Difference and disagreement

Craig Freshley’s Good Group Tips pop into my inbox regularly and have done for several years. I have to admit I don’t always read every one. Some I skim, some I bin. A few even get the attention they deserve, like the most recent one on “Different views”. It’s well worth the few minutes it’ll take to read and digest it.

“Rather than spend energy arguing which view is correct, assume that all views are correct. Use all available perspectives to better understand what you are looking at.” Craig Freshley

Helpfully the tips, this one included,  are available as pdfs so there’s no excuse for not handing them out at that next meeting.

 

Co-op culture and conversation

I’m typing this during #coopshour (Wednesdays 2pm-3pm GMT on twitter). Kate at Co-operantics has just tweeted the link to an article on their website about building co-operative culture and not just structures.

And (shows how much attention I’ve been paying of late) I noticed a series of great co-op conversations they undertook for Co-operatives Fortnight. Go and read them. Here’s a taste of the linked article:

“many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.” Brian Van Slyke

 

Time and money – the impossible balance

Aside

I recently did a short unpaid session on “team-building” or “how to be a good coop member” type of thing for a small animal rescue charity. I’d been asked by a friend who volunteers there to help with some staff issues, and she felt that a day spending time on their working relationships would be beneficial. I had a phone meeting with the woman who runs the charity and is overall manager, who gave me a picture of a group “who would rather set each other up to fail than help each other”, didn’t take a pride on their work and were not team players. We agreed that we needed to develop trust, appreciation, understanding and support for each other, with some communication awareness added in.  I developed a 4 hour session with activities and times for reflection to cover all of those elements.

One of these activities was the Chairs Game, where each person is given a different instruction about what to do with a set of chairs and they have to work together as a group to fulfil all of these instructions without showing them to others, or fail. They completed it beautifully in ten minutes, through making suggestions “How about we move the chairs over there?” ” I’m sitting down, why don’t you all join me?”, listening to each other, compromising “I’d prefer it if the chairs were more like this”, being thoughtful and observant. It was the last exercise of the session and quite a challenging one, but I had not expected it to go quite so smoothly. They laughed and joked and admitted to a great sense of achievement, though one of them was a bit worried she’d been “too bossy” which was contradicted by others  – “No you made suggestions and we did it as it might have got us somewhere, and it did!”

Observing this and other moments during the session I felt that this was not at all a dysfunctional team. Communication issues and lack of clarity about who was doing what, which were causing stress and feelings of being ignored or undervalued, emerged. As so often, there were also issues of power and rank at play, and by accepting the original assessment and request without question I had become complicit in the structure. What I should have done is spent time observing the situation and also insisted that everyone be involved in the training session, as everyone is part of the team. But if a client has decided what it is they want (and are paying you to do), can the trainer/facilitator refuse to do that and offer to do something else which will be much more relevant and effective and will really change things – will be a catalytic intervention?

I’ve been in discussion with another client recently about some work which, when we started talking, was one thing and an hour later had turned into something else completely as we dissected the reasons behind the request. The more time we can spend talking with clients, finding out exactly what is needed, not what they think is needed, the better and more satisfying the work we do and the more substantial the changes we help to make. But time is money and of course money seems to be more important – a quick fix is what is often looked for. If we say, “But you will actually get greater quality and a better outcome if we spend more time talking with you and others, and really the session should be a full day not a few hours”,  people may think we’re just trying to get paid more. Yes and no – we want above all to do a good job, to make real change, to be effective. We can, and often, do it with less time and for less money but the risk is that it will be neither satisfying for the facilitator, nor, in the end, valuable for the client. As a coop which works with small coops, community and grassroots groups we also want to be able to offer our time for what is affordable, to give top quality for less than we need to charge. Last year our income was half what it had been the previous year, as funding and “luxuries” such as training and facilitation are cut. Do we cut our costs and cut down the time and effort we spend on each client’s project? Do we hang on to delivering quality work for a decent wage? Answers please…

Jo

 

Co-operatives skills training: meetings, management, conflict and change

Over the last year or so Rhizome’s been working with Co-operatives UK to assess the training needs of co-ops, bring on board other training co-ops, and agree and design a package of 5 seminars all around co-operation.

