This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.
The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.
This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.
Some successful cohousing meal programs require participation by either cooking, preparing, or cleaning once every few weeks. (No one is required to eat.) But other communities that require participation in meal support still have meals infrequently.
A successful program averages 3-4 meals a week and their success is often attributed to organization and leadership. This statement is typical of those programs:
We have a “meals boss” role, the Scheduler. Meals usually a major reason for joining cohousing. A major difference between our community and others is the Scheduler role. We have people who don’t want to ask other people to be on a meal team, and we have people who are afraid they won’t be asked to be on a team. The scheduler assigns people to meal teams, relieving the pressure of asking others and the risk of rejection.
The meals Scheduler takes everyone’s schedule, preferences, and roles they like (cook, assistant, clean-up), and creates the schedule for the next two months. The Scheduler has a “community scheduling time” when anyone interested can come and help with this task. If we drop the centralized planning we will lose at least one meal a week, maybe two.
It is a strategy I think a community could use to jump-start their program, and then talk about how to reduce the centralization after a year or more of successful meals. Since we have quite slowly added new households it is quite clear that our successful meals program is what has helped get more people involved in it.
From the experience of other communities, without leadership, it is probably the reason some decline and others are feeble or never got started. Especially in larger communities where members have little or no experience producing group meals for 25-30 people.
Planning, Leading, and Doing
One of the key sociocratic methods speaks to the advantages of having leaders, in this case a Scheduler or Meals Boss. Sociocracy would create a program in two parts and would never expect anything without leadership, even when one person is doing it alone.
A. POLICY & PLANNING is done with equality and collaboration. Everyone—the membership, the board, a team—sits in a circle (figuratively speaking) with equal authority and respect to decide what they want/need, what it will require, how they will pay for it, and who will do what. They decide who will lead.
This process would usually include:
scheduling an initial ideas-generating meeting,
assigning the writing (or rewriting) of a proposal for a policy or plan by a person or team, done outside the meeting,
holding another meeting to discuss, amend, and adopt the proposal by consensus, and
electing a Leader.
Steps 2 and 3 would be repeated as necessary until a proposal is accepted.
B. OPERATIONS. Implementing the policy and plans. This is usually done fairly autocratically by a leader and people with clear roles. Effective and productive execution needs a leader who can say, “The buck stops here,” a person who is has the authority to make decisions. A person who reports back on whether something works or not.
Leadership might be a shared responsibility between two people but that is sometimes confusing for other people to sort out and it makes communications more difficult. Too many cooks spoil the soup.
Not choosing a leader is often a failure on the part of the membership, board, or team to accept responsibility for making a decision and/or develop and support leaders once chosen.
The operations leader, the doing leader, makes decisions and acts within approved policies and plans. The leader is in charge because everyone decided they were the best available person for the job. Grousing about the Leader will get you nowhere and action will be hit and miss. Supporting the leader is essential or effectiveness. Otherwise productivity will decline.
If a decision comes up that hasn’t been answered by the circle, the leader makes that decision on the spot and “argues about it later.” A special meeting can be called to address the decision or it can wait until the next scheduled meeting. But life can go on because the leader has the authority to make decisions in the moment.
Laird Schaub’s blog is Community and Consensus. In his Monday 18 August 2014 post, “Critique of Sociocracy,” he presents his “reservations” which are deep and well-stated. Some are quite justified and others misunderstandings. Just like anything else, it’s easy to get the wrong information. This is the second of several posts addressing the points I think are valid and those that are at least partly in error.
One of Laird Schaub’s criticisms of sociocracy is that it “does not address emotional input.” I think this depends partly, at least, on what one defines as “emotional input.” One person’s input can be considered personal and overwrought and another’s perfectly logical depending on who is doing the interpreting and labeling. But let’s assume we are talking about objections that seem temperamental, idiosyncratic, heated, etc., with no logical foundation or argument.
Any topic one cares about is likely to raise emotions whether it is a budget issue, loud music at 3:00 am, having a television accessible to children 24/7, or eating meat. People care about things. That’s at least one point of living, right?
I’m not sure any governance system has a method of addressing emotions any more than it has a method for addressing global warming. Governance methods address how an organization will do the work of the organization. They are designed to steer a group of people toward an aim. It is quite likely that many people will have strong emotions about how to do that.
Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?
The process in sociocracy and many other collaborative groups is to clarify concerns or objections and look for ways to resolve them. The input that most would label emotional might take more time during the clarification process than addressing a perceived budget problem. The budget problem might take more time and research in the resolving objections process.
Sociocracy has developed a happy handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. Many sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.
