Joe Garrison, Co-founder, Blue Scorcher Bakery Café
Born to a family of cooperative wheat and cotton farmers in the Texas panhandle, Joe Garrison has lived in coop housing and worked at a food coop. 15 years ago, he helped found worker-owned Blue Scorcher Bakery Cafe in Astoria, Oregon. Some of the best advice he’s gotten so far is “Fix your own damn oven!”
Achieving Results in Circles (Learn, Do, Measure)
Joe Garrison co-founded worker cooperative, Blue Scorcher Bakery Café 15 years ago in Astoria, Oregon. The co-owners wanted equal ownership and decision-making by consent which led them to Sociocracy. A small group mandate has all decision-making members of an organization organized in circles. “Lead-do-measure” allows circle members the autonomy to decide the best way to achieve their goals with outcomes measured. The process is iterative and allows for goal reassessment as part of the process.
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Sociocracy: Achieving Results in Circles (Learn, Do, Measure)
Joe Garrison, Co-founder, Blue Scorcher Bakery Café
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:20 Today we’re going to be discussing the business model of sociocracy, and I’m excited to be joined by Joe Garrison, who is one of the owners of Blue Scorcher Bakery and Cafe in Astoria, Oregon.
Jon Mertz: 00:31 Joe, welcome to Activate World. Give us the sense of your background and how you got involved with Blue Scorcher Bakery.
Joe Garrison: 00:37 The Friendly Navy Recruiter helped me to understand that he had some opportunities for me when I was 18, and after finishing my term of service I found myself trying to decide what to do. I met my bride. After that we settled in the little town of Astoria because we were seeking a more rural environment to raise children in, and here in Astoria it became clear that the town needed somebody to carry the torch of having a good community bakery. So we picked that up as a group of five of us, as a cooperative, and that led us to sociocracy.
Jon Mertz: 01:20 How did you come up with the name Blue Scorcher?
Joe Garrison: 01:22 Of the five of us, two of us were working in the bicycle shop here in town. The other three were also bicycle enthusiasts and we said, “Okay, this has got to be a bakery with the bicycle name.”
Joe Garrison: 01:33 After a year and a half trying to choose a name, we learned that the term “scorcher” was used to describe the bicycles and behavior of cyclists back about 1895 when women started doing radical things like put on knickers and outrun the police. It was kind of a transformative period back there before internal combustion came along now. So we thought, “Ah, rebellious cyclists, there we go. That’s the name we want.”
Joe Garrison: 02:06 The Blue was just to fix the problem, but the Scorcher Bakery seemed like a bad idea from the get-go and somehow Blue Scorcher makes it work.
Jon Mertz: 02:16 So today, Blue Scorcher Bakery is a workers cooperative. Correct?
Joe Garrison: 02:19 Yes.
Jon Mertz: 02:20 How did you come across sociocracy as a way to try to organize the work that needs to be done?
Joe Garrison: 02:25 We were full of wonderful ambitions and not a whole lot of practical experience in running a business, the five of us that started things, and we thought that it would be just enough to say that we’re going work this business collectively and that consensus will help us makes decisions.
Joe Garrison: 02:47 The business went from the five of us to 25 of us and kind of has settled in on about 30, 32 people that it takes to run the shop, and we started out with these once a month everybody sitting around one big cluster of tables sort of management meetings, and we real quickly figured out that that’s just not enough time to collaborate on a business.
Joe Garrison: 03:11 The decisions were getting made, power structure evolved to fill the gaps that remained and it looked a whole lot like sociocratic circles, which is to say people who cared about the same thing, say the bread bakers over here and the pastry bakers over there and the line cooks over there, people sort of clumped into their concern circles and figured out what to talk about and started making decisions outside of these attempts at doing a consensus process with 30 people sitting in a circle.
Jon Mertz: 03:47 For somebody that hasn’t heard of sociocracy before, how do you describe the model to them?
Joe Garrison: 03:52 I’m not going to do it justice from kind of the academic sense, but the first thing so many people want to hear is the answer to sociocracy, “Oh, that’s an agonizing name to give.” Like, ooh, that locks a lot of people out of the room just by giving it that name. Why in the world would you name it that?