For too long co-op training has focused on business start-up, legal structures, financial management. All necessary stuff, but none of it supports us to learn to co-operate better. So that’s where these courses come in. They aim to support co-ops with the skills and attitudes needed to co-operate through conflict, change, meetings, in management, and in developing that deeper sense of what it means to co-operate.

The first courses run soon in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester and can be booked through the Co-operatives UK website.

The process of co-operating on the course aims and content has raised some interesting questions on what we believe we can achieve through training – developing co-operative skills? Developing co-operative skills and attitudes? Sadly the pressure to get the courses up and running hasn’t allowed us the luxury of exploring these questions fully. But as we run the courses and learn from each other, the answers will become clearer – we’ll cross-fertilise between co-ops and co-develop our own co-operative skills (and maybe attitudes!).

Rhizome trainers will be at work on the Communication and working with conflict and Being a good co-op member courses to start with. See you there.

Our Tottenham – community democracy at work

“Since about 2009 my activism has focused on trying to build towards a better way of running society from the bottom up with full participation and real direct democracy and on a human scale. The first step seemed to be to get everyone who was active in a variety of ways in a local community all working together to resist bad stuff and do good things and to start to make their own power; and then to get the previously inactive people involved and gradually build a new type of democracy – simple !”

 

So opens a post on the Community Democracy blog where James Holland gives examples of genuine people-powered democracy at work in an age of austerity. He’s involved in Our Tottenham and sees the Our XX model as one that can and is spreading. Keep an eye on it.

#OurTottenham

the challenge of democratic co-operative governance

The words ‘co-operative’ and ‘governance’ have rarely been written together in the same sentence, let alone in a headline. But now our democratic organisations are facing scrutiny. Rhizome’s even been asked to help facilitate an open space about it in London on February 8th 2014.

So what makes co-operative governance different? Of course there are the seven principles underpinning all co-operatives, of which democracy is principle 6, but from our perspective in working with co-ops, collectives and social change organisations it also means that:

  • we don’t work for other people who simply profit from our success
  • we don’t give work to people because they are our mates, members of our lodge, or attend our church/ synagogue/ mosque; we trade fairly, only prioritising other co-operatives because we know they also trade fairly
  • we don’t go on strike, we communicate, we work together, we resolve
  • we don’t have a figurehead who is forced to take responsibility for everything, we share the responsibility – and we share the risks
  • we don’t steal from ourselves – what would be the point?
  • we don’t bolt on an ethical policy, we start with one and develop it further; based on respect, we cherish diversity as it brings us strength, we cherish our communities as we live and work in them; we cherish our world – why doesn’t everyone?
  • we don’t declare other interests as an afterthought – they are integral, we have so many; building a movement of radical change means working across borders, making alliances, having interests all over the place
  • we don’t all look alike/ talk alike/ dress alike – we are individual, unique. And though we may make mistakes, we may buckle under pressure, we know that we always have others around that we can trust to support us.

So what might be some of the issues for democratic co-operative governance these days? Here’s a selection of some of the issues that Rhizome get asked to help with as facilitators/ mediators/ trainers:

How do we make time to get the processes right when we have to focus so hard on the business/ campaign/ change we are trying to achieve?

Do our high standards make it hard for everyone to keep on meeting them all of the time?

Does having excellent accountability and transparency mean we are vulnerable, we can’t cover up our mistakes?

If having power corrupts, how can we always acknowledge and manage each other’s power?

Does size really matter?

Truth and reconciliation in consensus

Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest. Countless words have been written about his life and his legacy, and with good cause. I’m not going to try to add too many more to that count. What’s clear is that he (and those around him) inspired a nation to act against expectations, against self-interest, for a higher ‘good’ – a unified, multiracial South Africa.

Inspiration, acting against self-interest and for a higher purpose are all necessary, central values in any consensus decision-making group. How many groups that use consensus actually, consciously, live and work to those values is another matter.

What most consensus groups need are more Mandela moments. They need to find inspiring, collaborative ways out of seemingly impossible, sometimes ideological, struggles. Positions are taken and fiercely held too. They are reinforced and dug in with the language of values and idealism. The stage is set for yet another conflict in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The real loser is our ability to collaborate, our belief in co-operation, our sense of community.

Where’s the truth and reconciliation in all this? We invent truths, fly our standards from them, gather our forces around them, forgetting that they are just one possible view of the truth. And reconciliation, real reconciliation is rare. Feelings are usually strained but never fully repaired. Our groups are weakened, and with that our ability to function as cohesive forces for social change.

