For as long as I have been attending professional conferences, there is one topic that always seems to make it on the agenda in one form or another: Change.

Today, the electric utility industry is undergoing a period of rapid and radical change. The way cooperatives respond will determine how, and in some cases whether, they continue to operate.

Now is the time to start embracing this change, and what better place to begin than with your members? I’m a big believer that for any reasonable member request, we should do what we can to say, “Yes.”

This is more important now than ever before.

We must realize that our members have energy choices that didn’t exist just a few years ago. When they come to us with a request for a service change or enhancement, they are giving us insights into what types of services they would be willing to go to an outside vendor for. If we say no, especially with no explanation, it’s only a matter of time before our members begin turning to third parties to meet their needs.

I would point out here that we are seeing a similar trend in the G&T/member co-op relationship regarding power supply contracts and renewables. My advice for G&Ts is the same: Listen to your members and try to find a way to say, “Yes.”

Ultimately, if enough members go outside the co-op for services, the co-op could lose its relevance. Another possibility, though less likely, is a member revolt, which is never pretty.

But there is a third way, and it’s one that comes naturally to us: the cooperative option.

The best way to bring about meaningful, long-lasting change is to have all involved parties take ownership of the change. The chart above may help you to identify where different parties might be at any given point during a time of change. Use this continuum to meet people where they are and make a plan for moving forward.

Remember, it’s okay to acknowledge the anxiety we may feel about adopting change. As the electric utility industry steadily moves from a monopoly model to a more competitive one, our systems will have to adopt a new way of thinking. We have to face the reality that a majority of our members no longer associate co-ops with bringing electricity to rural America. It’s up to us to build a new sense of purpose, and we can do that by reminding ourselves that our members are our owners and they deserve to be listened to.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the co-ops that listen to their members, that embrace change, that say “Yes” will weather this storm and will be around for the long haul.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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