Understanding the history and theory of both democracy and sociocracy provides a deeper understanding of the principles and practices of what a sociocracy or sociocratic democracy might be, and why. Knowing the intention and development of an idea supports the meaningful application of its principles and practices in everyday life.
Since sociocracy was introduced in North America, problems with the name “sociocracy” have hounded it. Unlike European countries, Americans associate sociocracy negatively with “socialism,” sociocracy is harder to say in English than in many other languages. Unfortunately, the rejection of the word “sociocracy” and the use of alternatives continue to confuse the public and obstruct efforts to develop a cohesive image, a “brand” in the current marketing vernacular.
A Solution for Branding Sociocracy
Some of the various names for methods based on the principles fo sociocracy are Dynamic Governance, Bio-Dynamic Governance, Dynamic Self-Governance, Holacracy, and most recently, Circle Forward. All are unique in emphasis and aim but share the same principles. One solution to unifying the field would for all to use a common phrase as a subtitle or in descriptive content. “Implementing the principles of sociocracy” or “an implementation of sociocracy.” This would clarify confusion and unify forces while allowing unique identities, business branding, etc.
Acknowledging a common methodological base would also encourage more dialogue about the nature if that base. This kind of dialogue about methods of teaching and practicing would be valuable to all. It would provide the kind of analysis that is necessary to the further development and application of sociocracy.
I’ve been looking for a new description for Sociocracy.info and have tried several. In reading recent posts on [email protected] and sociocracy-related websites, I found the word collaborative used the most often to describe sociocracy and, perhaps more importantly, to be used consistently with the same meaning:
Collaboration is working with others to achieve a common task and to achieve shared goals. It is more than the intersection of common goals found in co-operative organizations.
Why Not Consent?
The word consent is used by many to describe sociocracy but I haven’t found that people are attracted to it. Some because they don’t know what it means outside of a marriage ceremony, and others because they are afraid of it. They envision long meetings and months of discussion. However fundamental consent is in creating a sociocratic organization only those already familiar with consensus decision-making seem comfortable with it and many of them also want to avoid it.
Consent also doesn’t convey the feeling of a group, of a socius, of a society. It’s singular. I may want my singular rights but a sociocracy isn’t a singular. It is singulars working together, moving in the same direction, accomplishing shared aims. Sociocracy is a set of values, principles, and practices that help people do that.
Collaborative as a word has positive connotations* and without doing a statistical study is desirable to most people—if they also desire to be members of organizations. Not everyone does, particularly in their personal lives.
Collaborative Governance, Not Organization?
Using the word governance provides an opportunity to discuss the meaning of governing, of steering. People generally do not understand what “governance” means. They think it means “government.” Before a sociocracy can be created, the concept of governance must be understood.
While sociocracy is also a method of organizing, the organization is the result, not the aim. What sociocracy does is establish a communications and decision-making structure that can steer an organization so that it accomplishes its aim. That is governance: an ongoing stable structure of relationships between people who self-organize and maintain communications and control in order for an organization to be most effective.
Collaborative organizations are inherently self-organizing. Each person, as an equal, also has to be a leader. Sociocracy is based on a set of values and can be discussed philosophically, but it is about steering and effectiveness, not just organizing.
Sociocracy will make the most impact when governance and leadership are understood.
*The one negative meaning associated with collaboration arises when a person aids an occupying enemy and betrays their own people is called a “collaborator.” Collaborators, however, work as equals and have shared aims. Wartime “collaborators” were not equals and were often treated as inhumanely as their fellow citizens. They sometimes “collaborated” in fear of threats to harm family members, for example.
In collaborative organizations, people are rarely called “collaborators.” They are said “to collaborate” in “collaborative organizations.”
We are 3 months into starting a cohousing community in western MA. We will soon be discussing how we will make group decisions. Consensus and sociocracy seem to be common strategies in cohousing and other intentional communities. Which do you recommend?
