A Participative Process of Cooperative Planning

When Sandy Roberts joined the board of directors of Food Front Cooperative Grocery in 1989, she had experience as a strategic planning consultant, and hoped to have Food Front develop a strategic plan. When the general manager proposed doing a plan, Sandy volunteered to chair the Planning Committee and developed a proposal; the general manager and the board approved it.

A planning group made up of the board, managers, front line staff, and interested members -- about 20 to 25 people -- met for five 4-hour sessions in September and October of 1990. These sessions were facilitated by Jim Marshall and Dan OToole from Portland State University. Working in small groups and then reporting back to the whole group, these planners produced the components of a five-year strategic plan. Each component achieved "working consensus": everybody got their say and everybody could live with the result.

To assist the planning group, Food Front management had developed a database of key information. This gave all of the planners a common knowledge base from which to work, and it helped everybody to focus on what it is that Food Front has been doing and hopes to do in the future.

The first major task of the planning group was to review and revise -- for strategic planning purposes only -- Food Front's mission statement. This activity refreshed everybody's memory on what the mission was and the revised statement became the touchstone for the rest of the process.

Futures Research: The SOCIAL Lever

ElementImplications for Food Front
  • Single-person household shopping patterns
  • Upscale shoppers from outside region
  • Outreach to minority/immigrant/ethnic people, some of whom may be displaced by gentrification to areas closer to store
  • More potential shoppers
  • Escalating costs
  • Deliveries
  • Location of future stores
  • Cooperative distribution network
Senior Citizens
  • Shopping convenience
  • Nutrition education
  • Special dietary needs
  • Outreach/transportation/delivery
Conservation Ethic
  • Packaging
  • Education information
  • Decision about expansion
  • Recycling
  • Provide model of ecological responsibility
  • Organic farm with government or university sponsorship owned by Food Front
Male/Female Roles
  • Who shops, cooks
  • Nutritious convenience foods
  • Service shopping expansion -- seniors, working families, home workers; less face-to-face contact
  • Education of male shoppers
  • Easing of female shopping
  • Potential product mix
  • Management/Staff conflict resolution
  • More diverse/experienced workforce
  • Workplace democracy
  • Conservation
  • Alternative energy: solar, pedal power, etc.
  • Educational outreach


Determining Values

The second product was a list of values (see sidebar) which should underlie Food Front in all its aspects. Since cooperatives have a reputation for contentious arguments around values, this part of the strategic planning process was crucial: could the group develop working consensus around a list of values? It could, and did; and the discussions helped clarify what was meant by the various key words and how large the areas of agreement actually were. This success set a positive tone for the rest of the process.

Futures research

The "future research" part of the strategic planning process came next. It is usually the most fun and the most interesting, and Food Front's experience was no exception. Small groups of planners took on the five "lever" categories used: Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political. (See sidebar for detail on the first of these categories.) Their task was to try to determine what the key elements of the future were in their category. Aging baby boomers. Virtual reality. A global economy. The hole in the ozone layer. Republican, Democrat, or whatever. What did it all mean for Food Front?

Each group's work was reviewed and improved by the large group in lively and enlightening discussions. The futures research component of the strategic plan is the piece that puts the FUTURE into the planners thinking. It is a picture of the future world in which the cooperative will operate; it is the planning context, that future world which continually demands that we think about it now in order to be successful in it then.


The values that should underlie Food Front in all its aspects (not in priority order) are:

  • cooperation
  • health and wellness
  • democratic structure and participative decision making
  • empowerment of individual
  • interpersonal respect, humor, and fellowship
  • ecological responsibility
  • diverse, organic, wholesome, nutritional foods
  • financial viability
  • credibility, accountability, honesty, and integrity
  • leadership, based on our values
  • service
  • education and information sharing
  • membership ownership and control
  • active and involved membership
  • open and honest communication
  • diversity
  • creativity and innovation
  • non-oppressive food production and distribution

Strategic agendas

With the completion of the futures research portion, all the components were in place to plan for FoodFront's future. The key to effective strategic planning is to determine how an organization should act on its mission statment and values in that future which has been foreseen by the planners through the future research process.

Using LOGIC and CONSISTENCY as guidelines, the Food Front group tackled this question and developed a list of strategic "directions" in which the cooperative should move over the next five years. These directions are categorized as follows:

Current activities which will receive MORE emphasis
Current activities which will receive SAME emphasis
Current activities which will receive LESS emphasis
Current activities which will be ELIMINATED
NEW Activities

The translation of a five-year plan of action into what-do-we-do-on-Monday? is achieved by pulling out a first-year strategic agenda from the five-year plan. The planners broke into small grups to decide how many (and which) directions could be handled in the first year. The groups then discussed their work with the large group, leading to working consensus on a first- year agenda.

Implementing the plan

The final step in the strategic planning process was to develop an action plan for each of the directions on the first-year strategic agenda. The beauty of having the planners (broken into a small group for each agenda item) do this work is that it gives the person(s) who will actually implement the action plan the benefit of the planners' ideas on how to get it done. The planning group provides a skeleton and the actual implementers flesh it out. (See sidebar for a sample action planning sheet.)