It’s tough, but we need more people, more groups, to step up and inspire those Mandela moments – to show the way to processes of truth and reconciliation. And we need more people and more groups to do the work to turn inspiration into consensus.

Of course if we deify Mandela we’ll never achieve that. What we need to remember is that inspiration needs to be channeled and turned into action and behaviour, to be enshrined in cultures, for it to make change. And that’s something that took many, many ‘ordinary’ people to achieve. Mandela provided the inspiration and the example, but tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans took that inspiration and did the work that made change possible.

Matthew

Of the people, by the people, for the people?

Democracy’s a word that can divide almost any group of people. What does it mean? Is what we do now real democracy? Is there one right way?

Here’s a nice video (4 mins) about one town’s experiment with participatory democracy. What do you reckon?

hat tip to NatCAN

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

essentials of conflict resolution

IMG_0777

Matthew and I have been doing some work with a food coop; helping voluntary team leaders review and add to their conflict management tools. We’ll shortly be running our third workshop. Here’s what we work with people on –

Aims

  • To develop the understanding and application of appropriate states of mind (consensual, non-judgemental, solution focussed)
  • To develop the understanding and application of active listening and dialogue skills
  • To enable participants to know when to apply these skills; and to what degree
  • To enable participants to identify their further learning needs (if necessary)

 

Approach used in training

  • Using small and large group discussions, activities, role plays and debriefs.
  • Supporting material to back up learning. All participants to get material on State of Mind and Active Listening and the principles of cooperative conflict resolution.
  • No slides – learning by doing.
  • Two trainers – for support, to facilitate skills demonstrations, to maximise feedback to participants, for some variety

 

Outline session plan

  • Introduction – housekeeping, people, negotiating how we’ll work together
  • What is conflict resolution? Different approaches to this – focus on the models more appropriate to cooperatives – facilitative styles; person and group focussed.
  • States of mind – exercises to build internal understanding of being non-judgemental, consensually focussed, solution focussed, unbiased, people/work orientated.
  • Active Listening – listen, reflect, clarify, summarise, explore, produce ways forward, agree on them, action them. Go through these phases and make explicit why different to everyday conversations.
  • Practise sessions – rounds of work on threes or fours with peer to peer work and peer observers giving feedback, along with the trainers (if needed), on realistic role plays.
  • Review sessions – check ins on understanding of material and its application.
  • Co-designing a process to deal with small scale conflicts and knowing when to refer them to personnel.
  • Evaluation session.

All of the handouts we used, are available on our resources pages. Use and share.

Carl

Rhizome reviewed – “Decisions, decisions, decisions”

HCP_houses_AWe usually invite those we work with to write a post for this blog. They don’t always find the time. But the folk at Hackney Cohousing Project have reflected on the work Perry and I did with them back in March on their own blog. I’ve pasted it below for ease:

“As an informal group of people working on a very technically detailed project, we’ve realised that in the absence of a clear set of corporate-style organisational processes, we needed to establish a way of working together that would help us make decisions efficiently. And make those decisions in a way that upheld our principles and values.

Not entirely sure of what we needed, we spoke to a number of professional trainers and initially found it hard to identify the right kind of support. They tended to be either really strong on particular tools, but with little experience of working with cohousing or cooperative groups, or to avoid tools altogether and emphasise process instead.

As a group we wanted the reassurance of input based on specific tools from trainers with experience of working with cooperative groups. And then we were introduced to Rhizome, an organisation that offer training and support to cooperatives.

Our trainers, Mathew and Perry offered both specific tools and a background in working with co-housing projects. With Perry and Mathew, we agreed a training outline that spanned Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The planned activities intended to reconnect us as a group to our core principles, build greater understanding of how we engaged in decision-making as individuals and how to work together as a group.

The training gave us the following insights :

1. Spending time together as a group is important. It helps build relationships that are the bedrock of working together in a cohousing community.

2. Approach decisions with a clear sense of what final decision needs to be made.

3. Understanding that decision making has a process. i.e it is a space to check in with ‘outliers’ with dissenting views and recognising that every complex decision will involve a ‘groan zone’. This is where the full range of perspectives make it feel like a conclusion is impossible, but trusting that underneath the sometimes wildly divergent positions that people take, are often reconcilable needs that can be met.