“Consensus or Sociocracy?” Is the Wrong Question
(But there are no dumb questions. This one is a very good question and one we hear frequently.)
Sociocracy and consensus are not opposite things.
Consensus is a decision-making method.
Sociocracy is a governance method.
Sociocracy is a governance method based on consensus decision-making.
Sociocracy establishes a structure within which to make policy decisions (the planning and leading) and operations decisions (the doing).
Policy decisions are made by consensus. Operations decisions are made by the leader of the work group or as the circle decides. The circle can also decide to use consensus for day-to-day decisions, the consent of 2-3 circle members, or any other methods it decides work. As long as the decision to use another method is made by consent and reviewed periodically—annually, perhaps.
The sociocratic governance method allows you to delegate decisions to those who are most affected by them and still ensure that they are within the policies of community.
For example, the CH cleaning circle can decide by consensus to change its cleaning days to Sundays instead of Saturdays. That’s a decision they can make without consultation with anyone as long as they follow the policy that any community brunches on Sunday take precedence. (And announce it to the membership so everyone knows what to expect.)
In sociocracy groups are called circles but they can be called anything as long as they are well-defined as decision-making groups with a defined membership and a common aim. All the circles are tied together by a coordinating circle that is composed of members of all the other circles.
The coordinating circle:
makes policy decisions that affect more than one circle
resolves decisions on which circles have been unable to reach consensus, and
does long-range planning—2-5 years.
The coordinating circle includes representatives and leaders of all circles so it provides a larger perspective on difficult, complex, and long-term decisions.
Long-range planning is often missing in Cohousing. And decisions needing a wider range of knowledge go to the larger membership when it isn’t necessary or effective. The Coordinating Circle can fulfill these needs.
Full Membership Meetings
Some communities have misunderstood meetings of he full membership and thus rejected sociocracy. Communities may still reserve some decisions for full circle meetings — all circles meeting together to make decisions on the annual budget, capital improvements, widely contentious issues, etc. Or hold full circle meetings to give feedback to circles or to discuss community issues without making decisions.
Policy decisions are those that affect future actions and decisions — the budget, job descriptions, scope of work, standards, etc.
Operations decisions affect the present, the day-to-day activities and are made usually by the leader or as delegated to members of the circle.
The circles decide how their leader will lead. In a gardening circle, for example, the leader may delegate tasks to people or decide which needs to be done first. Or they may decide to work together on each task. (Our workday participants did this last year with great satisfaction at seeing each job finished much more quickly and completely with no ends left for another day.)
Communications & Steering
Based on cybernetics, the sociocratic governance structure establishes a clear communications and steering structure so decentralized decision-making can work effectively without fragmentation, overlap, or duplication. In small communities where almost constant communication happens in the course a week, this may not seem important.
In larger communities this structure becomes very important. With 60-80 adults, you can’t talk to everyone all the time and the work is more complex — more buildings, more financial accounting, more children, more repairs, more illnesses, etc. Everyone can’t be expected know everything.
Where to Start?
It is very important to establish a governance system from the start—beginning as a full group coordinating circle. Then other circles are formed as the coordinating circle is ready to delegate decisions. People will usually belong to more than one circle. Circles self-organize and make decisions within their domain (area of responsibility).
It is important to distinguish between circles, which make decisions, and work groups that are assigned tasks and bring proposals, information, etc., back to a circle for decision-making.
Sociocracy is a governance method that both requires and is designed to support consensus decision-making. There is no other governance method designed to do this.
By the late-nineteenth century it was clear that the democratic ideal on which the United States had been founded was not producing equal representation even for those allowed to vote. Nor was it providing a rational structure for social or economic leadership—at the local or national levels. Workplaces were autocratic, often brutally so.
The government was dominated by politicians who often had their own interests at heart or were ignorant of democratic values. Often only people who were loyal to party bosses were supported by political parties and anyone without that support was unlikely to be elected, or to stay in office.
