Credit — David Streit

Culture eats coops for breakfast

How evolving organisational culture in cooperatives is a powerful lever to create the new social paradigm the world needs.

This article is based on a presentation given at Disrupting the Disruptors Platform Coop conference, 9 September 2017, Toronto.

You might have heard the saying ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ It’s the idea that we can put in whatever strategy and structure that we want in our organisations, but culture will always trump them if it isn’t aligned.

In preparing this talk, I sat with the question of ‘what is the wealth coops are uniquely placed to create in this time in the world?’

When we look at the disruption companies like Uber and AirBnB have generated and the cost on society, how are coops best placed to respond? What is the missing ingredient in these companies that stopped them making life better for everyone?

I’d argue that it’s the culture that lives in their organisations.

Wait, what? Isn’t the problem that they were in a profit-maximizing structure and had no care for the industries they disrupted?? Yes, AND where do these come from? What is it that makes this ok, even celebrated? It’s the cultural paradigm that we’re in, reinforced by the culture of what is ‘success’ at work.

“Uber didn’t come out of nowhere, it came out of a culture and networks. We need to build the alternative.”
- Nathan Schneider, Platform Coops Conference 9 September

These organisations are set up with the vision of success as ‘getting ahead’. The one who claims the best territory and holds it wins. This goes for both the company and the people in it. Individuals are a fractal of the values of the whole. The ones who ‘get ahead’ are the ones willing to dominate, coerce, compete and fight. It pays to be out for yourself, distrustful of others and protective of your territory.

If you’re not someone willing to play this game, then your powerlessness is reinforced.

Credit — Kira Auf der Heide
“Toxic leaders aren’t just a bunch of bad apples in a barrel that need to be tossed out. They are employing a social strategy that works for them, given the institutional structure of the U.S. Army … The current institutional structure breeds toxic leaders … The only solution to this problem is a change in the institutional social environment.”
- David Sloan Wilson, Why Groups Fail
Credit — Benjamin Child

The humans we become at work

Think about how much of our lifetimes we spend at ‘work’, how this culture shapes us — our sense of self, how to relate to others, what is possible in the world.

Cooperatives were developed to address inequality, poor working conditions, create democracy and fairness. But without creating a strong cultural foundation of collaboration and humanism, they can get eaten by the predominant ‘dog-eat-dog’ work culture.

Imagine, if instead, the social environment in our organisations bred a different kind of culture? One where co-generation trumped individual genius, where you could safely assume that everyone else was thinking and acting in the interest of the whole, the difference between us was a creative resource instead of something to be managed, and compromise is a thing of the past?

Sounds pretty utopian huh? But it’s what a group of us have been prototyping for the past six years in New Zealand and around the world. This experiment is called Enspiral.

We started off as a freelancers collective dedicated to working together to more easily win highly-paid work so that we could spend the rest of our time working on stuff that really matters. We defined core values of collaboration, autonomy, transparency, diversity, entrepreneurialism, non-hierarchy.

As our numbers swelled, so did the complexity of our endeavour. Instead of being one company, we were over a dozen — linked by a central foundation. There are currently over 200 people in our organisation, all of which have open access to participate in our decision-making and financial management.

To cope with this complexity, we developed tools like Loomio for collaborative decision-making and Cobudget for participatory budgeting. Other groups became interested in operating like us and adopted our tools, structure and processes. But a strange thing happened. They still often didn’t collaborate well. There was something missing. In 2015 I was given the job of finding out what that was… It was the enabling culture that they lacked.

Credit — Chloe Waretini & Nanz Nair

How collaborative culture gets created

It’s easy to understand how to build software and structure, but how does culture get made? What was creating the particular social behaviours and norms in the society of Enspiral that was giving us the collaborative advantage?

“Enspiral believes solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges demand a new way of relating to each other”
- Enspiral Member

In studying Enspiral vs other groups in North America with similar ideals, some differences became evident. We had particular practices in the way we went about our work which paved the way for a different cultural mindset [Read here : 10 ways to make groups work better].

Through these practices and cultivation of a collaborative mindset, we each became different humans — re-cultured if you like. Work became a practice-ground to become the kinds of people that we need to become to create deep solidarity, dismantle inequality and toxic power dynamics. In essence, together we developed the human abilities required to make the paradigm shift the world is crying out for :

  • Systems literacy (embracing the complexity of reality)
  • Non-naive trust (assuming that your collaborators want to build you up)
  • Flexibility and response-ability (adapting in dynamic realities and constant change)
  • Collective intelligence through inter-subjectivity (letting go of the construct of objective truth)
  • Surrendering control (actually the group is smarter than you are)
  • Deep empathy and ability to use emotions in service of what we were creating together (yes you can bring your feelings here)
  • Naming and navigating power dynamics (no there is no such thing as a flat power structure)
  • Dancing between autonomy and collaboration (self-leadership and shared leadership)
  • Lifelong learning (continual experiments and prototyping, insatiable reading)
Credit — Enspiral

This was especially evident at our Members gathering in February this year. There were a number of us who had been journeying together in Enspiral for 5 years and the amount of personal development was astounding — each of us knew that we would not be who we are today without Enspiral.

Credit — Matt Seymour

Coops as cultural platforms

This conference is about technology platforms and the disruptive impact they can have on society. But I urge you to also think about the cultural platform we’re building, and pay as much attention to this as the technology we develop.

Donella Meadows writes succinctly about the 9 most effective places to intervene for systems change. Number 6 is material flows (e.g. money), number 3 is the distribution of power. Coop structures can attend to these. But number 1 is ‘the mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises’.

Can you identify the mindset your coop is operating from? Is it of the same paradigm that got us into this divided world or is it one that transform society to create solidarity and regeneration? Is your coop eating culture for breakfast or are you being eaten?

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