How the Co-operate Islington team is forming and developing

Context of the project

A £250,000 grant from Islington Council is enabling a new consortium to deliver a project to establish a Co-operative Development Agency in partnership with Islington Council and administer seed funding and business advice for new and existing co-ops.

By growing the number and size of co-operatives in Islington, the council aims to enable greater retention of local wealth, support the creation of good quality jobs and enable the democratisation of the local economy.

Polly wrote about it over here if you want to find out more. You can also take a look at who the partners are on the About page of our website. 

Who am I?

I work with Outlandish, I’m a freelancer and have been collaborating / friends with them for a good few years now. I joined the Cooperate Islington project to start with in the role of facilitating a challenging meeting, and my role has developed from there in response to the needs of the team.

What’s happening

The project started with a bit of a feeling of “this all needed to begin yesterday!”. The funding for new co-ops needed to be distributed by the end of the financial year, so it was a priority to a) find them and then b) get the programme set up and send out funding. We managed this successfully, and have 17 co-ops currently going through the Brilliant Co-ops programme. However it did mean that there was less time put towards team formation, planning, relationship building and so on than there might have been otherwise.

Meanwhile, the team has been developing the long-term strategy for Cooperate Islington. We are setting up a new, independent organisation (a ‘Cooperative Development Body’ or ‘Cooperative Development Agency’) to continue the work piloted this year into the future. This strand of work includes developing a business plan, a hiring strategy, and raising finances for years to come. This work is quite complex, because we want to ensure that the new organisation is a huge success, but we also want to make sure that it will not be in conflict with any of us partners or co-ops in Islington more generally, by competing with us for work or funding in the future. 

Out of the conversations around the details of this work, a conflict has emerged. A lot of people – including within the team – are wary of using the word conflict, because it’s seen as something rather dangerous. But I’m the one who’s writing this article, and I’m all about Reframing Conflict so I’m quite happy to call it that! 

A conflict, I reckon, happens when peoples’ thoughts and/or needs are at odds with each other or are not being met. That can mean lots of difficulty and confusion, and it can make it hard to continue collaborating and working together effectively. It’s also an opportunity to gain a better understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings. When we go through the world seemingly agreeing, we assume others think or need pretty much the same as us, but in fact there may well be differences. They are just small enough to go unnoticed, so we often don’t get to explore the nuances and learn more about one another. Conflict makes our differences obvious, which means we can explore them more easily.

A popular model of team dynamics is Bruce Tuckman’s “forming, storming, norming, and performing” model (he later added “mourning” or “adjourning” to the stages).

A wheel depicting Bruce Tuckman’s model of team development

We’ve been forming and we seem to have dipped our toes into a bit of storming! People aren’t just staying in the comfortable space of agreement, of not rocking the boat. Instead, we are voicing different opinions, ideas and needs and risking the possibility of conflict. Feelings of suspiciousness and frustration have arisen for some members of the team, and power struggles and interpersonal clashes have come up.

This is:

a) normal
b) at times difficult and potentially upsetting, or demotivating. AND
c) a sign that we’re sharing ideas even when it’s scary – which is good.

We know this is happening, and ideally, we’d like our team to continue developing through the different stages (though we know it’s not linear), with growing understanding and acceptance of each other. We want to do this so that we can work together with more energy and make better decisions – ultimately achieving our goal of successfully delivering this incredibly exciting project.

What we’re doing now

So, what are we doing together to address these challenges?

  • Implementing Sociocracy more strongly

    We organised a team training session and are starting to practice more formally, rather than taking for granted that just because we’ve said we’ll do it, we’re actually doing it.
  • Pair conversations

    We have created the space and opportunity for facilitated pair conversations between team members. These are conversations using reflective listening practices which basically means you take it in turns to speak with the other person listening and then reflecting what they heard. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s a powerful method to a) create a safe space and b) genuinely hear what someone is saying without worrying about your “response” (you know, all of those times you think you’re listening but actually you’re planning what to say next!).

