Wave of consensus

Can a consultancy prosper when every employee has an equal say and the group is committed to a set of ideals? The Wave co-operative thinks so

How successful can a company be if it sticks firmly to its ethical principles? We’re a south coast design co-operative that has just been awarded Investors in People status – and since we started operating we have more than trebled in size. We’ve managed to maintain a reasonable profit which is ploughed back into the company, enabling flexibility and a good work-life balance. And now we are facing further expansion and relocation so we must be doing something right.

When we established ourselves in 1987 the three founding members were unemployed and felt we had nothing to lose. At that time, the country was in the midst of recession and starting a co-operative seemed like an interesting alternative to the rat race. The idea that the organisation should be co-operative came long before we settled on graphic design as a trade. The co-op was originally planned to be a fair-trade shop, but the overheads were too high. So with our backgrounds in art and design, a graphic design business seemed a more realistic, but exciting idea.

We set about defining a strict code of practice that would govern the way we work and who we work with. From the outset it was decided that our client base would comprise only organisations whose aims we supported. It was a risky strategy and we were warned against it, but it has certainly paid off in the long run. Some of our original clients – including the TUC and the charity ActionAid – are still working with us today.

We are often asked how does it all work within a co-operative framework? If no one is the boss, how are decisions ever reached? The answer is that it just takes a certain sort of person. When we recruit we are not only looking for specific skills, we’re looking for partners. It’s like having two jobs. Not only are you a designer, marketing worker or administrator, you are a company director as well. We aren’t shareholders in the traditional sense, but equal partners, who earn the same salary, share responsibilities and are committed to making the co-op a success.

Every member of Wave becomes involved in all aspects of running the company, as well as maintaining their own specialist areas. Perhaps surprisingly, this dual-role arrangement allows for a greater sense of freedom and flexibility. We feel it’s a very supportive environment with a genuine team spirit. Everyone has the opportunity to express their views and control their own destiny.

The big decisions are discussed collectively. The team gets together every month to agree on matters of strategy. This is something that’s become harder as Wave has grown and different personalities have come on board. Sometimes it’s hard to reach a consensus on big or risky decisions, which can lead to long, drawn-out meetings. We are very open to unconventional ideas – they make life more interesting – but we have to balance this with a sensible approach to running the business. This has led to a change in protocol. Now there are so many of us we tend to discuss our ideas in smaller groups and develop them to an extent then present them to the collective meeting for approval. It’s a change in structure that has evolved over time, but it seems to be working.

Now Wave is facing its most significant development to date – a move to a larger space – possibly in Hastings, a town that’s undergoing massive regeneration at the moment. But we are confident that the expansion won’t affect our principles. We want to prove that you can be honest and open and still succeed.

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