Sociocratic Governance in Unicorn Grocery Co-op

Unicorn Grocery co-op worker members.

What is Unicorn Grocery?

Unicorn Grocery is a thriving worker-owned, values-driven grocery co-op using sociocracy for its governance in Chorlton, Manchester, UK. They consist of 71 members who all work within the cooperative and are also the directors of the business.

Unicorn Grovery at a glance;

  • Legal Form: Co-operative Society (with Co-operatives UK worker co-op model rules)
  • Organizational type: Worker Co-operative
  • Governance: Sociocratic, collective – all members are also Directors.

Twice named the nation’s ‘Best Food Retailer at the BBC Food & Farming Awards, Unicorn Grocery offers our diverse Manchester customer base an unbeatable range of affordable, fresh, and wholesome food with an emphasis on organic, fair-trade, and local produce. Unicorn is the size of a supermarket but runs as a workers’ co-operative, owned and democratically controlled by the people who staff the shop.

“If we are providing a decent livelihood for our staff and our suppliers, if we are increasing the amount of land farmed sustainably and improving the environmental impact of our diet, if we are enabling good health through good food, if we are creating community wealth rather than shareholder wealth, if we are challenging traditional models of business ownership and control…then we are succeeding.“

What did Unicorn’s co-op governance look like prior to sociocracy?

Interestingly, Unicorn’s governance structure already had many of the hallmarks of sociocracy prior to implementing it officially. They were organized into small teams that resembled circles, and they operated these groups by something approaching consent. In many ways, implementing sociocracy at Unicorn meant simply codifying what was already being practiced.

What was the reason Unicorn implemented sociocracy for its governance?

Unicorn Co-op started with a clear idea about its governance structure – it would operate a flat management structure with flat pay, the direct participation of all members in decision making, and decisions would be taken by consensus.

Unicorn’s governance model was adopted from the Blueprint for 50 Co-ops devised in 1985 by one of the founder members of the Daily Bread Co-op in Northampton, Roger Sawtell.  This model set out the foundations for the way Unicorn operates as a business – running a whole food warehouse instead of a high street health food shop, packing bulk purchased commodities on-site to add value, and operating as a flat structured worker co-operative. For this model to function as intended, Sawtell recommended growth on a human scale, with a membership of 12 to 15 people.

For the first eight years, Unicorn’s membership did not exceed fifteen members. Sawtell’s model worked well with the small numbers, enabling high levels of transparency, active involvement, and efficient communication.

Free Pile of Assorted-varieties of Vegetables Stock Photo

During 2003-2004, driven by rapid growth in sales and concomitant growth in membership,  a wholesale structural review took place and a devolved model was designed to pass decision-making powers and small budgets to teams so that decisions could continue to be taken in appropriate sized groups (i.e. less than 15 people). This structure was modeled on a wheel, spokes, and hub approach.

Teams were the spokes, meeting fortnightly to manage the different areas of the business. Team spokes linked to the hub, a fortnightly Forum meeting of team representatives, and the quarterly member’s meetings were the wheel. This structure balanced the more specialized knowledge of teams and the ability to act quickly in operational matters, whilst maintaining scrutiny, strategy, and policy as the remit of the entire membership.

By 2015 the membership had grown to 60, and several teams exceeded 15 members. A structural review took place to consider how Unicorn could accommodate the increasing number of members and continue to maintain a viable governance structure.

‘We’d grown beyond the confines of the structure we had, which was implemented when the co-op was 15 people.” —Dan

At this time the co-operative membership was acknowledging that they had grown beyond their existing structure, and decision making in team meetings could be slow and frustrating for members. In 2016 a structured team was formed to begin looking into alternatives, which eventually led the co-op to discover sociocracy for governance. Interestingly, around this time a reference to sociocracy was found in old Unicorn minutes.

What did Unicorn’s implementation of sociocracy look like?

One member of the structure team attended a webinar hosted by SoFA in late 2017 and brought the sociocracy idea to colleagues, who became excited about the possibilities it offered to address Unicorn’s structural questions. They felt sufficiently interested in sociocracy to ask the membership to put some resources into finding out more about it.

The process was as follows:

  • A proposal for six members to take part in SoFA’s ELC (Empowered Learning Circle program), meeting for two hours once a fortnight over a 12-week period, with Ted Rau as their coach.  At the end of the ELC, they all wanted to keep going and extend their learning and start working on ideas for implementation at Unicorn and brought a second proposal to the membership. The co-op agreed for them to continue meeting fortnightly, work with Jerry Koch-Gonzalez as a consultant, and develop a proposal for a restructure.
  • Two members joined SoFA’s Sociocracy Leadership Training (SoLT) program in 2018, sharing their learning with the rest of the implementation group. A third member joined SoLT in 2020.
  • The group assisted Unicorn’s largest team (Veg) to set up a four-circle trial to explore transitioning to consent decision-making in one area of the business.
  • The group delivered various training sessions to co-op members over the next few months, (including a half-day in-house introductory program that all members attended), which built up a good degree of enthusiasm for sociocracy and proved very useful as participants highlighted key issues the implementation group needed to address.