At best, the democracy that promised citizens the ability to self-determine, to be free and equal, was ruled by the majority of voters only providing a different kind of autocratic domination for the minority. Since only men of European descent and of a certain status were allowed to vote, the flavor of an aristocracy prevailed in effect if not in practice.
And by the late nineteenth century, science was also beginning to lose its luster. The promises of proof and social improvements had not been realized. And leaders realized that science could be used for anti-social purposes as well as for the public good. It often focused on issues that had little to do with humanitarian concerns.
Frank Ward: Advocating Sociocracy
American sociologist Lester Frank Ward was a vocal advocate of a sociocracy. He proposed a plan that was more likely to be implemented than Comte’s governance by scientists and was more vocal in arguing his points. He was highly critical of the government and the kind of person typically supported by the political parties.
In Ward’s sociocratic society, the government would be advised by an academy of scientists rather than the decision-making body as Comte had suggested. Ward advocated using the rugged individual as an ideal. Individuals who “pulled themselves “by their bootstraps.” If the government learned from and functioned as the highest performing individual did, it would be effective and productive. The individual “should be praised and even imitated.”
Ward himself was such a person. He worked as a clerk and attended college at night to earn degrees in botany and law. Eventually he became a paleontologist for the Federal Government. When he retired at age 65, he became a professor at Brown University. In 1903 he was elected the first president of the International Institute of Sociology and in 1906, the first president of the American Sociological Society. He published widely. It is in support and in criticism of his proposed sociocracy that the word first entered public consciousness.
De christen-pacifist Kees Boeke (1884- 1966) wordt wel ‘onderwijshervormer’ genoemd maar hij beoogde niet minder dan de stichting van een nieuwe wereld. Toen de poging om die gemeenschap te stichten mislukte, besloot Boeke een school te stichten waar de ‘nieuwe wereld’ van de grond af opgebouwd moest worden. Deze unieke school kreeg na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een prominente leerling: prinses Beatrix. De koninklijke aandacht leek de kroon op zijn werk, maar luidde ook het begin in van de ondergang van Kees Boeke en alles waar hij altijd in geloof had.
When WW II began to engulf Europe, the first implementation of sociocracy was achieved. Before the war, Dutch educator Cornelius “Kees” Boeke and his wife, English educator Beatrice “Betty” Cadbury, had been active internationally in Quaker peace education, predominantly in the Middle East. Boeke was a vocal pacifist and spoke against war with Hitler. When WWI began the Boekes were expelled from England. In 1914, they settled in Kees Boeke’s hometown, Bilthoven, a small community in The Netherlands. They continued their peace work, actively supported pacifists, and started several European and International peace organizations.
The First Implementation: The Childrens Community Workshop
In 1926, the Boekes founded the first sociocratic organization. Needing a school for their children, they started the Children’s Community Workshop and began adapting Quaker egalitarian principles to its governance. By 1945, the residential school community had grown to 400 students, staff, and teachers who participated as equals in school functioning and program design. Decisions were made by consensus and no actions taken until everyone agreed. The school still exists and functions according the same principles.
Although confined to the Netherlands and arrested by the Germans during the occupation, Kees Boeke continued to write about the abuses of power that were becoming evident in democracies. His most well-known essay is “Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be.”
In 1978 Endenburg established the Sociocratisch Centrum in Utrecht, later moved to Rotterdam and renamed The Sociocracy Group, and began consulting with many organizations to implement the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method. He also joined the faculty of the school of business at the University of Maastricht and began training business leaders.
In 2014, Endenburg has partially retired but still influences decisions related to the growth of sociocratic organizations world-wide. Students he has trained are now training other consultants internationally. Sociocracy Group centers , organizations, and training programs now exist in the Americas, Europe, and Australia.
Organizations Using Sociocracy
There is no comprehensive list of sociocratic organizations. Most prefer to be known for their work, not how they make decisions. The now include national and international associations, building and manufacturing companies, health care services, public school systems, villages, private schools, Buddhist monasteries, software companies, residential communities, colleges, a wholesale florist company, veterinary offices, and consulting firms.
