When given the task of presenting on the topic of “harnessing the power of cooperation and collaboration” at the World Credit Union Conference held by the World Council of Credit Unions, I was stuck first on the word “harnessing.” Too often when these topics come up, people immediately turn to the can-do, feel-good, socially-driven aspects of collaboration. But when we harness the power of cooperative business designs, we do so with the expectation of creating win-win outcomes and earning from that collaboration.
Looking at cooperatives as an effective business template should not be taboo. Rather, we should recognize that we can build powerful organizations that harness that power of cooperation while still promoting a mission other than revenue. Where the difficulty lies is that collaborative design and group-think are easy (collaborators love best practice sharing)—building a successful cooperative is not.
I recently had this discussion with Peter Barnard, CEO of rkGoBig, a CUSO started up by six U.S. credit unions. To Peter, harnessing cooperation and collaboration depends on the following:
Structure the collaboration so that it puts you physically together often and consistently.
You either grab it or you don’t. With it, an acceleration process can defend against the natural draining of initiative in these works. Other stuff comes up.
Everybody works, no wallflowers. This has two benefits. First, it increases the total workload possible. Second, it makes the work “their” work, their baby throughout. Especially important later when key, risky, expensive decisions are made.
Power distribution in the room
Equal use of the oxygen in the room. Fend off the autocracy of the bloviators, even if their ideas are just better. This should be a discipline jointly embraced by all, and constantly reenforced in every work session (dovetails with ‘no wallflowers’ above).
Peter understands the value in cooperatives as a business design. Most often, acting collaboratively or being cooperative is a social standard and evaluation by people in your general everyday life – the expectations that you are cooperative is a judgment as to your demeanor, relational skills, and quid quo pro approaches to social interactions.
Whereas being a cooperative entrepreneur could mean that I leverage a business charter that defines me as a cooperative, with distinct approaches to capital, ownership, governance, and returns to customer-owner roles. I walk a design line, more than I am a pleasant actor.
The balancing act of win-win outcomes
I respect the inherent expectation of win-win between organizational owners and customers as they are designed to be one and the same person, or shareholder. It is the balancing act that means you will respect both sides in a way that governs your response to the marketplace and the board room. You will do the work, prove the point, and you creatively evolve this work as part of your day-to-day effort, or change to another charter spec.
Cooperatives can easily come to rely too much on the theme of their approach and mistake it as the value prop that the consumer-owners respect most. But the value they create must be focused on the tasks that consumer-owners value and commit to! Being cooperative is a relational skill for an individual and, while valued by many, it is not a guarantee for driving accomplishment.
Or in Peter’s words: “The warm fuzzies of togetherness shield us from the hard realities of delivery of a specific value prop. In order to apply our best and most rigorous skills, you’ve got to do the work!”