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  • A double-linked circle structure was designed with Jerry’s input. Upon further analysis of the impacts of implementing the new structure, the group discovered it had more-or-less doubled Unicorn’s number of meetings and the total number of meeting hours, which led to an impasse.
  • Two of the group attended the Sociocracy at Work Conference in Nottingham, March 2019, and were introduced to the idea of a network structure.
  • A proposal was presented to the co-op membership that paused the formal policy adoption for a new sociocratic governance structure and instead focused on developing a collective understanding of sociocratic working. This took the form of:
    • implementing circle-working across the co-op (reducing large teams into smaller circles and introducing new-style agendas and backlogs)
    • learning and adopting consent decision-making in all circles
    • a commitment to implement continuous learning via a feedback framework to guide our decision making
  • In the meantime, the implementation group began the process of creating a Kumu map with Circle Forward to explore the options for a networked structure.
  • The final restructure proposal based on a network approach to linking circles is nearing completion and will go to the membership alongside formal policy changes to bring our sociocratic practices into co-op policy (secondary rules).

Network Structure 2021

Consent occurs in the green circles (team circles and project groups). Unicorn still uses consensus very effectively in their general meetings of the whole co-op to make decisions on strategic and co-op policies.

Today, every single member of Unicorn has had at least a half-day of training in sociocracy, and many have attended additional training sessions.

Each circle has a trained facilitator to support the sociocratic method.

Unicorn Grocery Co-op sociocracy inspired network governance structure.

What has changed since Unicorn embraced sociocracy?

The new circles (formed out of teams), in using the sociocratic meeting framework, have become more functional. Rather than just “gathering to talk”, there is now more action, with active review leading to constant improvement.

It was noted that co-operative culture has improved with the implementation of sociocracy.

Information page on how Co-operative principles align with Sociocracy.

“Sociocratic meetings made a big difference, as the facilitator I am able to focus the circle on what can we do today to move forwards.”

—Gavin, Production Circle Facilitator.

Were there any difficulties for Unicorn in the change to sociocracy?

During the transition to sociocracy difficulties included:

03 - unicorn grocery,sociocratic governance,co-op governance,unicorn co-op - Sociocracy For All
  • The need to learn a new language – there was a lot of jargon specific to sociocracy.
  • With Unicorn operating as a collective, there is some difficulty in seeing how consent could be used in the large Director’s meetings of 71 member directors. The modified form of consensus decision-making that Unicorn has used successfully for many years will continue to be the decision-making process used in general meetings.
  • Time pressures – Unicorn Grocery is a thriving business and its members are very busy running it. Meeting time must be proportionate to the needs of the business e.g. circle meetings can’t take priority over splitting deliveries in the warehouse or serving customers on the till.

Adaptations to sociocracy for co-op governance

Adaptations for co-op governance included:

  • Instead of a double-linked structure, a networked version with single links (a better fit with Unicorn’s business model). This works for the co-op as it keeps meeting hours manageable and contains sufficient safeguarding in terms of information flow and working within a consent system to mitigate against any maverick circle action.
  • Members Meeting (General Meeting – Board level) remains the top circle as all co-op members hold director status. A strategy helping circle, which draws members from various circles, supports strategic decision-making across the meeting bodies of the co-op. High-level decisions continue to be taken collectively, using a modified form of consensus.
  • Circles select their own leaders (coordinators) and any delegate representatives needed for other circles (e.g. strategy helping and department circles)

What were the key learnings for Unicorn during this process?

The key learnings were:

  1. Training and regular updates for members are crucial to successful implementation – you need to take people with you.
  2. Restructuring is a continuous process, it’s not a case of implementing a new structure, and then it’s done – change is always underway, albeit at different levels of pace. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process rather than a single switch.
  3. Mapping the structure helped identify hidden functions and has provided greater clarity on roles and responsibilities.
  4. It’s more of a pattern or a toolkit rather than a new rigid set of rules.
  5. This has been a good jumping-off point for thinking more about governance in the co-op.
  6. The process was enjoyable – the small group work gave a lot of opportunities to build trust.

If Unicorn were to do it again, what would be done differently?

With the knowledge of where Unicorn is now, and where it was before, the implementation team would present sociocracy to Unicorn less as an all-encompassing solution that Unicorn would just “fit into”, but rather a present sociocracy as a set of tools and techniques that enhance our co-operative governance system. Largely this is because Unicorn was already fairly sociocratic in nature, to begin with.

Unicorn Grocery would have benefited from ‘renaming the jargon’ to better fit the existing ethos. For instance, the word “leader” was problematic, and thus has now been renamed “coordinator”. The term used in the previous team-based system was Overview, and this continues to be used by some members.

Is Unicorn moving forward with sociocracy? What’s the next step?

“Commitment to the continuous evolution of sociocratic governance as best fits us! We have a 25-year history of working as a successful, flat-structured worker co-op and don’t feel the need to move away from long-standing non-sociocratic elements of our governance structure. Our aim is to learn from sociocracy and make improvements while honoring our history and the elements of our working practices that are meaningful to our members.”

-Abbie Kempson

Currently, Unicorn operates as a sort of hybridized sociocracy. Most, but not all, smaller circles are adhering to sociocracy, using rounds and making decisions based on consent. More and more of the smaller groups will be trained up on “circle work”.

An annual circle review process is being rolled out to assess how well the new circles are working and gather feedback for any improvements and amendments.

The final step in completing the circle structure is to replace Forum with a General Circle. This is anticipated to happen in Spring 2021.

Authors: David Brooks, Abbie Kempson, Kim Scott, and Mark Simmonds.

With thanks to Dan Holden, Debbie Clarke, Amy Smith, and Britta Werner.

Learn more at the Unicorn Grocery website.