Category Archives: History and Theory

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.

The Fixer

Many communities—cohousing, religious, etc.—believe that conflict resolution is based on loving and understanding. That if we just care more and understand each other’s needs, conflict will go away. They emphasize how hard this is. “This is the hard work we all need to do.”

Peace workers, in particular, are big on love and understanding and couple attempts to acquire it not only with hard work but with courage. “It takes a lot of courage to sit down one-on-one and have a hard conversation about our common needs.” Conflict is war, peace is understanding. Both require courage, however, so even though we are avoiding war, we are still courageous. Even more courageous.

And how do we acquire love and understanding? Face-to-face. Contact.

The perfect process is face-to-face conversations focused on understanding needs and love is the only solution. Now, in day-to-day living, this is a non-starter in the worst conflicts, and will ensure that many minor but festering conflicts will never be mentioned in public, or not until they are the size of neutron bombs. Some people thrive on face-to-face conversations. Others are drained beyond belief. Plus when living in a community, how many face-to-face conversations can one have in a week and still keep your home and family functioning?

Those who do not thrive on or do not have time for more personal contact will certainly avoid even admitting a conflict. The fear that they would be coaxed into such a conversation, even by trickery from those who are convinced that this is just what you need (as if it were a laxative), be blamed of triangulating because they might express their conflict to someone other than the object of their frustration, or be called out in public as requiring salvation, like a Baptist in a prayer meeting, would ensure that they suffer in silence or leave the community.

You notice that the emphasis amongst the hard-work and courage advocates has been deftly moved from the content of the conflict to the need for love and understanding. Accept the hard work, sit down for the face-to-face, and the wonderous joy will come out. We will be one. Harmony will hold us in its arms. All else will fade away.

Without going into all the research demonstrating that love is not enough, and not even necessary, I’ll say that the method I would like see developed is The Fix. Something like NVC’s 4 steps and more manageable than the 12-step programs. The method used in the Vernon Jordan School of Getting Things Done. It would go something like this:

1. Find a savvy insider who knows what is possible and what is probably not.
2. Talk to Bill.
3. Talk to Monica.
4. Repeat as necessary until everyone is satisfied.

Forget the hard work. Forget the courage. Forget the love and understanding. Focus on the conflict and the people involved. Look around and see if this is systemic. Does it need a limited solution or policy change?

Someone please go for it.

Circle Size

Circles should be of any size that allows inclusive and efficient deliberations, generally no larger than 40 members with 20 being the optimal maximum. While circle policy directly affects the people setting the policies, it is beneficial to have circles of sufficient size to include a range of experience and expertise.

Hierarchies 101

There is nothing about a hierarchy that assumes “the people at the top” are any more intelligent or more highly trained than the people at the bottom. They have a different function, one which requires a specific knowledge base and skill set, not necessarily more of either intelligence or training.

A case in point is a university. The president of a college has, one hopes, a certain kind of knowledge and training. The teaching staff has another kind. Professors are often much better educated in terms of breadth of knowledge, even in certifications and recognitions, than university presidents. Department chairs are not necessarily, and probably not even normally, the most educated or the most intelligent members of their department. (I’m assuming a general definition of “intelligent” as highly knowledgeable with the ability to transfer that knowledge to a wide range of topics. Intelligence is more than memory and diligent processing of research in the field, in other words.)

The brilliance of university presidents is in knowing how to hire and promote people who are smarter than themselves and in knowing when to consult them. That isn’t to say that university presidents do that but for the sake of argument, I’m assuming competence. A president is a person who can conceptualize issues broadly and integrate information from an operational point of view, not necessarily from an academic point of view—and is interested in doing it. Probably 80% of the population has no interest in this at all and only a fraction of  the other 20% are good at it.

Levels of abstraction characterize the levels in a hierarchy. The higher levels think in longer time frames and larger budget categories. An even clearer distinction is that the higher the level the more it is concerned with the meta data of an organization. A university is about education, but what presidents do from day to day has very little to do with educating. Presidents need to understand educational issues but what they are responsible for is facilitating education: obtaining and overseeing the allocation of resources, representing the institution at ceremonial events, guarding public reputation of the institution, etc.

A university president has probably not seen the inside of a classroom in decades. And students only at commencement and while walking across campus. Or in the newspaper when there is trouble.