When emotions are felt to be overwhelming in any group, they are often handled personally by friends and facilitators, or by calling in a process consultant, like Laird. In part, the expertise of process consultants is sorting out emotions, the emotions about the emotions, and the underlying causes of emotions. One instance in which consultants are called in almost everywhere is a crisis.
The focus in a crisis is on restoring order when people are devastated by events. While the ultimate aim might be to get back to accomplishing their work, the immediate aim is emotional support. A sociocratic trainer might come in to organize delivering supplies, making decisions about housing, etc. Psychologists, grief workers, and Laird would come in to process emotional reactions and shock.
Like Laird, I have also heard people say, “If you use sociocracy all the emotional stuff ends or never arises.” Right. That’s a hopeful person.
I agree that sociocracy is too trusting in saying that all will go well when the process is understood. The process provides a place for everyone to speak and raise objections. The problem is that many people do not know how or are afraid to express objections which are often full of feeling. There is the tired criticism that some people dominate discussions. Well, they can only do that if other people are silent. Sometimes they are just filling a void.
Rounds give people a time to speak and more people do raise concerns using that process. Some people need more than an opportunity. They don’t have experience speaking in groups and have probably spent most of their lives being discouraged from disagreeing with anything. It takes time to adjust to the fact that they can, should, and are expected to speak up. Even to have an opinion.
Though many people are more insecure in groups than I think has been addressed in the sociocracy, it is also true that many sociocracy trainers have extensive experience facilitating and working with emotions in groups. The fact that emotional processing isn’t addressed as a separate topic doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
In the same way as choosing a mediator, matching a consultant’s experience and interests to the needs of the situation can be important. Some trainers are more experienced in implementing sociocracy in corporate and institutional settings and some are more familiar with community groups and small organizations. There is the method which may be standard, but then there is application to the problem at hand which is practice and is formed by experience.
Emotional Reactions Fade with Success
People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.
The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they don’t go anywhere. They just no longer impede productivity.
Hackman found that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish. A harmonious workplace was Gerard Endenburg’s first aim.
Laird Schaub helped found and has been living in Sandhill Farm, an intentional, income sharing community in Rutledge, Missouri since 1974. His community is very small, less than 10 adults, but his experience is very broad. He has been doing training and consulting in governance and consensus decision-making since 1987. He gives several workshops on decision-making, facilitation, proposal writing, delegation, etc., at the annual Cohousing Association Conferences. He is the Executive Secretary and Development Coordinator of the Foundation for Intentional Communities (FIC) and writes frequently for Communities Magazine. He travels most of the year to work with communities and organizations all over the United States. He does intensive workshops with facilitators who meet once or twice a month over an extended period of time. In short, he’s on the road a lot, on his feet a lot, and has seen a lot. He is also very well-respected.
Laird’s blog is Community and Conensus. In his Monday 18 August 2014 post, “Critique of Sociocracy,” he presents his “reservations” which are deep and well-stated. Some are quite justified and others misunderstandings. Just like anything else, it’s easy to get the wrong information. This is the first of several posts addressing both the points I think are valid and those that are at least partly in error. I’ve divided them into separate posts where the subject changes. Laird has 6 points of contention.
Laird’s reservations are expressed “paying particular attention to how this contrasts with consensus, which is the main horse that sociocracy is stalking.”
Well, true and not true. It is true that for many years consent vs consensus was taught as if they were totally different animals. Not just horse vs zebra, it was elephant vs fruit fly. Having worked with consensus for more than 30 years and having studied the teachings of the major consensus trainers, I never understood this. Consent is given by one person and consensus is the result of multiple instances of consent. Both consent and consensus mean agreement to proceed, not necessarily full agreement to exclusion of other possibilities.
That’s the only meaningful distinction between them that I can find: the singular and the collective plural. Consent vs consensus is more likely to be a comparison between the worst understanding of consensus with the best understanding of consent.
The Singular and the Collective Plural
The distinction between the singular and the collective plural, however, can be meaningful: The emphasis in sociocracy on gaining the consent of each person, “no objections,” rather than the consensus of the group. In sociocracy, the focus is on each individual and their ability to consent to a decision. In groups using consensus, the focus is more likely to be on the ability of each person as part of a group to develop and accept a group decision. “In the best interests of the community” is often heard in groups using consensus.
In sociocracy the standard of consent is more likely to be a question to an individual “can you work with this” or “is this within your range of tolerance.” Not particularly friendly phrases those, but I think one can see the difference.
I’m exaggerating a bit to show what can often be a subtle difference. On the other hand, the recognition of the individual is important as a measurement:
In a small community where everyone lives-in, the standard will be one’s ability to still want to live in the community if the change under consideration is made. “Will you still love having coffee on your balcony in the morning?”