    You might want to have a conversation like this for many reasons. It might be that:

    – you want to bring up a tension or difference you’ve noticed
    – you want to learn more about what the other person is working on/their goals
    – you want the other person to learn more about what you are working on/your goals
    – you want to show some appreciation for the other person

    Some feedback from pair conversations:

    “I certainly found it really helpful in building understanding and hearing another person’s perspective on our work”.
  • Encouraging spending time together in person

    This is hard, we have a remote and dispersed team (like so many of us nowadays!). But whenever we get in a room together and have a chat, we seem to leave with warmer feelings and greater understanding. So we want to do more of that. (Actually, this phenomenon seems to happen online as well, but socialising online sometimes feels so unappealing!).
  • Recognising that team culture, formation, dynamics is a crucial role within the organisation that we need to devote time to.

    I’ve been defining a role which focuses on working on these things within our team and will be bringing a proposal centred around this to the wider team.

What’s changed? What have we noticed through this work?

  • How quickly someone can change from being a face you interact with in a meeting, to being a person, through a conversation
  • How easy it is to “other” different people when you’re not building relationships with them, but only asking each other to “do” stuff
  • How easily we fall into the trap of just wanting to “get stuff done”, even when we know that relationship building is fundamental!
  • How processes like this might not magically “fix” everything, but can help get us to the next step, which is really all that life ever is.

What we’ve learnt

  • Team formation takes time and conscious effort
  • Just because we’re all co-ops and share some general politics, absolutely doesn’t mean we always agree and it’s all easy

However – that’s not necessarily to say we did it ‘wrong’ – Outlandish is first and foremost, a tech company and we believe in and follow many Agile principles. Actually, we think they often overlap with the principles of Sociocracy. In general we look to find something that is “good enough for now, and safe enough to try” (Sociocracy). You might call our work together so far an MVP (Agile). So, we started the project doing what seemed like the priorities to us – ie. finding co-ops to fund, and getting the programme rolling. Now, other things are coming up which show us that our focus needs to shift for a bit. We are “pivoting” (implementing new practices etc) as a result of feedback (conflict and difficulties within the team).

We think doing it this way – responding to a real situation, as opposed to an imagined one – works for a number of reasons. 

  • Time efficiency: If we tried to fix every potential problem before it happened, we’d never get any project started!
  • Energy efficiency: Having a real situation provides us with motivation and energy to make a change. We spoke about Sociocracy as the Cooperate Islington team was forming, but honestly there wasn’t much energy around it. Now, as a result of experiencing difficulty, there’s a clearer need and therefore more motivation to do it.
  • Follows the 4 stages of competence model. A “problem” lets us move from unconsciously unskilled to consciously unskilled – we become aware that we’re not doing something as well as we could be. That puts us in the position to be able to make a change, and this is where solutions and skills emerge. 
A diagram illustrating the four stages of competence model

That’s not to say that we don’t want to think at the beginning of a project about how we might do things in the best possible way, and try to circumnavigate problems if we can. But sometimes, we just don’t see them clearly or they aren’t priorities at that point. 

In summary

We think it’s healthy (and really useful) to acknowledge when a team is going through conflict or something sticky. It happens, and there’s no point in trying to avoid it because it’s inevitable when humans work together.

What’s important is how we deal with it when it does come up, and how we look after each other as we’re working through this phase. We’re trying to create a team where people can raise their differences, be heard, and make our team and the project better because of that. 

And it goes beyond our team in the here and now – the tasks of our project are:

a) to support new teams to form – the Brilliant Coops – and 
b) to set up a new CDA in Islington 

All of these teams will likely go through similar processes and we want the Cooperate Islington team to lead by example and give them the confidence to acknowledge conflict – as well as the tools to help them move through it. We’re running Sociocracy and Reframing Conflict workshops for the Brilliant Coops participants, and also inviting interested people from Islington Council and other groups. Ultimately we want our co-ops and our community to be resilient and sustainable. Resilience and sustainability arise when people are able to listen and talk to each other and connect emotionally – that is how we learn and deal with complex, changing situations. We think that this work, of acknowledging and moving through conflict, is crucial in creating that reality.

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