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

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

Presenting issue versus real issue

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.

Maria

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.

“Take me to your leader!”

cartoon by Nopolymon aka T. Coffin

I’ve had leadership on the mind this week, mainly due to spending some time writing a proposal for some work developing a youth leadership programme for young people involved in the Woodcraft Folk.

For some leadership is a dirty word. It’s too closely related to hierarchy. Indeed there’s a moment on many direct actions when the police first approach activists and invariably ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. Much of the direct action movement takes great delight in being able to answer that “no-one is in charge”. In principle this is one thing I love about the movement: it’s fiercely non-hierarchical opening up space for new models of leadership – co-operative models. Of course it doesn’t always live up to its own rhetoric (who does?), and the person who answers “no-one’s in charge” is often one of the more assertive (dare I say dominant) personalities in a group and as such carries much of the weight of the traditional leader.

But I digress…. so leadership is often embodied in an individual. We have a leader, or a small committee of leaders. They are expected to fulfil all of the functions of good leadership: to inspire; to provide clear direction; to resolve disputes; to set the ethical standards for the group or movement; to speak with confidence and authority; to have a deep understanding and analysis of the issues; to be able to make hard decisions and so on. So far so bad….

For community groups, leaders can be the death knell. However competent they are, the very model of leadership breeds problems, and we’re often expecting people to do it with no training and little experience. Let’s look at a few of the problems:

Leaders can disempower people – one look at our heroic leader and I’m left feeling deflated in that “I can never be like him (and it’s usually a him), so I won’t even try” way.

Leaders can create a gulf between those that lead and those at the bottom of a group or organisation. Others are left with no opportunity or motivation to develop skills and knowledge because much of the work is done by the leaders.

Leaders can undermine sustainability of groups. It doesn’t take a group long to settle into a dynamic of active leader and passive group. OK so the group might be a group of activists, who undertake a lot of activity, but in terms of the roles within the group they can be passive. That may work for many groups, but it’s totally dependent on the leader. And leaders have health problems to. Leaders move to new towns, cities or countries. Leaders get new demands on their time… there are lots of reasons why a group might lose its leader. For some groups that’s terminal. There’s no-one with the skills or experience to take over and the group wilts and dies.

Leaders can cause disharmony and fuel competition which can lead to factions within groups and unhealthy group dynamics. Perhaps there’s someone else who aspires to the leadership role. Perhaps there’s a disaffected minority that have been on the rough end of some of those hard choices or alienated by those ethical standards. Perhaps one person does all the TV and radio and becomes the only person the media wants to talk to.

So what’s the alternative? Collective leadership. Let’s disembody leadership. See it as a series of roles that need to be fulfilled for a group to be well led. Those roles all need to happen, but do they really need to be done by just one person? Or a small handful of people?

Well functioning groups know this already. They value the input of all members. They know what members have to offer (because they’ve had that conversation). They know what members want to learn, and encourage and support skillsharing. They make time for this process alongside their activism, indeed they see it as an essential foundation for their activism. They welcome diversity. They plan for the long-term – they see the life of the group as more than the task at hand and establish resilient and sustainable groups. Founder members have understood the need to give away the authority that founding conveys on them as quickly as possible. They’ve created a culture of equality, open communication, supportive peer feedback, shared responsibility and mutual inspiration. They make themselves redundant as quickly as possible.

We live in a culture in which leadership from above is the default setting. We all understand it, even if we’re not all comfortable with it. It’s easy for groups to fall into this model of leadership through an absence of action rather than deliberate choice. Making change to a more empowered and empowering approach is easier once you realise that it’s not only (not even?) a political or ideological decision. It can be a practical decision about both the long and short-term success of your group. Of course, stepping away from the culture of top-down leadership isn’t always easy. It’s easy to find support and ideas for what’s considered normal and right, less easy for the alternatives. And of course we have to fend of our own socialisation to accept the model as best.

However, you’re not alone. Folk like Rhizome exist. See our links and resources pages for more ideas. And if you’re doing it and making it work, share your success with us (and we’d happily hear about the challenges too).

And for the facilitators reading. How’s it read if we replace ‘leader’ with ‘facilitator’? Whether we like it or not we’re often cast in a leadership role by the groups we work with….

“Take me to your leader!” 2: some thoughts for organisations wanting to promote shared leadership.

Sharing values

I spent an hour and a half on the phone today to Jeannie and Steph, 2 of the facilitators that attended the Transition Network Dreaming Circle back in December. We were talking about meetings, more specifically trying to shape some meeting training agendas for transition groups.

Very quickly the conversation turned to values, and how we facilitate a process of helping groups articulate their values, shared or otherwise. Values seems to be one of the areas prone to assumption. We assume everyone else has the same ideals, beliefs and principles until we discover otherwise – a discovery that often leads to confusion and conflict and can be a real obstacle to groups functioning well. We noted that many groups hit problems when they expand. The founders are drawn together by a sense of shared values. Because that sense is strong they don’t feel the need to carefully articulate what they mean. Why should they? After all they all agree… Then new folk join and cracks begin to appear as the realisation dawns that there’s now a diversity of perspectives, and worse still of values. Sound familiar?