They are spread over North and South America, all the countries of Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and developing in Africa and Asia.
In addition to consultants working internationally to help organizations implement the method there are a growing number of websites with resources, guides to training and consultants, and social connections. A network of sociocratic organizations and individuals is being formed to increase general awareness of sociocratic principles and methods.
The origins of sociocracy began in the mid-nineteenth century with French philosopher Auguste Comte who had developed sociology, the study of people in social groups. The root word for both “sociology” and “sociocracy” is the Latin, socius, which means associates or companions. The suffix “-ology” means the “study of” as in archeology, psychology, etc. The suffix “-ocracy” means “to govern,” governance by associates, companions.
Why a Sociocracy?
Following almost a century of political revolutions in which monarchies and aristocracies were overturned or stripped of power, Comte was searching for a rational basis for government. Governance on the basis of inherited rights, personal wealth, religious dictates, and military power had all proven corruptible and not in the interests of the people.
Comte had developed a philosophy called “positivism” in which knowledge is based on what is known of the natural world, of what could be proven and not what a monarch or the church decreed. He believed that a society governed by scientists could use scientific method to decide the best social and economic policies.
Limitations of an Ideal
Sociology remained an ideal, however, because Comte was a philosopher, a theorist. Implementation would need the rhetorical skills of a political critic and an educator.
Collaborative, collective, and cooperative are words often used interchangeably. When I hear them I wonder which one the speaker or writer means. I use them interchangeably too, sort of giving equal time to all of them. I have a preference for cooperative because it seems to have fewer political overtones than collective, and collaborative reminds me of clabber. It sticks in my throat.
The Problem with Dictionaries
The dictionary definitions of these three words don’t help very much because they tend to give each as a synonyms of the other, particularly collaborative with collective and collective with cooperative. Remember when dictionaries told you which word was correct? They might have been too proscriptive but at least they preserved the precision of language.
There is great value in language becoming new with inventive applications and combinations that play off the original, but smushing words together with no regard for distinct word origins and historical use is not inventive. It’s lazy.
So I decided not to be lazy and look for something that did more than reflect how words are used whether the usage is meaningful or not.
Collaborative Collective Cooperative
On distinctions between collaborative, collective, and cooperative, journals in education are the clearest—with economics, sociology, and political science not very much interested—at least as far as I was willing to go in a Sunday afternoon library search. In education the distinctions become important because educators are teaching skills. To teach skills you have to be clear what you are teaching and what you need to accomplish. educators have learned that:
One can design a collaborative task in which there is no collective learning and reward coöperation without producing collaboration.
According to dictionary definitions this sentence is gibberish. In reality it is very meaningful and in seeking to develop sociocratic societies, crucial. Self-organizing people may be cooperative but not have the skills to collaborate well enough to produce a collective result.
Collaboration is sharing knowledge or services with others on the solution to a problem, an investigation of an event, or development of a product. Collaboration doesn’t mean necessarily that people are working together in unison. They contribute in a way that helps others accomplish very different aims. They may be working toward the same aim in their own domain, but not necessarily.
Collaboration does not require that each person contribute equally to a task but means they all share what they can that will help to accomplish each other’s goals.
Collective refers to actions done as a group. A Corn Collective grows, picks, and sells corn. A Collective to Stop Hunger in Chicago, will be composed of people working together on projects that serve the aim. Members function more or less as equals in the sense that they work together and the company or resources are typically not owned by someone else. They have both unity of ambition and self-determination.
In the education program where students learned to work collaboratively but not collectively, most individuals were able to contribute in tasks but some were not able to function as a member of a group that accomplished a particular task. Some students remained individual collaborators.
Cooperative means people are willing and able to accommodate and support others. A cooperative person may not have a common aim with another person or group, but they are tolerant and helpful. They are not generally belligerent or refusing to participate.
