Switching to Sociocracy in Cohousing Communities

Ecovillage of Loudoun County Virginia which adopted sociocracy when it began organizing in the late 1990s.

Ecovillege of Loudoun County in Virginia was one of the first organizations in the United States to adopt sociocracy in the 1990s when it began. As is true with all governance changes, it is easier to begin with sociocracy than to switch midstream. The “the devil you know” is less risky than taking a chance on a new one, but more communities are fully switching or adopting some of the principles and practices.


Except for those who have switched to sociocracy, cohousing communities use full group consensus as their primary method of decision-making. Decisions are typically made in meetings open to the full membership and with the consent of each person present. As cohousing communities have grown larger, from 12 to more than 50 households, and include increasingly more diverse populations, full group consensus has become ineffective for many, if not most. Making decisions with less than 50 people is very different from 100 or more.

In addition, many communities are more complex. They now have programs that do not involve all members—gardens, chickens, home schooling, yoga groups, etc. Consensus requires a shared aim. Delegating decisions to those who share these aims is a reasonable use of everyone’s time and energy.

Switching to Sociocracy

It is a misconception that communities switching to sociocracy cannot have full group decision-making meetings. When delegating decisions to circles, communities can also delegate decisions to “full circle meetings”, meetings of all the circles. Annual budget approval, for example, is required to be made by all owners in condominiums in Washington DC. Since most cohousing communities are condominiums, this is probably true in other states as well. Another decision that might appropriately belong in a full circle meeting is changing the vision, mission, or aim.

Sociocracy allows communities to keep the collaborative and inclusive qualities of full group decision-making while providing a structure for delegating decisions to sub-groups—committees, teams, circles, etc. Policy decisions and a coordinating structure then guide the sub-groups.

Consent vs. Consensus

While I understand the reasons for opposing consensus with consent, I believe that in the end it is self-defeating. It becomes a battle of definitions and adds a new definition unnecessarily. This distracts from the purpose. By adopting sociocracy, a community adopts a decision-making structure in which consensus more effective. Its principles and practices shift the debate from stalemate to action. It helps organize large communities so they function more effectively as excellent places to live.

Sociocracy Strengthens Consensus

The sociocratic definition of consent is “no objections.” An objection means the proposed action cannot be taken until that objection is resolved—just as it is in full group consensus. Sociocracy uses “consent” to emphasize that the decision is being made by an individual based on their own ability to “live with” the decision. It isn’t based on a hypothetical or projected standard of the “good of the community” as full group consensus practices often does. An objection is made in the context of the aim of the decision, how it affects one’s own participation in the community, and its expression of the communities stated aims (if any).

Consent can be given when there are still concerns and unmet needs but sociocracy values action, moving forward, with what appears to be reasonable decision given the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Concerns, limitations, fears, assumptions, etc.,  can be used to design measurements for evaluating the effects of the decision. Then it can be improved based on results.

The sociocratic circle-organization method is the only one that supports and invigorates consensus decision-making.

Originally written 6 January 2013
Substantially revised 19 April 2014

Citizen Hive and Another Tree

Citizen Hive is a sociocratically governed Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)  in Sweden that describes themselves as part Hub, part Cluster,  and an alternative working and meeting space. Members offer a wide range of services that include interior design, IT solutions, facilitation, legal help, and financial information.

Citizen Hive simply is a miniature reflection of how society is meant to be. …an efficient and transparent organisation that includes and integrates the diversity in society. 

An organisation where equivalence puts the individual; the personal, civic or professional, at the heart of the organisation that they have chosen to participate within, benefit from and contribute towards. Citizen Hive is the space where we can all find our empowerment in favour of a larger purpose – where we can all be leaders—a system that holds that space regardless of the title of an individual, whatever their position would be. 

Their organizational chart on the Citizen Hive organization page is in the form of a tree:

Tree Organizational diagram from Citizen Hive in Sweden.

Many of their diagrams on the site are the shape of the cells in a honeycomb such as the original organizational chart below on their About Us page:


They have very nice definition of sociocracy on their Governance page:

Sociocracy is a holistic approach for inclusive decision-making, efficient governance and the ongoing evaluation and improvement of your team, project, or organization. It fosters empowerment and an attitude where people feel encouraged to experiment, fail and learn.