First Year Strategic Agenda

In the coming year, Food Front will take actions to move forward on the following strategic directions (not listed in priority order):

SAME Emphasis on
  • Buying our current building
  • Financial viability
MORE Emphasis on
  • Increased member participation in setting direction for the store
  • Establishing process and structures that ensure democratic and participative decision making at all levels at Food Front
  • The board planning committee opening member discussion on future growth and expansion ideas -- final decision to be made by member vote; decision process to be completed within a year
  • Customer service, including: education/information, well stocked shelves
  • Greater membership involvement
  • The board taking up the issue (in public) of working members in operations: advantages and disadvantages
  • Being a model of ecological responsibility in store operations in products/packaging carried, providing information on issues, providing recycling services for members
  • Taking a leadership role in commuity through education, forthright stand on environmental issues, social and political stands against oppression
  • A safe and healthy store [See following sidebar.]

The strategic plan developed by the planning group is always a draft plan, a recommended plan to the organization's formal decision-making body. In Food Front's case this was the board of directors. It reviewed the plan and approved it.

An interesting twist to Food Front's strategic planning process was that between the completion of the plan and the preparation of the first update of the plan, Sandy Roberts became Food Front's general manager. She went from head planner to head implementer, not a common experience.

Review and updates

In order to keep the strategic plan a dynamic and living document, Food Front committed itself to annual updates. The first update occurred in March 1992. A planning group (again, of board, managers, front line staff, and interested members) met for two 3-hour sessions. These sessions were facilitated by Jim Marshall (who was by that time a Food Front board member).

The update process began with a review of the original strategic plan so everybody would know exactly what it was they had met to UPDATE. Next came a crucial element: a review of how Food Front had done in implementing its first-year agenda. This is crucial because it tells the planning group how much more of the original five-year plan can reasonably be expected to be implemented in the next year.

These two reviews were followed by a discussion of management front line staff ideas and observations, and an updating of the original plan's futures research component. At this point the planners put all their work together and used it as a guide to modifying the original plan by adding and deleting strategic directions. The updates allow a strategic plan to evolve and be reshaped in response to unanticipated events and developments.

With an updated five-year plan prepared, the planners -- working through small groups which deliberated and then reported to the large group -- selected a second-year agenda of strategic directions to take on. Each direction was turned into an action plan to guide the implementers in the coming year.

The Food Front board reviewed and approved the updated strategic plan. In the year or so since, the cooperative has moved forward on most, if not all, of the directions on its second-year agenda.

Food Front is now facing its second update. Sandy Roberts has retired as general manager. A fundamental direction in the strategic plan was accomplished with the purchase of the store building. And the current strategic plan is being used to help shape the new job description and interview questions which will be used in the search process for a new G.M.

Action Planning Sheet

Strategic Direction: A safe and healthy store

Present Situation: Stressful lighting, ergonomically incorrect front end, Health and Safety Committee, Facilities Mgr., no noise control, no system of ergonomics storewide, high workers comp. claims, OSHA fines, minimal training

Preferred Solution: Minimal workers comp., establish training (safety) program, reduce environmental stress in store (noise and lighting)

Facilitating Forces
Hindering Forces

Action Planning Sheet

Strategic Direction: A safe and healthy store

Present Situation: Stressful lighting, ergonomically incorrect front end, Health and Safety Committee, Facilities Mgr., no noise control, no system of ergonomics storewide, high workers comp. claims, OSHA fines, minimal training

Preferred Solution: Minimal workers comp., establish training (safety) program, reduce environmental stress in store (noise and lighting)

Facilitating Forces
Hindering Forces
Necessary Actions
 HSC1 year
 GM, FE Manager1 year
 HSC6 months
 HSC1 month
 Dept. managers6 months
Needed Resources
[none listed]

Additional benefits

All strategic planning processes have accomplishments and benefits above and beyond the final product, and Food Front's is no exception. The process seems to have strengthened the cooperative in a number of ways:

  • the participatory ethos of cooperatives was reinforced in a clear operational way;
  • team building among the various components of the cooperative happened;
  • participants gained a much greater understanding of a cooperative's strengths and weaknesses;
  • articulation of common concerns (and in some cases the realization of a common concern) took place;
  • participants shared an experience of discussion and compromise leading to a working consensus about a shared agenda for the future; and
  • the idea that participation, if appropriately structured, can be both effective and efficient gained support.

And what were the really HARD parts?

  • maintaining a low risk environment was sometimes difficult; some participants felt, at times, that they couldn't speak candidly;
  • some potentially good ideas were dropped because they could not gain working consensus; occasionally somebody refused to go along for no clear reason;
  • the original planning sessions were in a very difficult to use and uncomfortable room; and
  • working together in this process did not mend as many organizational rifts as some had hoped.

In conclusion: a cooperative that grows and evolves may find itself wondering how it can work cooperatively now that it has departments and supervisors and managers. A participative strategic planning process is a way to act cooperatively, to reinforce the cooperative ideal by cooperatively planning for the future. Food Front's success in participative strategic planning shows that it is possible to conduct a cooperative's crucial functions -- such as planning for its continued success --cooperatively. People can come together, pool their resources, and create an organization which none of them could have built alone. And they can come together periodically to ensure that their cooperative stays on course and succeeds in a changing environment.

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