The value of the sociocratic structure as conceptualized by Gerard Endenburg is that it recognizes this and provides a way for presidents not only to be informed by administrators, professors, and students alike, but to be informed in a way that requires them to listen. The president has specific roles and responsibilities that are governed, directly or indirectly, by the rest of the organization. The president is led by the organization, not the other way around.

The problem of those who advocate the ideas of sociocracy as they establish organizations internationally is to determine how those national organizations will lead the movement, which for decades has been confined to the Sociocratisch Centrum in The Netherlands. Ironically, the principles and methods of sociocracy are being tested as the struggle for the control of ideas is waged. Who controls ideas? Who can teach them?  Can there be an authority apart from the Centrum?

Sociocracy Joining the Mainstream

Sociocracy joining the mainstream would allow it to relate its own methods/ideas/concepts to those of mainstream management theorists and industry leaders. This is crucial to the wider acceptance of sociocracy for two reasons:

1. People relate new ideas to what they already know. That can be to concepts or to names/words.

2. When I explain sociocracy to management people, educators and management consultants, they shrug and say all the best organizations do that. Or that’s been focus of management theory since 1967.

The Mainstream

When sociocracy present ideas as uniquely its own it seems to be appropriating ideas, calling itself unique. In fact, these techniques are common, but sociocracy has a better way to combine the techniques of business with democratic values. Management theory has nothing but (sometimes) good intentions.

If sociocracy were presented with phrases such as “Like Peter Senge, sociocracy advocates……” “As did Peter Drucker said in 1957, sociocracy maintains that….” “X corporation’s strategic plan process is similar to that of sociocratic organizations with one exception.” Then people listen. They open up because they can hear ideas in the context of what they have personally already validated.

That’s why I worked so hard to relate sociocracy to other management theorists in We the People. This hadn’t been done before. The relationships in the book are not complete, partly because of my lack of knowledge of management theory in 2007, not that it’s so huge now, but it was a lot of research because I like to work with original sources. The other reason was because of space. The book couldn’t do two things at once. The immediate need was for a comprehensive guide and handbook on sociocracy with as much context as possible.

Unique to Sociocracy

What is unique to sociocracy, I think, are double linking, moving policy making to the bottom of the organization, and structuring policy and operations decisions not to “higher” and “lower” management, but as separate functions. At the upper levels of well-managed organizations, they are separated, if not by those names and if not always consciously. Policies are most often discussed and adopted in special meetings, often at retreats.

Even the use of consent is not unique to sociocracy. Upper management levels also use consent, though consent may not always be binding—there will be a fall back. The lack of a fallback in sociocracy and the clear definition of what “consent” means, however, are unique. The definition of “unique,” despite the word police who say either it’s unique or it isn’t, is a blurry one. Better said that is that consent is extended universally in the organization and used for many more types of decisions.

Sociocracy won’t be widely accepted until it begins to debate the big ideas in an arena where its own ideas will be heard.

Satisfice: Satisfying & Sufficient

Satisfice (a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice) is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy and not to find an ideal solution.

The word satisfice was created by Herbert Simon in 1947. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely test all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations but attempts to find a solution that is satisfying and suffices in addressing the issue and moving forward.

The Costs of the Optimal Solution

The alternative is to continue to search for a probably elusive perfect solution. A satisficing strategy may often be near optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the decision.

The Principle of Good Enough

Sociocratic literature and trainers often use the Principle of Good Enough to mean satisfying. In software development and systems design, good enough means that a solution meets the clients needs even though a more capable solution is available. But often good enough is perceived negatively  as adequate, acceptable, tolerable, rather than the more positive terms satisfactory, respectable, reasonable, and all right.

In situations where a group is striving for optimal solutions and achievements, good enough may be met with disdain. The standard of satisfying might be more acceptable since it also sets a clear standard. The solution must not only suffice; it must be satisfying.

Often the characteristic that produces satisfaction is the ability of the solution to help a group more forward.

How Many People Know about Sociocracy?

In another post, I just asserted with no evidence what-so-ever that more than 99% of the world’s population had no knowledge of sociocracy, the world’s most deeply democratic method of governance. Someone might have a method of measuring this but I have a quick way.

When I Googled “sociocracy” in 2002, there were 12 pages listed by Google. Most were repeats of links to Kees Boeke’s essay and to the Sociocratisch Centrum site.