In an intentional community devoted to expressing strong humanitarian or environmental living standards, the question will be “Does this activity violate your sense of the appropriateness in terms of your personal or the community values.”
On the factory floor, the focus will be on one’s ability to perform their job if this change is made. “Will you still be able to move comfortably to finish the final process?”
A Practical vs a Higher Purpose
The focus in all three contexts—a friendly live-in community, a political or values-based community, and a workplace—is whether effectiveness will be impaired. But “effectiveness” in each case is based on a different desired outcome. Consent emphasizes the understanding that a group is a group of individuals who all have to be able to fully commit to a purpose before it can be accomplished optimally. People who use consensus not infrequently have in their hearts and minds a more spiritual union. A commitment to a “higher purpose,” one larger than the individual. Higher even than the group.
A sociocratic organization could adopt a higher purpose statement as a policy decision. Such perceptions are not banned in sociocracy. It is used in a variety of religious organizations. But that belief is not inherent in sociocracy as it is sometimes felt to be in the traditional practice of consensus.
The practice of consensus itself is often regarded as indicating that this group of people is more advanced or of higher morals. This makes tradiitonal consensus unworkable in a workplace. In this sense, consent vs consensus is a meaningful understanding, if not a real difference.
Workplace vs. Social Action Groups
Gerard Endenburg developed the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method to reproduce the traditional consensus model he had lived with at Kees and Betty Boeke’s residential school, the Children’s Community Workshop. Instead of everyone caring for each other, Endenburg needed a definition that worked in the high pressure, fast moving production of electrical engineering systems. People are hired in businesses and other organizations to fulfill roles with specific responsibilities, not to care for the other engineers, whom they probably don’t even know.
In engineering and manufacturing decisions are based on the responsibilities of the person to fulfill their roles and responsibilities, not a perceived higher purpose. But overtime the empathy required to understand the role requirements of each person and appreciation for their insights and support, do create a tighter bond between people.
Because the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method is taught as it developed in Endenburg Electric, and in many other businesses all over the world since the 1970s, the engineering and business vocabularies often overtake the fundamental purpose of using consensus in the first place: collaboration and respect instead of competition and disdain.
Comparing an Elephant to a Fruit Fly
The major distinction is that sociocratic decision-making operates within a governance structure designed to support consensus decision-making. Groups that use traditional consensus typically make many decisions as a full group or are completely flat with all decisions made by the full group. Some have a governance structure loosely and sometimes directly based on conventional social and governance structures designed for majority decision-making. Because of this, they are limited in size.
While comparing consent to traditional consensus isn’t a very meaningful, comparing sociocracy with traditional consensus really is like comparing elephants to fruit flies. One is a governance method and the other a decision-making method and they work synergistically.
Policy vs Operational Decisions
Another difference is that consensus is specifically used only for policy decisions. The operations leader makes day-to-day operations decisions within the policies set by the workgroup. This takes advantage the power of efficient decision-making in the moment and collectively made policy decisions by all members of the work group.
Groups using traditional consensus tend to make almost all decisions as a group and delegation is feared as a re-introduction of autocratic, hierarchical control.
Groups using traditional consensus are also unlikely to apply cybernetic principles or use scientific methods for evaluating the effectiveness of their decisions, but that is a subject for another day. Many of the practices and processes used by sociocracy are also best practices used generally in businesses and organizations.
No Magic in Decision-Making
Neither have magical qualities. Decision-making can be hard no matter what you call it or how you structure it. If it were easy, it wouldn’t need to be taught and wouldn’t need a governance structure at all.
These are both the reasons why sociocracy has been perceived as “stalking consensus” and the reasons why it is not. Sociocracy is an elephant that is dependent on the fruit fly.
(Part 2 is still unwritten and given the amount of time taken to write this, it may be a few days.)
Three new articles discussing inclusion and hierarchies, and other issues raised by the Zappos adoption of Holacracy. These are real articles examining the pros and cons of the promises of Holacracy and sociocracy, not reactions or quotes from press releases.
We desperately need professional, published accounts with full measurements of organizations that have adopted sociocracy. That’s what business people need before they pay attention. Scientifically acceptable measurements. Peer-reviewed and published.
When I recently looked at my stats for the site, I was surprised to find that the most searched and most read page was Policy Decisions. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to distinguish policy decisions from operations decisions when I started writing about sociocracy. Let’s look at standard definitions of policy.
A Policy Is…
Policy is defined variously as a principle or protocol that:
guides the day-to-day “doing” decisions
states an intent or principle of action adopted by a government, business, organization, or person
defines the principles that will guide and determine present and future decisions
outlines an overall plan for general goals and acceptable procedures
defines an organization or team purpose and domain of responsibility and accountability
establishes financial constraints
Origins: Middle English police, government, policy, from Middle French police, police. First Known Use: 15th century.