The reasons for adopting sociocracy:

Citizen Hive has chosen this as our governance system because we want transparency and equivalence in our organization. We believe in self leadership and self governance as means for creating sustainable values to society as within Citizen Hive.

Sociocracy is a social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed through a set of “rules of the game” that bake empowerment into the core of the organization. Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations.

Citizen Hive is facilitating the meeting of a diverse group of people , to start new coöperation projects, and to spark bright ideas. With Sociocracy as a neutral governance system, we believe more fun, sound and sustainable projects can occur, where the individual sovereignty is maintained.

Thanks to Jan Höglund and Michael Göthe
for sending the link to Citizens Hive.

Symbol of Sociocracy?

The power of using a tree as a symbol of sociocracy is not that it turns the hierarchy on its head, which one can do just as easily with the rake diagram. It’s that the tree  is an almost universally positive  living image  and its biology understood. It is universal symbol of life, growth, beauty, and eternity.

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

From the film, Batman Begins, 2005.

A tree demonstrates the circular hierarchy created by the principle of consent and does it without triggering negative reactions. Many people believe “hierarchy” implicitly means “autocratic” and “power over” because that is their only experience.  People are in intentional communities and humanistic lifestyle movements, at least in part, to avoid autocratic hierarchies and to find an alternative. References to “higher” and “lower” circles in sociocracy can end the conversation.

Unit, department, division, council, and board could be used to avoid the higher-lower terminology, but they are still attached to autocratic bureaucracies. Roots, trunk, branches, and leaves just as clearly illustrate the functions and relationship between parts and can be used without triggering negative reactions.

Trees better illustrate  foundations of sociocracy in cybernetics, the study of systems that use communications and control to sustain themselves and adapt to their environment. Each part of the tree communicates its needs to every other part. Each controls the condition of the other. No part can ignore any other part and thrive. No leaves, no roots. No leaves, dead trunk. Damaged trunk, dead roots.

Instructive and Symbolic

Giant Oak TreeA tree is an illustration of a specific process and a symbol of all processes. It is a semi-autonomous, self-organizing system that is self-correcting and well integrated into its environment. The environment feeds and protects the tree while trees protect and provide for the environment.

The lawnmower spark-plug is a good example of consent that removes it from the realm of personal preference. When the spark-plug is dirty, it “withdraws its consent.” It can’t function. Its range of tolerance has been surpassed.  But as a symbol, it doesn’t work. Who wants to think that in order to object, they have to bring the whole system to a halt. If that were true, very few people would ever object and the purpose of objecting, to improve the proposal, would be defeated.

Few can empathize with a lawnmower or a spark-plug. Creating a diagram that looks like a flower with petals for circles is credited with convincing one community to try sociocracy. It was familiar and welcoming.

Recognizing Diversity

There are flowering trees, tall trees, low to the ground trees. Trees that grow on rocks and trees that grow by swamps. There are twisted trees like those in tornado alley that are gnarled and bent sideways but still grow, putting out new leaves every spring. While there are many kinds of trees, each with its own ability to trigger empathic responses, they are still trees.

Row of tree graphics.

Each organization has its own personalities, its own leaves. Its hidden roots.  If tree were the symbol of sociocracy, by choosing a specific tree to be the symbol of its uniqueness, a sociocratic organization would at the same time take on the symbol of sociocracy.

The Tree as a Symbol of Sociocracy

The Ängsbacka Tree, 2014

Circular Organization Tree from Angsbracka workshop, March 2014.

The Circular Organization Tree from Angsbracka workshop, March 2014.

On 25 of March 2014, Sue Bell posted a drawing of the sociocratic circle structure in the form of a tree on the Sociocracy@yahoogroups.com email discussion list.  It was created at the Sociocracy & the Art of Facilitation Training held 24-25 March 2014 at Ängsbacka led by James Priest. Ängsbacka is a well-known conference center in Scandinavia that hosts meetings with the purpose of exploring “sustainable human development and [being] an inspiration for social, personal and global well-being.”

According to Jan Höglund’s blog, subtitled “In search of life-giving ways of working,” the idea for the diagram came from Nova Wegerif, a cook and program leader at Ängsbacka. Nova is the coordinator for the Celebrate Life! Festival, 12-18 July 2014.