In cooperative organizations, like food coops, there are many different kinds of participants— customers, investors, workers, managers, governing bodies, etc. They are not collaborators because they aren’t independently sharing information or tasks. They aren’t a collective because they aren’t all doing the same thing or have the same socio-economic interests.
They all assume a role and often make a commitment to make the food coop successful, but they do so as individuals with individual aims—individuals in that each one serves their own needs differently even though they all eat food. They often don’t know each other.
Of Course …
Of course all these words have noun, adjective, and verb forms and secondary meanings that confuse things. This exercise, however, was useful to me in making distinctions between the skills required to participate in collaborative, collective, or cooperative organizations.
In the end, sociocratic organizations could be any of these. Since sociocracy is a governance system that can be adapted to any form of organization, it can be adapted to collaboratives, collectives, or cooperatives.
The question is the method inherently collaborative? Collaborative is the hot word these days. People like it and I see it in many places in descriptions of sociocracy. I’m not sure any of these words is appropriate in a general application. Organizing sociocratically doesn’t necessarily make an organization collaborative, collective, or cooperative. But it does encourage all three.
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.
If you think you don’t need policies and leaders, read “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman.
(I realize I’ve posted the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” before but it truly is a wonderful analysis of what “really” happens in leaderless groups — it becomes personality driven or ineffective.)
If you do implement a leadership program in a meals program in cohousing or other community, please let me know how it goes.
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.
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.
In a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.
After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:
Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment
Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.
In Meetings and Conversations
Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
Encourage people in finding their own answers
Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no risk, no innovation.
Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
Actively share information. Practice transparency.
Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.
Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them. Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.
The link below is to a webinar, Introduction to Holacracy, by Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy. It is very well done, a good introduction to Holacracy—very clear and not obtuse theorizing. Since much of the structure of Holacracy is the same a sociocracy, it will also help in the understanding sociocracy.
As a former software programmer, Robertson uses the operating system as an analogy. Holacracy is the operating system and the specifics of the products or services the organization provides are the applications. Microsoft Word enables people using the Mac OS or Windows operating systems to produce documents. Adobe Illustrator allows them to produce drawings.
Unlike sociocracy, Holacracy does not have a compensation system. The compensation policies and structure would be an application that each company would design for itself.
Holacracy does not use consent but it also seems not to override objections. Each proposal must have a tangible example of how it will enable or prevent something from happening. The adoption of a policy is based on how the proposed action will negatively affect the team or individual roles within the team. Such negative effects and all other descriptions have to be tangible well-grounded arguments, not abstractions or hypotheticals. When there are no further objections, the policy is adopted but there is no consent round, which is inferred to be a vote.
Since roles and domains of decision-making are so clearly defined, it is easer to see that proposals “belong” to one person’s role or to a set of roles. It isn’t up to anyone else to decide whether a role needs this proposed action, only whether this action will negatively affect any other role.
An informed article by “Schumpeter” (no first name available), The Holes in Holacracy, included in the print edition as well as online. Schumpeter’s points are really about new branded methods failing. They are gone in 10 years. (Sociocracy on which Holacracy is based has not failed in 40 years.)
EVERY so often a company emerges from the herd to be lauded as the embodiment of leading-edge management thinking. Think of Toyota and its lean manufacturing system, say, or GE and Six Sigma excellence. The latest candidate for apotheosis is Zappos, an online vendor of shoes and clothes (owned by Amazon), which believes that happy workers breed happy customers. Tony Hsieh, its boss, said last year that he will turn the firm into a “holacracy”, replacing its hierarchy with a more democratic system of overlapping, self-organising teams. Until Zappos embraced it, no big company had taken holacracy seriously. Indeed, not all of Zappos’ 1,500-strong workforce are convinced that it can work…
Will conquering Zappos help holacracy thrive in the brutally competitive market for management ideas? There is good reason to be skeptical. “Nine-tenths of the approximately 100 branded management ideas I’ve studied lost their popularity within a decade or so,” wrote Julian Birkinshaw of London Business School in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. Among the latest cast-offs, it seems, is Google’s much-admired “20% time”, in which workers got a day a week to work on their own projects; the company is reported to be quietly sidelining it.