Joe Garrison: 04:11 But the academic reason for it, I guess, is that where democracy, the demos is the people, all of them, the whole darn nation, whatever, lots of people, as opposed to the socios, I guess, which is your social group of people that you actually interact with and community as opposed to the whole darn nation.
Joe Garrison: 04:34 So sociocracy’s sort of starting point is that it’s not about the abstract voting sort of thing for decision making, this is about people beak to beak, and sweaty, collaborating.
Jon Mertz: 04:53 I know from your website that organizing into circles is an important part of your sociocratic process. Tell us more about the role that circles play in your organization.
Joe Garrison: 05:02 One of the guiding principles is that the more you can give autonomy to a group of people that’s involved in doing the work … So, for example, the bread bakers as opposed to the pastry bakers, the more you can let the bread bakers have a clear understanding of what their aim is and let them get to it, rather than saying, well, the general manager runs the bakeshop and if the bakers have any questions about what they’re supposed to do, the first piece of action is for them to check in with the general manager.
Joe Garrison: 05:40 Sociocracy recasts that a little bit where the bread bakers are helped to understand, help everybody be on the same set of music, sheet of music, the general managers says something like, “Okay, bread bakers, you’re making bread and what we’re trying to do is grow our wholesale by 10% this year. We’re seeing your ingredients cost creep up, so your margins are eroding. You need to come up with some price increases to get your ingredients margin back down by two points,” something like that. So that’s all general manager-y talk.
Joe Garrison: 06:11 But instead of the general manager sharpening his pencil and telling them, “Okay, you’re going to change the price on this loaf of bread and you’re going to sell more loaf of bread to this account,” you make sure that they’ve got the same goals and then you step back and let them work, let them come up with the answers and try and do one of the key parts of sociocracy which is make a decision, try and get that decision accomplished and then measure the results.
Joe Garrison: 06:38 It’s not a game of charismatic leaders dashingly leading, whatever. It’s the socios, it’s the people who work together that can commonly hold decisions.
Jon Mertz: 06:51 It sounds like you don’t have the same kind of organizational politics that are often found in traditional models. Would you agree with that?
Joe Garrison: 06:58 Well, I’d be a liar if I told you that we have no organizational politics and that there’s no under the radar sort of like power structures that emerge. If there’s people involved, you’re going to have some of that, and that’s not necessarily the bad news.
Joe Garrison: 07:17 But I feel like it does wonderful things for keeping everyone at the table. You don’t get the disenchanted … It feels to me, knock on wood, we don’t have nearly the problem with disenchanted workers who think that the boss is kind of a jerk and they’d be just as happy to see his policies fail or succeed. We just don’t have any of that because all the decisions are made with the beautiful thing that is replaced. We don’t do the consensus model, it’s the lack of objection that’s kind of the academic thing right there.
Joe Garrison: 07:57 So let’s say that Susie the baker has a concern about a new policy. We don’t ask Susie, “Hey, Susie, do you love this new idea?” And she has the option of saying, “No, I don’t love it. In fact I’d block it.” That’s consensus kind of stuff there in some cases, I guess.
Joe Garrison: 08:14 What we say instead is, “Hey, Susie, we’ve got this new proposal. What do you think? Do you have any objections to us trying to implement this proposal?” And that puts the pressure on Susie to come up with a reasoned argument for why that proposal might need to be modified or maybe why that proposal is not in keeping with her aims.
Joe Garrison: 08:36 So we go ahead and vote, have a four/three split, and you end up with three people who kind of hope it fails so that they can say “I told you so” at the end. Sociocracy says unless everybody has a lack of objection, then the proposal doesn’t pass.
Jon Mertz: 08:54 Do you ever get to a point where there’s a stalemate, and what do you do if that happens?
Joe Garrison: 08:58 Here’s one that kind of feels like gray area to some people. I’ve heard people say, “But wait, I don’t think that’s fair.” But here’s the example. Say it’s a six/one split when we’ve got one person who has an objection, they’ve voiced it well, and yes, it arguably does connect to what our aim is. Maybe they see something that the other six people are saying, “I hear your argument.” The other six people convince the one that the objection holder has been heard. People don’t just dismiss it out of hand, but they say, “I get it. Here, let me show you. I get your objection. Here’s why I think it’s not valid.”