The Brighton PermaCulture Tree, 2012

On 26 March 2014, Julian Howell of the UK posted the following message and diagram on the Sociocracy list:

Brighton Permaculture Trust Organizational Chart, 2012

Brighton Permaculture Trust Organizational Chart, 2012

“We came to something similar in Brighton Permaculture Trust (UK) during a envisioning exercise in 2012 where we imagined running sociocratically. We initially drew the structure we hoped to reach in a few years time in a typical top-down format (based on circles and double-linking). People weren’t quite happy until someone suggested turning it upside down. Suddenly it made more Permaculture sense—the ‘top circle’ as the tap-root bringing policy sustenance from the soil environment and feeding it up through the general circle (the trunk) into branches (areas of activities) and projects (‘petals’ as we sometimes call them) which in turn generated operational energy to feed back down to the roots. Something like that. Anyway, it gave more visual importance to the activities that drive Brighton Permaculture Trust and felt right.”

A symbol combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect.

William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (2006)

Since 2002,  I’ve been looking for a symbol of sociocracy that would be a literal image of the circular process and have an emotional impact. Something softer than engineering and systems dynamic diagrams. I used gardening examples and wrote the Green Amigos: How the Circle-archy Works, or Having Fun in Business Again case study as a landscaping company because everyone has some sense of gardening and how plants grow, and enters an almost meditative state in a lovely landscape or on seeing flowers.

Who doesn’t have wonderful memories that involve trees?

I had envisioned the branches and the clusters of leaves as connected circles but dropped the idea because I didn’t see the trunk as the coordinating circle and the tap root as the top circle (board). That is what completed the picture for me as obviously, for others:

  • The Top Circle links an organization to the environment as roots bring new energy from the earth. The roots ground the organization.
  • The Coordinating Circle is the trunk through which energy flows from the roots to the leaves and from the leaves to the roots. The feedback that flows up and down and forms the circular process. The Coordinating Circle is the supporting spine of the organization.
  • The Circles are responsible for serving the purposes of the organization. The branches hold and organize the leaves. The leaves are the most visible and numerous. The leaves transform energy from the sun and provide many services—shade for the plants and animals on the forest floor, removal of toxins from the air, a haven for homes, food, etc.

Trees meet the needs of the environment and in turn the environment nurtures them. The branches and leaves and roots give each other purpose.

There are probably more analogies in there, but I’ve forgotten what I ever knew about tree biology. Cybernetics and the understanding of feedback loops grew out of this kind of thinking. Endenburg used analogical thinking to apply his understanding of  electrical systems engineering social systems to develop sociocracy in order manage his business. I hope we continue this kind of thinking.

More on this topic to come. I was so happy when this appeared on the  list!

Beyond Democracy: The Film by Ted Millich

Beyond Democracy: The Film by Ted Millich is consists of a series of   interviews of international leader and consultants in sociocracy. The interviews were done over a period of several years and some excerpts are available on YouTube. The interviews include Gerard Endenburg, John Buck. and Frank Karsten.

The current draft is available in a 29-minute DVD from Ted at his website. The film has menus and subtitles in English, Dutch, French, and German.

Ted Millich also publishes a video blog on YouTube. (He’s an interesting speaker.)

Worker Co-operatives Correcting Wealth Distribution

Shaila Dewan titled her Times article on worker co-operatives, “Who Needs a Boss?”, undoubtedly reflecting the influence of publicity on Zappo’s recent decision to try Holacracy, a governance method closely related to sociocracy. The flurry of articles and blog entries titled with some variation of “no more bosses” or “no titles” were creations of the press, or perhaps the marketing department, but became very popular. The problem with “no bosses” is that most co-operatives do have bosses and often function quite autocratically. Co-operative ownership doesn’t guarantee worker control.

Organizations need leadership. Daily activities require coordinated and consistent, moment-to-moment decisions (which Holacracy also acknowledges). Better than eliminating leaders or pretending to, is organizing sociocratically as self-owned and self-governed.