Today, as of one minute ago, there were 56,000. The even number is a bit suspect and some are probably to the same site, but the difference between 12 and 56,000 eight years later is certainly significant.

Democracy, on the other hand, returns 66,900,000 pages. Autocracy, 1,360,000.

We have a long way to go.

The Google Count

I recently asserted with no evidence what-so-ever that more than 99% of the world’s population had no knowledge of sociocracy, the world’s most deeply democratic method of governance. Someone might have a method of measuring this, but I have a quick way: I google “Sociocracy.”

When I Googled “sociocracy” in 2002, there were 12 listings by Google. Most were repeats of links to Kees Boeke’s essay, “What Democracy Could Be,” the Twin Oaks community website, and one for the Sociocratisch Centrum site.

On 2 May 2010, there were 56,000. The even number is a bit suspect and some are probably to the same site, but the difference between 12 and 56,000 eight years later is certainly significant.

Democracy, for comparison, returns 66,900,000 pages. Autocracy, 1,360,000.

2 April 2012: 133,000. Quick climb. It took 8 years to get from 12 to 56,000 and only 2 more years to get to 133,000. That’s probably also the effect of compound interest!

26 July 2012: 33,200. They cleaned up their search? Alta Vista has 27,700 so this is probably a more correct number. Bing: 27,300.

20 January 2012: 32,400. Altavista: 48,700. Bing: 49,900.

19 June 2013: 30,600. Bing: 34,100.

16 March 2014: 34,400. Bing: 23,900. First result on Bing is the Encyclopedia Britannica article!?! And the second the page to order We the People.  The searches are getting better with fewer duplicate results.

4 March 2014: 40,410. Page views are up from 651 in January to 3180 in July.

2 September 2014: 32,400. Alta Vista, once considered a more selective search engine used by academics, has been bought by Yahoo. It doesn’t display number of hits. It does something interesting. In the place where there is usually an Ad, for “sociocracy, it has “Ad related to sociocracy.” No ads.

Values and Sociocracy

Equality

When I first learned about sociocracy in 2002 I believed that its value was equality.* The counter argument was that equality wasn’t a value, it was a practicality. People work more efficiently when they have an equal voice in their work. Sociocracy is value-free. It is an empty tool that when used by any organization increases its productivity. My first reaction to that was to suggest that the word tool, with its meaning of penis in vulgar English, was probably not the best image for a decision-making method and empty penis was not a good. I got blank, rather unbelieving stares. Empty tool as of this writing continues to be used.

I retained equality as a value. In and of itself, it was worth something.

Transparency

Next came transparency, the open sharing information. The more I saw consensus decision-making in action and reevaluated previous organizational decision-making experiences, the more I realized that decision-making in general and consensus specifically, is only effective if each person in the organization has access to all available information. In sociocratic organizations transparency is a practice, like logbooks, variable compensation based on performance, etc. All records, with the exception of proprietary information like recipes, are open to all members of the organization and to customers and clients.

As a practice transparency can be modified as it fits the situation, like a logbook that can be modified to fit the needs of the organization. It exists in the technical realm and is negotiable. As a value transparency is right out in front as a measure of all actions, of all decisions. Am I appropriately sharing or withholding? Am I deceiving others? Withholding information on which I am making a decision from others making the same decision is being deceptive in the same way that ignoring people is an act of violence. Openness, like equality, is worth something. An ethical person is open and truthful.

Action, Decisiveness, Effectiveness, Focus

The third value is one that John Buck raised initially as action. He and CT Butler had been discussing their approaches to consensus and governance. CT had argued for the importance of values and John came back convinced and floated equivalence, action, and transparency. I was delighted, but I didn’t think action fit all organizations or was necessarily a good value. Action for the sake of action is doomed and not what sociocracy advocates. I suggested decisiveness. John objected that it could be confused with judging. I tried effectiveness and before he could respond countered with focus. One of the characteristics of the best organizations is their focus on their aims. John agreed.

Values and Sociocracy

Our current understanding of the values of sociocracy: Equivalence, Focus, and Transparency. We are about to find out whether others agree with us. But one thing that we know is that sociocracy and values are words that can appear in the same sentence.

*On the equality vs. equivalent debate: by definition equality and equivalence are synonyms. In mathematics, equivalence is preferred because it emphasizes that two statements can be equal but not the same. In A+B = A+c+x, the two halves are not the same but have the same result. They are equivalent but not equal. Since sociocracy has more to do with the social sciences than with mathematics, I prefer to use equality.