Allocation of resources—people, facilities, money, etc.
Contracts between people, organizations, etc.
Job or role descriptions
As Opposed to Operations Decisions…
Operations decisions are made to cover day-to-day decisions:
determine a method or way of functioning
mathematical or logical processes that follow rules
a step performed by a computer executing a program
Example: A military action, mission, or maneuver that involves tactical planning and execution (operations) within the bounds of laws (policies) about civilian safety and sovereign boundaries.
Policy Decisions vs Operations Decisions
We often just lump these together and file them away in the notes or our memories. In many offices, there may not even be notes. Just memos, also filed away. Or tacked to a busy bulletin board.
Policies are also most often written by people who are levels and levels above us, at the management level or in academic institutions, the most senior faculty. People we may not even know or interact with. We may never have had to make a policy decision. Personal policy decisions may not be recognized as such. In sociocracy, everyone is expected to make policy decisions so it becomes important to understand what they are, what they do, and that they can be changed.
The sociocratic circular organization method has distinct processes for policy and operations decisions and extends both to all levels or components of an organization. This is fundamental. This practice ensures that in a sociocratic organization, both kinds of decisions are recognized as important in all its units, not just at the top levels. And that policy properly guides operations.
Why Policy Decisions?
Policy decisions are agreements about how we will live and work together. They are often called rules, norms, or codes. And most often they are unconsciously determined. Without conscious decisions on policies that are written and have the consent of everyone they govern, a group is subject to control that is unacknowledged, idiosyncratic, autocratic, and often discriminatory.
The classic essay by Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, analyzes the effect of avoiding policy decisions and recognized leadership. There are always leaders and always policies. But if they are unacknowledged they can’t be corrected. They can’t be improved. They remain an unspoken tyranny.
A wonderful discovery today, “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify,” a TED Talk by Yves Morieux. Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington DC office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and director of the BCG Institute for Organization. He studies how changes in structure can improve motivation for employees.
“Smart Simplicity” uses six key rules that encourage cooperation to solve long-term problems. Not by just reducing costs and increasing profit, but also by maximizing engagement in all levels of the organization.
The focus of Morieux’s work is very compatible with sociocracy. He stresses collaboration over rule-making, self-organization over central authority, and effective action over complex, multi-layered planning.
A 350˚ Increase in Complexity
In his TED Talk, Morieux first critiques the increasingly complex designs for business plans that might have 5 headings with 25 subheadings under each one, resulting in 125 cogent topics, each with numerous subcategories. Combined with an equally complicated workflow and organizational structure chart, it produces a brilliant, mind-numbing, and wholly unimplementable plan. Impressive in good graphics but hopeless in practice.
The need for an emphasis on smart simplicity is supported by a study done by BCG that reported:
We’ve created an “index of complicatedness,” based on surveys of more than 100 U.S. and European listed companies, which measures just how big the problem is.The survey results show that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.
A wonderful part of the video is when he recites an example of such business plans with their myriad of meaningless words. He has the memorization skills of an actor and the facility of a professional fast talker so he got himself through it without notes and within 12 minutes. If he had a teleprompter, speaking that fast would have burned out its circuits.
Feedback Loops & Decentralization
Morieux emphasizes that self-organization is dependent on feedback loops to make decentralization work. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2011, he says:
There are six smart rules. The first three involve enabling—providing the information needed to understand where the problems are and empowering the right people to make good choices. The second three involve impelling—motivating people to apply all their abilities and to cooperate, thanks to feedback loops that expose them as directly as possible to the consequences of their actions. The idea is to make finding solutions to complex performance requirements far more attractive than disengagement, ducking cooperation, or finger-pointing. When the right feedback loops are in place, cumbersome alignment mechanisms, ranging from compliance metrics to the proliferation of committees—can be eliminated, along with their costs, and employees find solutions that create more value.
This is has been an important point for theories of circular organization since the 1970s and for understanding sociocracy. Feedback loops are necessary to implement decentralization and impelling cooperation and self-organization.
Morieux’s Smart Rules
Rule 1: Improve Understanding of What Coworkers Do
Rule 2: Reinforce the People Who Are Integrators
Rule 3: Expand the Amount of Power Available
Rule 4: Increase the Need for Reciprocity
Rule 5: Make Employees Feel the Shadow of the Future
Morieux divides his time between leading research and advising senior executives of multinational corporations and public-sector entities in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific on their strategies and organizational transformations. Hehas been featured in articles on organizational evolution in Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Le Monde.