Worker Co-operatives

Arizmendi Bakery entranceAt the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco, a co-operative business of 20 or so bakers, the $3.50 for a latte and the $2.75 for their sourdough croissant go to the workers. Each baker makes $24 an hour, more than double the national median, and receives health insurance and paid vacations. While most co-operatives are small, the largest co-operative in the United States, Co-operative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, has more than 2,000 employees. Mondragon Corporation, a Basque co-operative that has more than 60,000 employees and €14 billion in revenue. They have 189 centers in 97 countries, a university for their employees, and sells products in over 150.

In worker co-operatives, the workers own the business, as opposed to consumer co-ops that are typically owned by members who shop at a discount. Historically, the number of worker co-operatives has increased when labor is distressed as it is now.

Correcting the Economy

Dewan reports that internationally, leaders are recognizing that our extremely inequitable income distribution, with its plummeting wages and depletion of low- and middle-income jobs, has no solution in the current capitalist economy. They believe the co-operative business model can correct the economy without a long legislative process or large-scale regulatory reforms.

In his best-selling book on economics, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that the rich will continue to receive the largest share of income, and nothing in our current system will stop it. In support of cooperative efforts, the author of Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Richard Wolff, says, “Don’t distribute income unequally in the first place.”

In February of 2014, a commission in Wales announced that conventional approaches were insufficient for economic development; it needed co-operatives, and the New York City Council held a hearing called “Worker Co-operatives — Is This a Model That Can Lift Families Out of Poverty?”

If worker co-operatives can address the root cause of economic disparity, what will encourage growth in their number and success?

Sociocracy: Co-operative Governance

Diwan reports that research on employee-owned compared to investor-owned businesses have found that they are as good or better. Co-operatives are “more productive, less susceptible to failure, more attentive to quality, and less likely to lay off workers in a downturn.” The employee-owned British retailer John Lewis has almost outpaced its corporate rival, Marks & Spencer.

But these are large well-established co-operatives. Most co-operatives in the United States have about a dozen employees. Because there are few organizations that will loan co-operatives money, growth is often slow and limited to labor-intensive industries with low start-up costs. Banks doubt co-operatives viable business models.

Working World LogoAn exception is the micro-finance company Working World  that loans money to co-operative organizations in Latin America and the United states. Founder Brendan Martin, instead of seeking quick returns, accepts no loan repayments until the borrowing co-operative is on its feet. “We create the real economy, which is slower but it has less risk,”

Often co-operatives struggle because they are unable to pay consultants for management and financial advice or are suspicious of such advice. This suspicion is often warranted because the consultant’s training and experience are likely to come from autocratic, top down, corporations in which investors and top-level management are more important than workers. This bias is often subtle and unrecognized by consultants but is embedded in their assumptions and advice.

The advantage of sociocracy for co-ops is that it provides a fully developed method of co-operative governance, excellent business practices, and a respect for the spirit of co-ops, which value workers as equals.

In sociocracy, each worker is self-organizing and works as a member of a semi-autonomous, self-organizing team. Leaders guide daily operations but work as equals to determine the policies that guide them. The decision-making methods and structure of representation prevents an autocratic hierarchy from developing. Financial records are readily available. Transparency is the norm.

By adopting sociocracy, co-operatives can grow beyond a small number of workers and still avoid the autocratic devaluing of workers and the drop in effectiveness that too often increases with the size of the organization.

Data is from an article, “Who Needs a Boss?” by Shaila Dewan, economics reporter at the New York Times. It appeared on the New York Times website on 25 March 1914 and a version will appear on 30 March 2014 in the Sunday Magazine. Accessed 25 March 2014.

Sociocracy Consulting Group

The Sociocracy Consulting Group, LLC, is an international consulting firm formed in 2013 by several certified consultants including John Buck, the first sociocracy consultant in the United States. It is  a division of the Global Sociocracy Group, with head offices in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

We are a team of passionate believers in equivalence, effectiveness, and transparency. We combine a diversity of backgrounds with a common vision, mission, and aim.

Clients choose us time and again because

  • Their staff becomes more engaged
  • Leaders’ jobs become easier
  • Their financial well-being improves

We create long-term sustainable partnerships with our clients as we help organizations adopt Dynamic Governance as their decision-making and governance method.

Our portfolio of clients is well diversified and includes organizations of all types—from manufacturers to drug researchers; from government agencies to religious groups; from nonprofit associations and schools to cohousing communities and families.

Elegant Organization