Joe Garrison: 09:39 We’ve gotten to the point … it was about the size of a certain loaf of bread, how many ounces of dough each loaf was, and one baker was dead certain that if we changed the size, the sales would just disappear. He just so believed that it was the size of the loaf that is essential. Nobody else agreed with him.
Joe Garrison: 09:59 So what we did was with the objector’s consent, we said, “Now, this passes the bar of good enough for now, safe enough to try, and your objection, thank you very much, is the point of measurement. So we’re going to change the size of this loaf, we’re going to start trying to sell them and we’re going to measure if sales decline or not.”
Joe Garrison: 10:21 So we were able to make a contentious decision, we moved ahead, despite the concerns of one, but it was enough for them to have it said, “Okay, you’re the point of measurement. Thank you for helping us to see what the point of measurement is.” This changed my result in the declining sales, and if so, we’ll make a new decision.
Jon Mertz: 10:42 Is there an elected team lead within a circle?
Joe Garrison: 10:45 Yeah, that’s kind of the elegant trick of sociocracy is the emergence of the general circle is the standard sociocratic term for it, so the way that goes is each of the production circles …
Joe Garrison: 10:59 Let’s say for the case of our bakery we’ve got four of them: bread, pastry, kitchen and barista. Each of those circles gets to elect within themselves a representative to the general circle, and they play a role in management, which is kind of like the blue collar union representative. When they’re sitting at a management meeting, they’re wearing the hat which is “I’m going to carry the blue collar production concerns of my department to this management meeting”. That right there gives you four people at the general circle. You know, I’ve got a representative from each of the …
Joe Garrison: 11:36 And so the general circle itself elects a lead for each of those four circles, which plays the role. That person plays the role of the white collar management representing the needs of the board and management in the business. So it kind of feels like cards coming out of invisible places, but suddenly you end up with a general circle, in our case, that has eight people plus the general manager, so you’ve got for each department a lead and a rep, and then you’ve got a general manager that’s elected at the board level, so you’ve got these nine people who do the primary management of the business.
Jon Mertz: 12:20 And is there a term of service? Are elections annual, or is it a longer period of time that they serve in that role?
Joe Garrison: 12:25 The general answer is a year, and boy, I’ve got to say for us it’s just so much messier than that. Life happens, people leave, people have changing commitments. We have some terms that never make it a year, we have some situations where a circle is running well and their attitude is, “Please don’t make us change. This is working great. Let’s just let this run for another year.”
Joe Garrison: 12:55 As long as things are done in the light of day, everybody knows that this is going down and people are given a chance to object, then fine. As long as you have transparency, the facts are commonly held, and if objections are listened to then boy, that’s kind of our governance right there is just be transparent, let people have their say.
Jon Mertz: 13:17 I’m curious. How are those members elected?
Joe Garrison: 13:19 This is another one where for a lot of people it takes looking at it two or three times to have it sink in, but if you look at our chart of organization, everybody who works in the business is a member of one of the production circle: bread, pastry, cook, barista. They may also be an owner, and so they also appear in the owners circle. The owners circle has very limited functions and one of those is to elect four of the dozen owners right now. 13, actually. One more. 13 owners. We send four of those to the board.
Joe Garrison: 13:56 Also sitting on our board is one worker who’s not an owner yet, and then two outside representatives who have an expertise that serves our needs. So we’ve got a seven-person board, four owners, one non-owner, two outside experts, and the board is responsible for giving us feedback on whether we’re living up to our bylaws or not, and overseeing our financial management.
Jon Mertz: 14:23 Does having team member owners on the board make for more transparency? Does it create more accountability within the organizational operations?
Joe Garrison: 14:31 It’s all about doing your housekeeping in the light of day. We really wanted to insulate the financial decision making from the owners circle when we set up our bylaws. So instead of having this closed door session with the owners where they get to determine how the annual patronage, say, is going to be determined, the owners circle is specifically not the one that does that.
Joe Garrison: 14:58 That happens at the board level where you have a non-owner and some outside community members listening in on the decision about patronage, for example, and so you can’t do anything too sneaky because you’ve got to hang your sheets out in the light of day.