4. The importance of making decisions that are guided by values and vision of the project. And making sure that everyone is aware of the values and principles on which the whole endeavour is founded.

5. Finally, recognising that even where there is a nominated chair, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that everyone can contribute, especially those that are often silent or marginalised.

The day itself was a fun mix of activities, discussion, peer learning and structured teaching. The group as a whole felt that it had really contributed to strengthening the way we worked together. A few weeks later we had to approach difficult financial discussions and we were able to move through the process of making some really quite important decisions far quicker and smoothly than in the past.

We’ve now started to incorporate the lessons that we’ve learnt, though we know that it will always take practice and effort. We also recognise that one of the most important aspects to working well together as a group, is the strengths of relationships that we have.

So, we’ve decided to spend a lot more time together, doing what we do best. If you want to join us, you’ll find us in the pub!”

 

Matthew

How does it feel to co-operate?

Back in June I posted about a conversation on the challenges of co-operation. Last week the conversation continued as 2 facilitators from a number of UK training organisations – London Roots, Seeds for Change Lancaster, Seeds for Change Oxford, Tripod, Turning the Tide, and of course, Rhizome – came together. Most are structured as co-operatives. Those that aren’t are networks with a very co-operative feel. These are folk that frequently meet up at actions, gatherings and events, but not formally, not with UK wide co-operation on the agenda, and not in a financial context where surviving (let alone thriving) is getting harder all the time.

There were a number of important and interesting discussions on the agenda (the value and direction of social change movements, the role of training in social change etc) – mostly too big to conclude in the time we had together. We also talked strategy – not formulating an agreed strategy, but sharing our own organisations thinking. We’ll share more on ours on the blog soon.

The most important work, for me, was the conversation about working together. Before we dived into the details of how to work together the bigger (and more fruitful) question about how we feel about working together needed answering. An interesting go-round followed that revealed excitement and anxiety and raised issues about power and status between organisations.

It was good to give ourselves time to feel. As a group of people, I’m not sure we’re always comfortable facilitating emotion – some do it better than others. So consciously feeling, expressing and receiving emotions, our own and others, is an important practice. It was also a powerful experience, as emotional experiences usually are and achieved more in a short time than a more cerebral conversation might have. Issues that people might have been aware of took on an urgency and importance once the depth of feeling around them was appreciated.

It also raised a big question about how to be open and to share whilst still maintaining our unique organisational characters. Co-operation isn’t about becoming homogenous, but about co-operating despite our differences, because of our differences. I think that Rhizome has a lot to offer this conversation. I say that because we draw our co-op members from a wider context than many social action groups. There’s no one unifying social change ‘tactic’ or agreed and detailed utopian vision. So in some ways we’re a looser collective of people. And yet it feels very tightly knit.

Let’s see how it feels as the dialogue continues at future meetings and in between…

Matthew

games for activists and non-activists

Inspired in large part by Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors and Improv practice, we proposed a games workshop to Co-operatives UK for their Big Fun Pod at last week’s International Co-op Conference. Rather than writing a reflective piece, I’m just going to describe what we did and provide some pointers for readers who want to explore the field of games. If you want to use these, think about how you might debrief the exercises. For example, “What did you observe about your desire to lead/to follow/to withdraw etc?”.

Intro – Wander around the space and say hello to everyone, without touching them. Continue wandering, but this time say hello non-verbally. Continue wandering, but this time shake hands with someone. Before you let go of their hand, you have to have held someone else’s before you release your first hand.

Control and co-operation – wander around the room and follow the instructions of the games ‘leader’. Instructions start with ‘stop’, ‘go’, ‘forwards’,’backwards’,’up’, ‘down’. Let this play out for a while, then pause and say that now everyone is to do the opposite of the command. Continue for a while and then shift the energy by saying some new commands – shapes, letters and numbers. People get into the shapes, letters and numbers.

Co-existence – in pairs, one A and one B. A starts by putting their hand about a foot in front of B’s face. B follows the (gentle) movements of A.

Swap over. Then say – “Now you have to mirror each other, there is no leader and there is no follower.” Then pairs join together and mirror each other.