OK, time for a quick step back, because one of the problems is that it’s not always clear what we even mean by values. It’s a slippery word that can mean different things to different people… and as such I’m hesitant to try to pin down a definition here. I suspect for some it’s an emotional affinity with certain ideas or actions. For others a more cerebral yardstick by which to measure the ‘right way’ forward. As a facilitator I think it’s more important to raise the question “What do we mean by values?” than try to have the ‘right answer’. Phew, that’s wriggled out of that one.

Steph is facilitating a session to explore values for her local Transition initiative, so the whole discussion was given a definite context. We talked about tools and techniques for exploring values. The interesting thing, for me, was the realisation that we didn’t have a whole host of them at our fingertips. So we shared the ideas we did have, customising tools we’d used to for other more conceptual discussions. Many of the tools I use for this kind of discussion share a common approach – using some form of provocation, ie: a statement to bounce off that helps clarify our position. I’m thinking of spectrum lines, or of the process I co-facilitated with Rich from Seeds for Change last summer to explore the values people used to make strategic campaign choices. Here we used images of action, followed by a local radio-style interview using a few simple questions (see below) to provoke thinking and discussion :

  1. tell us about the action you’ve just taken part in
  2. what were you hoping to achieve?
  3. do you really feel this one action can make that kind of change?
  4. what would you say to those people listening that are thinking this is well-intentioned but won’t change the big picture?

It seemed to work, and it can’t be that hard to rework these or similar questions for different ‘values’ contexts. And I’m sure that provocation can be used Edward de Bono style for this purpose to.

The conversation also took in the work of John Adair, specifically his action-centred leadership model which balances the group’s task, with the needs of the group and the needs of the individuals. This could easily be rewritten as the group’s task, the values of the group and the values of the individual. Now I’m not a fan of top-down leadership, but strip out that assumption and replace it with a co-operative one and the model has useful implications for supporting groups to consensus through shared leadership. Clashes of personal and group values are often at the heart of blocks to consensus.

All in all an hour and a half well spent. As always, your thoughts, comments and, of course, tools and techniques are very welcome.

Consensus, self-organising and clear identity

For weeks (if not months), I’ve been meaning to go back to a post I read on emergence. Today I started the journey, leaping from one stepping stone to another and now have two streams of thought competing for attention – one around strategy and the other around groups and consensus. I’ll stick with this last one here as it’s been a week for thinking about consensus.

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers’ The Irresistible Future of Organizing is all well worth reading, but the following excerpt chimed with a post I wrote on Tuesday:

All organizing efforts begin with an intent, a belief that something more is possible now that the group is together. Organizing occurs around an identity–there is a “self” that gets organized. Once this identity is set in motion, it becomes the sense-making process of the organization. In deciding what to do, a system will refer back to its sense of self … The self the organization references includes its vision, mission, and values. But there is more. An organization’s identity includes current interpretations of its history, present decisions and activities, and its sense of its future. Identity is both what we want to believe is true and what our actions show to be true about ourselves. Because identity is the sense-making capacity of the organization, every organizing effort–whether it be the start-up of a team, a community project, or a nation–needs to begin by exploring and clarifying the intention and desires of its members. Why are we doing this? What’s possible now that we’ve agreed to try this together? How does the purpose of this effort connect to my personal sense of purpose, and to the purposes of the large system? Think for a moment of your own experiences with the start-up activities of new projects or teams. Did the group spend much time discussing the deeper and often murkier realms of purpose and commitment? Or did people just want to know what their role was so they could get out of the meeting and get on with it? Did leaders spend more time on policies and procedures to coerce people into contributing rather than try to engage their desire to contribute to a worthy purpose? Most organizing efforts don’t begin with a commitment to creating a coherent sense of identity. Yet it is this clarity that frees people to contribute in creative and diverse ways. Clear alignment around principles and purposes allows for maximum autonomy. People use their shared sense of identity to organize their unique contributions. Organizations lose an enormous organizing advantage when they fail to create a clear and coherent identity. In a chaotic world, organizational identity needs to be the most stable aspect of the endeavor. Structures and programs come and go, but an organization with a coherent center is able to sustain itself through turbulence because of its clarity about who it is. Organizations that are coherent at their core move through the world with more confidence. Such clarity leads to expansionary behaviors; the organization expands to include those they had kept at a distance–customers, suppliers, government regulators, and many others.

This work of establishing identity and deep connection is fundamental to true consensus, where group cohesion allows consensus to flourish and groups to creatively navigate difficult decisions with relative ease and with that unique combination of autonomy-within-co-operation that consensus offers.

I’ll come back to the strategy stream some other time…