“A vital question, a creative question, rivets our attention. All the creative power of our minds is focused on the question. Knowledge emerges in response to these compelling questions. They open us to new worlds.” —Verna Allee, “The Knowledge Evolution.” (Quoted by Vogt, Brown and Issacs, The Art of Powerful Questions, 2003. www.worldcafe.com.)
Questions: the foundation of democracy
What should the cooperative achieve? What should it avoid, and on whose behalf? Cooperative boards use conversations with cooperative owners, to whom the board has a fiduciary obligation, to answer those questions. Conversation in this context should be understood broadly to include not only face-to-face exchange but also dialogue both written and spoken and acted upon by owners participating in the cooperative through shopping, attending meetings, reading blogs, posting comment cards, and in myriad other ways.
At a Consumer Cooperative Management Association meeting in 2004, I heard Michael Hartoonian speak about the role of cooperatives in a democratic economy. Hartoonian described democracy as “the conversation and argument that precedes and follows the choice” between divergent principles. He made the compelling point that retail food cooperatives are one of the few places where this form of democracy is still actively practiced. (Michael Healy discusses this idea in depth in Cooperative Grocer #118, May–June 2005, “Democracy and Cooperatives.”)
It’s not surprising, given these democratic conversations, that many cooperative leaders have been drawn to the work of Juanita Brown, David Issacs and others, using a process known as the World Café. The subtitle of Brown and Issacs’ 2005 World Café is “Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter.” Indeed—for boards of retail food cooperatives, the only conversations worth having are conversations that matter.
John Carver’s description of a board of directors’ role applies to boards using Carver’s Policy Governance™ as well as to those boards using other governance systems. “The purpose of governance is to ensure, usually on behalf of others, that an organization achieves what it should achieve while avoiding those behaviors and situations that should be avoided.” (John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference, 2006).
Brett Fairbairn posits the idea that cooperatives are not only places for economic linkage with the owners—they are thinking entities. How else can an organization “think” but through conversation, broadly defined? And what part of the organization is responsible for designing that conversation? Only the board is charged with the responsibility to govern and lead the cooperative. (See the discussion of “cognition” in Fairbairn’s 2003 booklet, “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives,” downloadable at www.usaskstudies.coop/publications , and in Marshall Kovitz’ article, “Thinking Strategically,” in Cooperative Grocer #144, Sept.–Oct. 2009, especially the page 39 chart.)
Questions as governance tools
“ The usefulness of the knowledge we acquire and the effectiveness of the actions we take depend on the quality of the questions we ask. Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking. Questions can lead to movement and action on key issues; by generating creative insights, they can ignite change. “
—Vogt, Brown and Issacs, The Art of Powerful Questions, 2003.
Boards of retail food cooperatives use questions all the time, whether they are aware of it or not. They use small questions to guide their board work. And they work with larger questions to engage with co-op owners to be sure that the board’s decisions will lead the cooperative in a positive direction. At the co-op community level, as part of the Cooperative Board Leadership Development (CBLD) 2010 enrollment process, CDS Consulting Co-op is collecting topics, trends and related questions from boards in order to share this information on a national level. As individual board members, we can dramatically increase our effectiveness by paying more attention to the questions that the board is using to guide its work.
By talking to board leaders, I came to understand that while the process for coming up with the questions may be more important than the questions themselves, the most important thing of all is that the conversations are happening. I don’t think we ever know what the consequences of our actions will be; regardless of our intentions, there are always unexpected circumstances that lead to surprising results. But I do know that if we are talking to each other throughout the changes, there is a far greater likelihood that the future we imagine will be the future that is created.
Below are a few stories on ways co-op boards are working with powerful questions. I hope that some of them inspire your own board’s work.
Whole Foods Co-op, Duluth, Minn.
How can we combine our unique resources to assess the food production needs of our community and expand our local/regional food system?
In 2008 at its annual retreat, the board of directors of Whole Foods Co-op worked to answer the question: What should we study and learn to become able to meet the future needs of owners? The board identified several topics that they then used to prepare a strategy for linkage with the co-op’s owners over the following year, using the question shown above. The board held several listening sessions with a variety of groups, including growers from the region, former board members, and local nonprofit organizations. At each session, and at its fall annual meeting, the board presented its question in a World Café format.
According to Lynn Fena, board president, “I think it was a powerful question because it invited creativity—it was like giving the member-owners a palette dotted with several colors of paint and asking them to paint a picture. If we had asked for a painting but had not given them any paint, it would have been harder to glean many ideas from the activity. Instead, every time we met with additional member-owners, we could use previous discussions to inspire more creative ‘paintings.’”
At its 2009 retreat, the board used the results of the outreach activities, including the World Café, as the basis for drafting revisions to its Ends policies. What effect did the question have on the board itself? In Fena’s words, “I think it inspired us. I think the listening process engaged us in both discovery and determination to move beyond where we have been. Hence, the new Ends policy.”
The Community Mercantile, Lawrence, Kan.
How do we engage in our local food system? What is an appropriate means by which to improve connectivity and local infrastructure?
The board of the Merc has demonstrated persistence and perseverance—despite substantial changes in the management of the co-op, as well as the composition of the board—in pursuing two questions identified at its board retreat. Board President Carolyn Micek says, “Those are questions that we started talking about last year, and this year we were going to spend the year building board wisdom around those topics. Many on our board have either attended workshops or read articles about local food systems or sustainability. The board intends to develop a strategy to understand how the board should intersect with those