2014 October 1:  Eventually effectiveness won out over focus, and empty tool hasn’t been heard in a while.

The Downside to Standardization

A great concern of the Global Circle of the international sociocratic certification body is and has for many years been convinced that certification is essential to preserving the core principles and their proper application. In addition to a concern about the principles being misapplied and the method misrepresented, the Global Circle is concerned about “sociocracy” becoming like “democracy” — having no definition and the name being used by anyone inaccurately, even deceptively.

Professional associations are a good way to establish standards and credibility in new fields. They can give some measure of assurance to clients that the person they are trusting to reorganize their companies has a certain level of training. Professional associations also form an information and education network for their members — very important functions. Individual certification and professional associations are not just about selling yourself to clients.

To focus only on certification, however, is more likely to produce rigidity than rigor. It has already inhibited the growth of sociocracy.

Gerard Endenburg began developing his method in 1970 and established the Sociocratisch Centrum in 1978 to implement sociocracy in other businesses and in other countries. While there are many companies and at least one international and one national associations using the method, in 2010, there are only two certified consultants in the United States. One is mentoring ~20 people whose aim is to become certified but some, by their own admission, are years away from certification since it requires an active consulting practice.

The Centrum, which has now formed the Global Circle, has been functioning since 1978. The members of the Centrum have not moved sociocracy to the forefront after more than 30 years. Jack Quarter in 2000 reported that there were 15 employees.

To move an individual or an organization to new creative heights requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In this case, the mechanistic thinking of reward/punishment narrows the focus to the details of certification, instead of broadening perspectives and applications of the values and principles of sociocracy. That is the chaos that produces energy.

Is there enough energy in the thinking of the Global Circle to balance the urge toward standardization with the need for integration and testing of sociocratic values, principles, and methods in the wider arena of ideas?

(Originally published 2 April 2010. Revised 24-26 June 2010)

Central Authority?

Does anyone believe that there should be a world-wide hierarchy of double-linked sociocratic organizations?

There definitely are. They don’t perceive the Big Brother implications of this because of consent and double-linking. If an organization, through its double-links can object to the decisions of the world-wide organization, there is no possibility of establishing a dictatorship or placing limitations on that organization. The implications of this kind of thinking for a democratic society, and for sociocratic ideas becoming mainstream are significant.

Since a world-wide organization would have to consent to the circle below it becoming a member, however, this control is not necessarily operable. If an organization wants to extend itself, it would logically follow that the only position it could take is:

You can join us if you are operating sociocratically. If as an organization we need to change or develop, you will become part of the consent process that determines that — but first we have to determine that you are sociocratic according to our standards.

This is a reasonable requirement. One must consent to those with whom they are to make consent decisions. Consent doesn’t work without that agreement.

The problem arises at the point of saying who is sociocratic and who is not.

Some believe that if an organization wants to call themselves sociocratic, they should be certified in the same way that consultants are certified. They understand the ability to trademark “sociocracy” is impossible — one can’t trademark an idea. Nor can one limit the use of a word that has been in use since 1851.

The three-triangles symbol will be trademarked and groups/individuals will have to be certified to use it.

Inherent Conflicts in Democracy

To be a sociocracy, in the same sense that a democracy is a democracy, the principles and methods would have to be adapted to local and national governance. A sociocratic structure would be a radical departure from the way democratic governments are structured today. It might emerge more easily in a country that is just emerging from an autocracy because it could emanate from a single point rather than having to unify several conflicting governance structures as we have in the United States.

In the United States government, policy decisions and the implementation of those decisions are delegated to completely different sets of people: the legislative branch and the executive branch. There is no overlap. (They often are not even on speaking terms.) This produces a system in which an executive unit can inform (and beseech) the legislative unit to set certain policies, but has no control over whether it does so. The legislative units can set policy but can also be thwarted by executive units that fail to implement them or choose to implement them using an interpretation contrary to the aim of the policy.