Group work – put enough pieces of paper on the floor so that everyone can just stand on it. Stand on one yourself and say, “The rules of this game are that you must be in touch with the paper, but not the floor”. Everyone gets up and stands on the paper. Then take half of the paper away and repeat the exercise. Gradually diminish the paper. If the groups talks about the problem and searches for solutions which observe the rule, they’ll solve the problem.

If they don’t, there will be some mayhem.

Circle time – in a circle play Bippety Bippety Bop. One person in the middle. They point to someone and either say, “bop” or “bippety, bippety bop”. If they say “bop” the person pointed at has to stay silent; if they say “bop”, they’re in the middle. If the person in the middle points at someone and says, “bippety, bippety bop”, the the person pointed at has to say “bop” before they have finished saying,”bippety, bippety bop”.

You can add other games into it. For example, we added ‘James Brown’. If you say ‘James Brown’ to someone, then before you count to ten, they have to wiggle and sing, “I feel good”, whilst the person to their left and right does a small dance. Any player who does the wrong action or fails to do the action by the time you’ve counted to ten, is then in the middle.

Remaining in a circle, on person stands in the middle. The rest all agree a sound and keep vocalising it. The person in the middle moves around and within the circle. As they get nearer to someone the sound increases; and decreases as they move away from someone. Someone else moves to the middle when a different sound evolves. (Note – this means you have to tell the circle to evolve the sound).

Then change the circle rules to be about movements and evolve them.

Attraction/distraction – Get everyone wandering around the room. Say that this time they’re like magnets. As they get within a foot of someone they are magnetically repelled. Let it play out, then swap to – once they get within a foot of someone they are attracted and stuck to them. See what happens. Then get people wandering again and ask them to be equidistant, see what happens and how long it takes for the group to settle. Then say, “Choose two people with your eyes, without letting them know. One is A and one is B. Now get as close to A and as far away from B as possible. You have ten seconds.” It’s fun.

Other games – we played some variations of these too, but you can find more in –

Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal

Improv by Keith Johnstone

And on the Organizing for Power website

And a host of other resources accessible via goggling.

Learning to co-operate?

There’s loads of valuable support out there for anyone wanting to start up a co-op. It’s certainly easier than it was in 1992 when, along with 2 others, I started the process of co-founding the first co-op of my working life. But even now, 20 years later, the focus is still primarily on the ‘business’ end of that process – legal structures, administration and business advice. The ‘people’ end seems to get less emphasis. And yet any successful co-op is far more than a particular form of legally constituted organisation. It’s a group of individuals coming together and choosing to give up a part of their autonomy to work collectively because they understand that by doing so they can realise a vision that they couldn’t realise alone. The whole being more than the sum of its parts, and all that.

Don’t get me wrong, back in ’93 we needed all the support we could get on the business side of things. But it didn’t take long for us to realise that we aren’t all as adept at co-operating on that interpersonal level, day in day out, as we might at first have assumed. Many of the processes we adopted, because they spoke to our values and hopes for how we’d relate (such as consensus decision-making), were learnt through cross-pollination from the activist world rather than through co-op support channels.

Rhizome’s working with Co-operatives UK to try to redress the balance. We’ll be at the Co-operatives United event in Manchester this week helping to conduct a learning needs survey, which we hope will lead to some high quality support for co-ops in areas such as decision-making, communication, and dealing with conflict. There are many ideas under consideration – from the more obvious face-to-face training through online learning to mentoring and workplace secondments.

If you are a co-op and can’t make the event, never fear. Fill in the survey online so that your voice, and learning needs, are heard! If you are at the event and someone leaps out at you with a clipboard, be nice – it could be Rhizome’s own Carl, Gill, Jo or Maria!

Matthew

Cohousing and consensus – in Scotland

There was a time when I thought nothing of spending far longer travelling to deliver a piece of work than actually delivering it. Nowadays my personal sustainability is a little higher on the agenda so it’s far more of a rarity. Last weekend I made an exception and travelled to Fife to run a consensus decision-making workshop for the folk in the Vivarium Trust’s living group.

It’s an exception I’m glad to have made for many reasons. Fife is my old stamping ground – I lived there for a decade or more in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And a very good friend of mine’s living there again, so there was the chance to catch up and spend a little time together.

