Participation, prison and parlour games – an interview with Adrian Ashton

We recently asked readers of the blog to become contributors. Not only are we fascinated to find out who you all are, what you do with your time, and why, but we thought you’d enjoy sharing the discovery.

It’s always a risk asking for participation – even from a community who in one way or another practice, research and innovate on participation. What if no-one engages with us?

Trainer, business adviser, associate Co-operative College tutor, and fellow blogger Adrian Ashton has answered the call. I spoke to Adrian a few days ago. Stupidly I tried to fit the call in before I dashed off for a train. Very, very quickly it became obvious that we were just going to skim the surface of what we could have talked about.

I think my first hint of that came when Adrian started talking about a piece of work he was embarking on to embed co-operative values. So much of our time at Rhizome goes into trying to work with groups on the level of shared values rather than simply tools and techniques. So I grabbed that thread and pulled to unravel what Adrian meant. How do you embed cooperative values?

“not by relying on rules and structures. It’s a two-handed thing. On paper everyone goes ‘yes, absolutely’. In practice it gets a bit messy.”

An example?

“Coops and trade unions – two large movements united and divided by a set of common values. They have different cultural attitudes”

Adrian advises us to ask:

“How do we want to manifest those values? Now we need a framework. What are the ways we play the values out in practice – appropriate culture and accepted norms of behaviour… to enable people to feel confident in sticking to their agreements”

He works in a variety of social sector organisations. Sometimes he’ll be working with a small worker coop, sometimes with a large social enterprise. I asked him about the challenges of embedding values in each.

“With worker coop they’re usually much smaller and meet in pubs and backrooms. You’re building relationships and then building a structure around that… with boards the structure’s already there and you have to make relationships work within it”

Do both approaches achieve the same results?

“For larger organisations… structure is vital if you’re going to manage relationships. The question is ‘how are those structures working at the moment?’. If there are points where they’re rubbing, are there relatively simple things we can do in terms of our behaviour?… You have to follow the structure but you can do stuff alongside it.

In a smaller coop structure is a useful touch-point to protect relationships. It can depersonalise disputes and protect the entity of the coop.”

I was curious about fractured relationships within coops and social enterprises and asked how much time he spent advising coops and social enterprises to wind down:

“Not that much interestingly and usually not because of the relationships”

He gave examples of coops where “no-one had thought about future proofing or succession” and as original members left new workers saw no need to join the coop. Other examples were coops that had tried to replicate models of working from the USA without understanding the need for members to “co-shape” the project and the need to attract people who had the aptitude for co-operation.

So how does one get the aptitude for co-operation? I know that Rhizome folk have plenty of experience of people, in coops and out, launching collaborative projects but playing out the values of competition (and then wondering why it’s all so difficult). Adrian replied in terms of education:

“cooperative learning is there at primary level – we work in teams together, learn together, support each others learning – brilliant! But at secondary level we’re into the land of GCSEs and all of a sudden it’s every student for themselves – youve got to get good grades. There’s a schism in the mindset. 10-12 year olds are being taught to cooperate and then told it’s every person for themselves in the exam room”

And the media don’t help as they celebrate the model of the “heroic individual entrepreneur” the “one against the many”. Projects like Make your mark for a tenner don’t include recognition of working together – it’s all individualistic.

“We need to ask ‘what’s the purpose of our role in society as citizens?’. We’re caught up in this huge self-feeding spiral of “economic growth is good”. What’s the reward? It’s not just fiscal!… The rise of the individual is an easy sell, but now social entrepreneurs are struggling and need to be part of the wider ecosystem. There’s a first flush of excitement and media interest and attention and then they’re just dropped. How do we sustain our interest and enthusiasm? Work together in collaborative entrepreneurship.”

Time was ticking on, so I asked Adrian about his most exciting work. “Prisoners” was the one-word answer. I nudged him to elaborate and he told me about various strands of work he was involved in with prisoners and ex-offenders. He cited research that demonstrated that co-operatives were the most “empowering and emboldening method to empower people to bring about change in their lives”.

One example Adrian mentioned is Ex-Cell Solutions in Manchester. According to their website:

‘Cooperating out of Crime’ is central to Ex-Cell’s work – applying the values and principles of the Cooperative Movement to the rehabilitation of offenders. Ex-Cell is a Cooperative Development Body registered with Cooperatives UK and the only CDB in the country working exclusively with offenders and ex-offenders

“The Cooperative Movement historically has had a central interest in eradicating crime and its causes. Robert Owen’s New Lanark experiment was explicitly designed to promote an alternative to the conventional system of law and punishment and to eradicate the causes of crime by promoting cooperation and education. In the same way, William King, from whom the Rochdale Pioneers learnt much, explained in the first edition of his periodical ‘The Co-operator’ (May 1st 1828) that: The evils which co-operation is intended to combat, are some of the greatest to which men are liable, viz, the great and increasing difficultiesof providing for our families, and the proportionate danger of our falling into pauperism and crime.” Dave Nicholson Ex-Cell Director

Many prisoners are already entrepreneurs and it’s these very businesses, because of their illegality, that has led them into prison. Some of Adrian’s work has been to support the move from prison to legal self-employment by way of supporting the formation of coops on the outside. He modestly describes it as a “participatory learning process, peer led with a bit of facilitation and the odd bit of expert guidance”

His advice to existing and potential co-operators?

“Work out what’s important to you in the sense of what you are adamant about and flexible about. Once you’ve worked those things out it’s much easier to engage with others”

We’ve already gleaned that he likes people to tell stories. He’s also a fan of parlour games as tools to initiate exploration and conversation. Sometimes he used personality profiling, though Belbin team roles is the most detailed” he uses. He also uses the Ulla zang pictures, not because he sees the personality profiling as highly accurate, but because they “start the conversation where people can talk about themselves away from the {everyday} task”. He laments that most enterprise models are “all about delivering the task not about how we work together on doing the task”. Successful collaboration requires people to “understand each others factory default settings so they can enjoy working together better”

Finally I asked Adrian to suggest something he read, listened to or watched that others in the Rhizome community might find useful and interesting.

“The RSA podcast series….I don’t necessarily agree with all of them but they’re a very useful way of starting to engage and explore different ideas and perspectives. They’re big concepts distilled into commute-sized chunks.”

Secondly he suggests the VSSN(Voluntary Sector Studies Network) quarterly journal which he describes a s a “mix of pure data and good quantitative stuff, comment pieces and reflective pieces.”

As an afterthough Adrian emailed another item for the reading list saying “it’s not so much an ongoing journal or recent publication, but rather a ‘core text’ that I regularly revisit and is perhaps the most useful book any entrepreneur (social , private or co-operative) might read – Dr Seuss’ ‘Oh the places you’ll go’

Thanks to Adrian for getting the ball rolling. We didn’t have time to talk about either sex coops or tobacco coops, so we’ll pick up the conversation another time.

Matthew

  • Adrian’s website
  • Follow Adrian on Twitter @AdrianAshton2
  • Adrian’s blog
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