The Dublin Food Co-op has been working with a consensus decision-making process for over 30 years now, and our members are always keen to learn how we can improve our processes to make the most of our work.
We were delighted to invite Rich and Nati from the Hum— the worker co-operative — to provide our members with a training session on how we can work better with less hierarchy. The session brought together 35 members — Co-ordinating Body, staff and volunteer workers — first thing on a Monday morning to engage with the idea of what are the common problems and challenges that groups face when working with less hierarchy.
Rich and Nati provided a really engaging forum to help members assess what challenges the Co-op might face when it looks to work more collaboratively.
The pair provided us with a facilitated process where:
1. They shared stories of the common challenges that inclusive / consensus / nonhierarchical groups face, and offered some responses that groups have used to overcome those issues.
2. crowd-sourced two lists: what are we doing really well, and what could we do better.
3. Finally, we chose 5 issues to work on in depth.
So what did we come up with?
Participants were split into a number of groups and asked to discuss amongst the table the strengths of the Co-op. And then to propose, as a table, 3 strengths.
It was amazing to see that so many tables came up with the same core strengths;
- Lots of good will among members
- Offers of resources & skills
- Strong community spirit
- Very inclusive
- Approachable, friendly atmosphere
- Independence (not a chain store)
Room for Improvement
All the tables were asked to brainstorm two areas in which the Co-op could improve the way it organises itself. We collectively prioritised all the issues using a dot vote, and chose four to consider in-depth. The remaining 4 issues we put in a “parking lot” (important concerns that we didn’t get time to address today, but we should look at in future!)
Room for Improvement
So what areas of room for improvement did we consider on the day?
- More Effective procedures
- Better Communication
- Quick + inclusive decisions
- Better Include people at the edges
- Better messaging: why does the coop exist?
We also put some issues into a ‘Parking Lot’ for another day
- Better general meetings
- Better organisational memory, learning from mistakes
- Better messaging (where coop is, what it does)
- Improve Uneven Distribution of Tasks
Working on the Issues in Teams
Rich and Nati created tables for each of the issues we would work on that day, and encouraged us to go to the table that represented the issue that wanted to work on. By organising according to our individual preferences, we actually ended up working much better on our collective tasks.
Rich and Nati recommended a process to help us stay focused on the challenge at hand and reach a number of agreed areas of action. The suggested that each group:
- Decide a question that represents the challenge
- Imagine what the ‘desired future’ might look like
- Propose some next steps to get us there.
You can read some of our collective conclusions below.
More Effective procedures:
Question: How do we do business here, especially decisions?
The group spoke about the formal and informal decision making and areas of decision making. They noted that number of decisions causes overload on the agenda. This quite often leads to ball dropping e.g last year’s important-not-urgent issue becomes this year’s catastrophe. This can lead to an overload in communicating with membership.
- It feels good when you walk in the door to work/volunteer.
- People respond positively to invitations to contribute
- We can name problems without blame & shame. “How can I support you” rather than “who can I blame?”
- Relevant and timely information
- Transparency and clarity on decision making levels, topics
What are our next steps?
- Regular meetings. Efficient, productive, in sequence, well facilitated.
- Decisions list that more people know about.
- Training for new people into any role (member, volunteer, CB)
- Time for process improvement
- Follow up from today’s meeting!!
Question: Streamline coop-wide communication to be accessible, inclusive, encouraging feedback
The group discussed the newsletter, language, working groups, diverse virtual community, different levels of engagement.
What are out next steps?
- Refurbished website
- Feedback, suggestions form
- Discussion area
- Newsletter needs a team (contributing, editing)
- Consistent frequency of newsletters: deadlines, include working group summaries
- Accessible, jargon-free plain language
- More momentum in events w social media
Faster and more inclusive decisions:
- proposals that are very visible. The work is attached to the proposal. E.g. we propose to have a party because we need more social events.
- Fully informed membership
- Rhythm to our organising: inform, propose, inform, propose
- Do regular (general, staff, working group) meetings again.
- Bringing back working groups, more of them, formed one at a time. Design a basic format: roles, responsibilities, practices.
- People who are reporting out to the membership, need to be coordinated with each other.
- General membership could help to run general meetings.
Including people at the edges:
Q. How do we integrated inclusiveness into the culture of the coop?
- Harness skills and goodwill of the members
- Comms structure to support this
- A way to measure engagement: not everyone wants to be involved in everything. Take data, share, name the different levels of engagement and support people to choose the right level for them.
- Make structure more visible
- Possibly need to rewrite rules because we’re 3 times bigger than originally designed. Feedback channels are not so strong. We undersell ourselves.
- Capture people’s energy better, and acknowledge contributions
- Focus on communication, information, and structure.
Q. Why is the coop a place to engage, or join? Why does it exist?
- clear understanding of what goes on in a coop: simple language
- clear comms to membership, what the Dublin Food Coop is
- what would help us get a long term space to manage a long term plans. why should people be engaged & empowered to address these challenges?
- Collect stories of people who have joined
- Collect history, origin of why the coop developed
- Communicate the community aspect of the coop, before the financial rewards
- Identify invisible structures that make the coop function (should be able to understand how things work without knowing everybody)
- Create space/opportunity for members to make suggestions: invite innovation from the membership.
As a diverse membership, with a diversity of roles, ages and backgrounds, this training was an unique opportunity to have an inclusive look at the issues that affect us.
You can see from our group discussions that the idea ‘how we work together affects the work we do together’ developed consistently throughout and that a lot of the responses to our challenges were presented as ways to improve the way we work.
It was clearly a worthwhile endeavour to bring such a diverse cross-section of the membership together to consider something as fundamental as how we organise as a co-operative.
The impact that our organisational culture and practices have on the work we do as a collective should never be understated — and I think what this particular training showed that even with the diversity of our membership we can reflect on ourselves and come to a lot of common conclusions.
We are not the first organisation that has faced challenges in how it organises itself, and we will certainly not be the last! The real hallmark of a robust organisation is how it deals with this reality. It is crucial for Dublin Food Co-op that this particular act of reflection is the beginning and not the end of an examination of how we work together as a co-operative.
In the short-term the participants of this session are more equiped to talk a little more openly (and non-judgmentally) about the way we work, and can begin to improve how they organise, both individually and collectively.
In the medium term, this session provides a strong foundation to continue having a broad and inclusive discussion about our organisation. I hope that the CB will propose in the months ahead that we have a similar session to give members a chance to continue this reflection in a focused and collective way.
We want to extend a huge thank you to Rich and Nati for facilitating us through this very worthwhile sessio. We look forward to inviting them back next year! We wish them safe travels through the rest of their journeys.
If you want to be involved more at the Co-op, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’d like to contribute.
You can check out the Hum for more information on working more collaboratively, as well as sign up for to their newsletter for notifications on their next training.