UK, Seeds for Change, Rhizome and Dynamix – focusing on Co-operative Skills. We expect to be launching the seminars in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol later in the Spring – watch this space for further information!

In the meantime, maybe you’d like to have a go at our Co-operative Skills Audit, which will provide you with a yardstick to assess communications, meetings and decision-making, as well as how effectively you deal with conflict and how well you work as a team.



Dealing with Difficult People?

When I’m web surfing – looking for interesting insights and new approaches to dealing with conflict, I often come across articles or workshops claiming to tell you ‘How to deal with Difficult People’ – and I’ve always had a bit of a worry in my mind about how useful such approaches are – I’m not convinced that to pin the blame for conflict in the workplace on one ‘Difficult Person’ will solve the problem.

A few years ago, I worked with a now large and successful co-op, who asked me to come in and facilitate what they expected to be a ‘difficult meeting’. Two founder members who had conflicting views about the way the co-op was being run were expected to come head to head. The issue was being identified as a personality conflict – i.e. one member was being ‘difficult’. In fact it didn’t come to that – the members were too thoughtful to permit a head to head situation developing. What it threw up was that the difference between the two members was a typical challenge for any co-op growing up from three or four members to ten or twelve – one member wanted things to continue in a laid back ‘everyone decides everything’ style, whilst the other member saw the need for structure and a division of labour.

After much discussion the co-op agreed to adopt a more structured approach, recognising that especially regards HR (in co-op speak Human Relations) the personnel team needed the authority to implement policies agreed by all the members, and that the General Meeting was not the place to deal with issues such as members consistently arriving late. The co-op subsequently asked me to facilitate a strategy meeting called to look at the whole structure of the business, developing an organisational structure based on teams and team representatives, which as far as I know has served them well since.

We have also worked with co-ops in situations where a co-operative board member – again characterised as ‘difficult’ – had exploded with frustration in public, much to the board’s embarrassment and dismay. On investigation however, this ‘difficult’ behaviour seemed to be the result of a whole cat’s cradle of behavioural and governance issues.

In similar situations, we would recommend improving practice in areas such as:

 1. Communicationsears have walls

2. Meetings skills

  • An important role of the chair is to summarise debate as it goes along and especially to summarise any decisions taken in clear language so the minute taker can write it down
  • Minutes should be a record of decisions taken, not a blow by blow account of the meeting
  • There should be an agreed approach for taking decisions, consensus is best for important long term strategic decisions which will impact on lots of people or involve large sums of money, for less critical decisions it’s ok to vote (unless your co-op has 6 or fewer members, when voting is not recommended)

3. Dealing with conflict

You need a tried and tested recipe for dealing with the inevitable tensions as they arise. There’s also a comprehensive and helpful leaflet published by ACAS

If your co-op is facing such difficultiesyou need to make sure you have a clear vision of what the co-op is for – what does it deliver to its members, agreed by members – without that good communication can be just an efficient way to disagree. The lack of such an agreed ‘vision’ could be the root cause of the problemsTwo people might be pulling in different directions, but they might be in a minority, with the majority wanting a third option and disengaging, which could lead to the co-op crumbling away. 

All of which leads me to think that there’s no such thing as a ‘Difficult Person’ – although of course we can all exhibit Difficult Behaviour! Instead, developing a co-op ‘vision’, thinking about how we communicate, how we take decisions in meetings, and how we deal with the inevitable tensions when they arise – in other words, brushing up our co-operative skills – will make it less likely that such behaviour will occur and will help minimise its impact when it does. It will make us better co-operators and make our co-operatives better places to work.

Co-operative skills

What we mean by co-operative skills is the skill-set you need to be able to co-operate effectively – i.e. work with others in a collective, non-hierarchical, democratically managed organisational structure.

Co-operative skills include:

  1. Communication skills (understanding the essential elements of communication, i.e. sending and receiving messages, and minimising ‘noise’)
  2. Meetings and decision-making skills
  3. Conflict management
  4. Understanding how to avoid potential conflict caused by poor governance or poorly planned growth.

It has been suggested that Emotional Intelligence is a necessary basis for the development of co-operative skills, and if we assume that what we mean by that is self-knowledge and self-awareness, reflection, empathy and social awareness, then common sense would suggest such attributes are indeed essential. Here’s a brief summary of current understanding of emotional intelligence, a look at some of the skills and how we can improve our own emotional intelligence.

Whether or not it’s possible to identify and measure emotional intelligence, some of the basic requirements for co-operative working – such as good communication skills and the ability to behave assertively (instead of being passive, aggressive or manipulative) require self-knowledge, social awareness and empathy.

It’s my belief that such skills are not innate, and can be learned – indeed if children were taught co-operative skills in the classroom they would be better equipped to help build the better world we all want to see.

The elements above are all described and explained in the various topic areas of the website – with games, exercises, and links to other websites and sources of information.