What I found really interesting is that, for some time now, various conversations between co-workers and with clients have brought one clear issue to the fore. The Co-ops Practitioner networking session on ‘Governance and Participation’ that I facilitated on Tuesday 22nd January raised it yet again. Having worked through a process to define, develop and discuss issues affecting them in relation to governance, the issues brought up initially were totally different from those which were unearthed after further discussion. More than that – the real issue was in fact the underlying one, everyone knew it was there but the courage that needed to be used to raise it had to be gathered through a longer conversation.
This happens so often to us as consultants, as advisers, as outsiders brought in to help with an organisation or group. So often it gradually becomes obvious that the support required is not the support asked for. It has really caused some discussion amongst Rhizome workers as there is a real power issue to be borne in mind – we cannot force the issue even if we can ‘see’ it – we need to enable the client to identify it – on the other hand we are wasting our clients and our own time and money by not cutting to the chase.
Is it just our cultural norm to ignore, or just not draw attention to, the awkward or potentially conflictual? What is missing from our ‘safe spaces’ that preclude this direct approach? Aren’t we actually grown-ups able to deal with the truth and to be honest and authentic, committed to collaboration and communication? Do we really deeply understand the positive impact on the group when we act courageously and face the issues in order to resolve them constructively?
At the networking event we did manage to get to the hub of the issue – that whilst working very effectively advising others, the practitioners themselves are facing some difficult times, opaque and confusing structures and expectations from a range of stakeholders and that this is in danger of encouraging them to default to competing rather than collaborating. A real Tyranny of Structurelessness. This theme was also raised at the event by Bob Cannell’s presentation when he described hierarchy and competition as our default positions – it takes effort and commitment to challenge the norm and to work in a highly collaborative and co-operative way. Every successful co-op knows that it is attention paid to the process that enables the success of the product.
When working in a consultant role, we are often expected to provide our clients with a quick fix – a better governance structure or support to develop a strategic plan – but the support for using and adopting them, for the relationship management and sheer effort of building the skills and confidence for collaboration and co-operation – are rarely catered for. As a result, the opportunity to change and develop is lost. Can we say that we have done the best job possible in those circumstances?
Real learning and self-reflection
The great thing about the networking session was the openness to change and learning that the group met the challenge of the experiment with. There was no role play to obscure emotional investment and there was a direct correlation between the way that the group behaved and that feelings and reactions of our clients, the Co-operative Hub, and Co-operatives UK when faced with having to reflect on a real situation. Many members of the group noticed that if it difficult for us to do this, how much more difficult must it be for our clients? If we don’t organise ourselves in non-hierarchical, transparent and accountable ways then how can we provide support for those who are struggling with exactly the same issues?
We didn’t end up with a toolkit for advising our clients around governance and participation, nor did we expect to. But we did experience some real learning about our own struggles and effort to understand and practice the principles and values of co-operation ourselves and real understanding and empathy for others in the movement. This is crucial to our ability to authentically support others – none of us is on this journey alone.