09 December 2009

Cooperation, Collaboration, and Compromise

Co•op•er•a•tion [koh-op-uh-rey-shuhn]
- noun
1. An act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint action.

Col•lab•or•a•tion [kuh-lab-uh-rey-shuhn]
- noun
1. The act of working together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.

Com•pro•mise [kom-pruh-mahyz]
- noun
1.  A settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

I hear these three words in the credit union movement over and over. I'm glad I do. After all, each is necessary for us to realize our potential, maximize our impact, and fortify our future. Unfortunately, too many credit unions do not understand their importance. Worse, the ones that do get it sometimes think that doing any of the three without the others is sufficient.

Here's why it isn't.

Cooperation amongst credit unions means that the parties involved work together with a common purpose. I believe credit unions in fact do have a common purpose. There is, however, debate over what that purpose is. Some seem to think our purpose is being the low cost leader in the financial services world. Others think our purpose is to be cooperative banks; different in structure than banks, but direct competitors. Still others believe that credit unions are charitable organizations that fund our good work in the world with financial services. Most of us believe our purpose is some combination of these three. Cooperation, full cooperation anyway, requires a clear purpose. While way too many of us are not on the same page, we are for the most part in the same book. That's a start.

But say we all worked together with a common purpose. Let's say this is it: credit unions exist to provide members with control over their financial lives through the governance of their financial institution, access to affordable financial services, financial literacy education, and community impact. A credit union whose member owners, environmental factors, resources, or board disagree with the collective purpose, or even one component of it, would feel obliged to break from the pack. This is where compromise comes in. Each participant in the cooperative ensemble must be willing to give something, anything, up for the common good. Without compromise, we cannot be cooperative.

What about collaboration? A joint intellectual effort should go like this: a bunch of credit union people, regardless of seniority, sex, title, geographic location, politics or relationship with the meeting scheduler, come together to pick each other's brains about how to tackle a problem. All ideas are taken into consideration, none trumps any other, and collectively a solution is formed from the group that far exceeds the value of a solution any single member of the group could have come up with.

But what if the solution isn't consistent with our purpose as credit unions? Collaboration can yield great ideas, but those ideas need to be put into play and need to be consistent with the entire group's purpose. The solution must be one that credit unions will embrace and pursue. Without cooperation, we cannot be collaborative.

So, how about compromise? This is a touchy subject. There are certain things we should never compromise as credit unions: our autonomy as a movement (ahem, TARP debate), our member-ownership, and our mission, for example. Working within a system, a cooperative of cooperatives, however, we must at times allow ourselves to give up certain things for the greater good. Support of the corporate system has served as a simultaneous point and counterpoint to this statement.

We can't compromise for the sake of compromise. There are some things that we simply should not budge on. This is why collaboration and cooperation become so important. How can we put our collective minds together to create solutions to current problems, cooperate under the flag of a common mission, and give up a little as individual credit unions to see our vision through?

The three C's of credit unioning are easy to say and hard to do. And, try as we might, none of them are sufficient by themselves. 


Janine McBee said...

Thank you for writing from your heart. Totally agree with you on the importance of Cooperation, Collaboration, and Compromise.

Since credit unions began, "People Helping People" has provided a strong foundation for our industry.
This foundation and philosophy provides an advantage if we choose to use it.

One of the things that has set credit unions apart from other financial service providers is our ability to collaborate, share and learn from each other. By working together on behalf of our member-owners, we have the ability to innovate forward.

Mark Curran said...

Well said, Matt. Why is it that cooperation is so easy to comprehend and agree with, yet so hard to practice? We know that together we are better than we could ever be alone, yet human nature is averse to compromise.

One of the growing trends among credit unions in the last few years is the proliferation of new CUSOs. Multi-CU CUSOs are the very definition of cooperation. "Let's go in together to purchase and operate ______________ (DP, Marketing, Collections, Accounting, Financial Planning, whatever)." By cooperating, each credit union is able to reduce their overall costs to develop and manage these areas.

Yet, at the same time, cooperation beyond a handful of credit unions becomes difficult because of the compromise factor. Instead of 25 credit unions getting together to form a single CUSO, we have 5 CUSOs providing services to 5 credit unions each.

There are many hurdles to be cleared for true cooperation to occur. Small credit unions don't trust big credit unions and think they are only interested in merger. Big credit unions often run on ego, believing that their ideas are always the best. Credit unions in the same town fear membership overlaps.

Mistrust, fear and ego contribute to inefficient organizations. When the bottom line is healthy, these inefficiencies can be hidden. When earnings are squeezed, compromise has a greater chance to succeed. Today, the true spirit of cooperation, collaboration and compromise are needed more than ever. Can’t we all just get along?

Denise Wymore said...

Great post and two amazing comments. This could be and should be the topic of every CU conference in the next year.

I believe that the credit union movement is akin to religion. Our seven cooperative principles are not suggestions - it is our doctrine. Period.

When the weak began screaming for TARP - it was apparent that they were really wanting to change religions. That's the beautiful thing about America - you're free to worship as you like. So go join the church of Satan, er banking if you want to use taxpayer money to bail you out.

Wow - that felt good. I've been wanting to say that for so long now.

There are certain things we cannot compromise. Our values and integrity should be at the top of that list.

As for cooperation and collaboration. The corporate network, state league system and CUNA were built to foster those values. When we lose faith in them, we lose faith in our foundation. All three of these are run by natural person credit unions, per se. It's up to us to elect and support people who understand and practice our unique religion.

I don't think that's been a focus lately - and we're paying the price.

Can't we all just get along?