Jon Mertz: 15:13 How does the organization as a whole interact with the community outside of the transactional nature of the business?
Joe Garrison: 15:19 We’ve got an interesting project going now which is there’s an alternative high school in our little town that’s helping some young people who would otherwise probably choose to be dropouts come back and actually graduate.
Joe Garrison: 15:35 The teacher of that she’s got, I think, maybe 20 people in her program, and she actually heard a little bit about us and said, “I think you and I have the same problem.” She says, “I want people to get engaged in the system where at the drop of a hat they’re ready for the system to not be fair to them and to not lean in, participate and benefit. How could we collaborate?”
Joe Garrison: 16:05 So they actually have a Scorcher come to these class meetings and just like we do at work, we put one of those big two foot by three foot flip charts up front and somebody facilitates the session in a way that all the information is clearly written in front of the whole room on the flip chart and decisions are made in this collaborative way.
Joe Garrison: 16:31 The project that they’re doing together, one of them is running kind of a small food bank business out of the school, in addition to getting their school work done. It’s a beautiful thing.
Jon Mertz: 16:40 What would you say are some of the big leadership challenges in operating within the sociocracy model?
Joe Garrison: 16:45 One that I keep experiencing is that nobody’s standing around at work. You’re next to a hot oven and you’re moving heavy stuff and you got to hustle, and if you mess up your timing you got 80 kilos of overripe dough. You have a long, hard sweaty day ahead of you no matter what you’re doing in the shop. So when you need to work not on the daily stuff, like, okay, we’ve got to get today’s baguettes made, but on the business, you know what I mean? Okay, we got to budget to replace the walk-in sometime, probably within two years. That compressor motor already sounds like a sack of marbles. Stuff like that, stuff that’s kind of above and beyond.
Joe Garrison: 17:31 What happens a lot is at the end of their shift work, it’s tough to get people to say, “Okay, now we’re going to do two hours of collaborative work on researching the best purveyors of walk-ins and the various options, how we might change the floor plan.” And so what happens is what I think you kind of hinted at earlier, which is hidden power structures step forward to help take action, and often the hidden power structures are wonderful, which is to say they’re giving people who are acting lovingly to do the stuff that needs to be done, despite the fact that everybody’s tired and somebody’s got to get it done.
Joe Garrison: 18:20 It kind of begs for me the question of when you need to have some push and shove in there, sometimes it’s just hard. Somebody’s got to go the extra mile sharing that extra effort out evenly is something that we’re still working on. We tend to have a few people that step forward and do it, which leads to cycles of feelings of martyrdom, and so that’s a problem we’re still working on.
Jon Mertz: 18:48 If I’m an organization that’s beginning to form, and looking at the sociocracy model, what’s your best advice for getting started?
Joe Garrison: 18:55 This is going to be kind of a curve ball, so take it for what it’s worth, but sociocracy, I would say the success for a sociocratic organization is less about learning the rules of sociocracy and applying them. I would say that if you want to have a successful collaboration and maybe that collaboration is going to be the sociocracy, learn about nonviolent communication, and that’s the curve ball right there.
Joe Garrison: 19:23 I’m not so much sold on nonviolent communication being the only way to talk with people. I feel like it’s one of many. But whether you’re in the navy, the top-down thing, or you’re doing sociocracy, or sole proprietorship, or whatever the heck you’re doing, the number one thing I would say is learn how to disabuse yourself of the notion of right and wrong and brilliant leaders and not so brilliant leaders. Learn how to observe what’s actually there and be able to talk about it with other people without the stuff that we’re all taught in school, which is some people are good people, some people are bad people. If you carry that into sociocracy, it’s going to hold you back.
Jon Mertz: 20:12 That’s a good point and a great way to wrap up our conversation. Joe, I really appreciate your insight, you’ve given us a lot to think about with the sociocratic model, and it sounds like you’re doing wonderful things with Blue Scorcher Bakery. I hope to get up to Astoria sometime and stop in and see it in action.
Joe Garrison: 20:28 Thank you, Jon.
Jon Mertz: 20:36 Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World Podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen and share from their favorite podcast platform.
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Jon Mertz: 20:55 Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate world, I’m Jon Mertz.