One of the newsletters I read is AlertBox from the Nielsen Norman Group, Jakob Nielson has long been considered the expert on website usability. NN/g does extensive research for major corporations makes the information available to the public. His newsletter this morning included a piece on trends in intranet portals, which make extensive corporate information available for use by employees. In this report I came across a surprise—a section on governance! Most often such reports refer to “management.” This one out and out uses “governance,” talks about “roles” as central in governance, and stresses that in the last year, decentralized governance has been found increasingly beneficial.
Governance Becoming More Decentralized
As enterprise portals mature and grow so does the need for more structured, yet disbursed, portal governance. Portal teams are learning that since the intranet portal touches all layers of the organization, so should the governance. The new case studies reveal a move toward a decentralized or matrix governance model, as opposed to past years where governance was more centralized — being created, communicated, and policed by the enterprise portal owners.
Some organizations find themselves creating governance where once there was none, while others flesh out more specific details of their portal governance structure to accommodate touch points across the organization.
For example, the Carle Foundation has created a governance structure that is both formal and flexible, with defined roles, responsibilities, and workflows. The governance team is drawn from all levels of the organization and has assigned tasks to staff from nearly every operational area across the organization. From the senior sponsor to the individual content contributor everyone has a role to play in ensuring the upkeep and ongoing development of the intranet portal.
Governance, like most aspects of portal development, is marathon not a sprint, and portal teams realize that governance must evolve, as does the portal. (Emphasis added.)
NN/g’s recommendations are based on 83 intranet portals. The corporations studied in this research report were:
The Carle Foundation
City of Olathe, Kansas
Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
FDC Solutions, Inc.
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V.
Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute
Municipal Design and Survey Unitary Enterprise “Minskinzhproekt”
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
With connecting over needs and empathizing with feelings going on, people don’t get hung up on strategies. Why not table discussion of strategies until there is universal agreement that all parties fully and deeply understand and appreciate each other’s feelings and needs, then strategies need not be points of conflict— but of creativity to find solutions that work for all.
The reason Gerard was unable to use Kees Boeke’s style of consensus decision-making is that in the workplace, people are not interested in or expected to connect over [emotional] needs or empathize with feelings. A business generally can’t wait until everyone, in Boeke’s words “loves and trusts” each other, or stop the work for personal conflict resolution. An organization might require this and it might be necessary when a problem is clearly about emotional reactions between two people or a group of people and it is seriously affecting productivity in a small business or a work unit. But normally tensions unrelated to the aim/role/job probably need other resolutions. But this is not properly the role of the circle or the operations leader to resolve, though they may. The work can usually not be set aside until this is resolved.
Clear Aims and Conflict Resolution
Not expecting people to make connections at an emotional level allows more people and more diverse people to work together in a job situation. Clear aims and roles prevent many conflicts from occurring. Many if not most conflicts are not the result of interpersonal misunderstandings but lack of clarity in the organization, the environment.
A difference in aim affects the approach to conflict used. In a community, the emotional needs/reactions of members (except in case of pathology) often is the aim of the community. In this case it would be the work of the community and part of the governance of the community. Non-Violent Communication (NVC) could easily be the method of choice for addressing this kind of situation. Some cohousing professionals, for example, are recommending that all members of a new community have such training. A designated person, external or internal, might be identified to fill this role.
NVC and Sociocracy
We’ve had a lot of discussion on the [email protected] list about NVC and sociocracy. A few years ago some people were equating them. They are not the same class of things. They are not inter-changeable. Sociocracy is a method of designing and managing organizations effectively. NVC is a technique for sorting out needs and identifying means of addressing them. They are complimentary but have different aims.
Personal trust and empathy won’t address all conflicts and expectations that may be present. And it isn’t always possible or necessary for effective action.