And of course there was the workshop itself. There are groups that just get it. And the cohousing groups I’ve worked with over the last couple of years seem to number amongst these – open, curious, eager to be challenged and to challenge, and wanting to model a different way of doing things without feeling the need to inflate their egos along the way. Refreshing!

The Vivarium Trust promotes cohousing as a positive way forward, especially in addressing the housing needs of older folk (by which they mean 50+). They also have a living group – about a dozen people coming together to set up a pilot project in Fife.

I say that the group got it – they certainly tackled activities I’ve seen most groups struggle to do with relative ease. Though it may not have felt easy to them! Of course,that doesn’t mean that they’re not without their issues – what group is? Like many cohousing groups, the primary focus may have (understandably) been on the project rather than the process. This workshop gave them the opportunity to be together, to get to know each other better, and to develop a shared understanding of their decision-making process and their group dynamics.

The workshop itself has been developing for a couple of years. Since talking to other trainers about the need to refocus on consensus values over consensus process, I’ve been playing with a number of approaches that explore building empathy and understanding across difference. I’m glad to say that this one seemed to work with Vivarium.

I’m enjoying the chance to work with cohousing groups. So far, at least, there’s a lot less of the competitive mindset I’ve witnessed all too often in some activist groups. Maybe it’s the aspect of cohousing as an intentional community. That focus on community and community building cannot be ignored. In campaigning and activist circles the intention is often more on mobilising around an issue and the community is more haphazard, and less intentional, at least in recent years. There are noticeable impacts on the consensus process.

At a Rhizome meeting this week we mused on the difference between community building and movement building in 21st century Britain. We noted that movements can be full of individuals and don’t necessarily build community. More on that in future blog posts, I’m sure.

Matthew

Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

Together we are stronger

I was recently reminded of the Greener Together toolkit I helped
write, whilst wearing my Sostenga hat. This toolkit, written for
Co-operatives UK, is designed to support individuals taking practical actions
that create change, and to guide working with others, taking collective
action.

When all around us society atomises, alienates and encourages
individualism, is it old-fashioned to hope for collective action, to
believe that together we are stronger?  Well, old-fashioned it ain’t – but
how can we adapt ideas that made sense to previous generations, or is it
just a question of packaging?  In the current economic climate, in the
coming climactic changes, we should use the 2012 UN International Year of
the Co-op to remind ourselves of the efficacy of co-operative structures
and timeliness of the co-operative movements ideals and values.

Adam

The challenge of co-operation

Just got off the phone to Richard at Seeds for Change. We had a long and useful conversation that ranged far and wide. Lots to think about.

One theme we kept returning to was the challenge of co-operation. Seeds is a network of 2 co-ops, Rhizome is a co-op. There’s also Tripod and a newly forming London collective. We’re all collectively constituted organisations. We’re all well versed in co-operative skills such as consensus decision-making. And mutual aid between co-ops is one of the seven internationally recognised principles of co-operatives. So surely everything in the garden is very rosy (and very co-operative) indeed?

Well, perhaps not. For example, each co-op is trying to provide right livelihood for at least some of its members. There’s a limited pool of paying work for trainers and facilitators working at the grassroots, and grant funding is getting harder to find (that’s for another post!). The temptation to slide into competitive thinking and practice, to promote and protect our own ‘brand’ is there just because we’re all human (and humans brought up in a fiercely individualistic and competitive society). In many ways that’s the default setting.

So it feels like it’s especially important we all walk our talk and live up to those values of co-operation. We’ll all be in the same room in July when UK trainers meet with George Lakey after the anti-oppression training he’s facilitating in Manchester. A space to reflect and find ways to support that mutual co-operation and sharing?

It was only one phone conversation but talking to Richard was useful.  Whilst it can feel hard enough to maintain communication within a co-op – especially those like Rhizome that are geographically dispersed – it was a reminder that making the time for communication between co-ops is the first step on a very productive journey.

Sharing consensus with co-ops

As our contribution to Co-operatives Fortnight, June 25th to July 9th, we thought we’d share our enthusiasm for consensus decision-making. So we’ve written a short briefing on Consensus in Co-operatives Which you can download for free. We’ll also make a print-ready version available from our resources page. The briefing argues the case for consensus being an ideal way of deepening co-operation in co-ops, highlights a few myths and challenges and offers a few suggested web links for training and support and background reading. We hope it’s useful.