This necessitates a third unit, the judicial branch, to decide which unit is right. Their basis for settling conflicts is to look the constitution, policies, and previous judicial decisions. The resulting deliberations and arguments can take many years. They are expected to be impartial

In addition to being in units that can easily obstruct the work of another unit, all or most of the leaders in the  United States government are elected by, appointed by, or deeply affiliated with political parties. Since there are effectively only two political parties, Democratic and Republican, this results in a polarity. While party leaders may nominally be elected government officials, the powerful party decision-makers are most likely to be people with money or with professional credentials, like campaign managers. Thus the people who determine, directly or indirectly, who is elected or appointed are not necessarily even a part of the government.

The branches of government are in conflict by definition. They are designed to oversee and regulate each other, not to work together toward common aims. Further conflicts are produced by political party affiliation, each with their own aims, creating divisions with the branches. With no common aim, there is no ability to judge success — and no ability to be successful. The battles are big and the accomplishments small. Not only small, but subject to being overruled by another branch of the government, if not this year, the next. And each leader is subject to being deposed not because of poor service to the government, but to poor service to the party.

In sociocratic organizations, governance, making policy decisions, and operations, implementing those decisions, are not separate in theory or practice. Both functions are carried out by the same people. With the legislative and the executive functions joined, the judicial function of settling disputes between them becomes irrelevant.

Each government unit would combine the functions now performed by committees in the House and Senate and by agencies in the executive branch. Policy and practice would inform each other and share a common aim. It would be self-defeating to write ineffective policies or to purposely ignore policies. Policies would be written within defined domains so pork-barrel additions unrelated to the work of the unit would be impossible.

Government officials would be elected by the government agencies in which they would serve, making political parties irrelevant.

Questions: Where is the guiding hierarchy? Who serves the function of a (good) corporate board? How do the states link to the federal government?

Building Consent — Compromise or Payoffs?

On the demands of its membership, but failing at building consent, the board of a wildlife federation passes a controversial plan to save a wild bird’s threatened habitat but then quietly deletes the budget for legal action. A Senate committee unanimously recommends proposed legislation after amending it until all the committee members have added unrelated perks for their constituencies, bloating the budget with cost overruns. A local bicycle-path organization calls off its protests against a huge, new parking lot when the city promises a wider path in new legislation.

Is this just the push and pull required to reach consent? Rather obviously, I’m going to say no. The wildlife federation board adopted a plan with no teeth. The senate committee has produced a cluttered resource-wasting legislative proposal for actions that have no clear aim. The bicycle-path group has proved themselves easily bought and their values open to manipulation.

All these decisions are failures at building consent. They are compromises and payoffs that will not move any of these groups toward their aims.

A good decision results when each member consents to actively support and implement the proposed action because it moves the group toward its aim. Even in these organizations where the group cannot use consent decision-making effectively — they are too large to deliberate together — the smaller leadership groups could. By building consent, they could have made more effort at good solutions that met all their aims.

Instead, the wildlife federation decision has discouraged action and made the organization look foolish. The cluttered legislative proposal with all its aim-irrelevant provisions, is unlikely to be passed by the larger legislative body, and if passed, not implemented. In the bicycle-path group, in which members often have strong social values, even one trade-off will weaken crucial support for the organization.

Consensus, Compromises, or Pay Offs?

The board of a wildlife federation reaches consensus on a plan to save a threatened wild bird’s habitat by deleting the budget for legal action. A senate committee unanimously recommends proposed legislation after amending it until all the committee members have something they want but that is only tangentially related. A local bike trail organization calls off its protests against a new parking lot when it is promised a wider bike path on a major street.

Is this the same kind of push and pull that is required to reach consensus? Rather obviously, I’m going to say no.

All these solutions are compromises and payoffs that will not move any of these groups toward their aims as effectively as if they had built a consensus. The wildlife federation board’s action plan has no teeth. The senate has produced a cluttered resource-wasting legislative proposal for actions that have no clear aim. The bike trail group has shown themselves to be easily bought and their values open to manipulation.

A consensus decision is characterized by its ability to move the group toward its aim because each member consents only when they can actively support and implement the proposed action. The proposal may not be comprehensive or ideal but under the circumstances, in the eyes of each member, it should be the most effective that can be achieved. By definition, compromises and payoffs do not reach this standard.

The wildlife federation decision may well discourage action altogether and the organization may seem foolish. The cluttered legislative proposal with all its aim-irrelevant provisions, is unlikely to be supported, and if passed, not implemented. In the bike trail group where members often have strong social values, even one trade-off will weaken crucial support for the organization.

Organizations are built by and composed of members. Compromises and pay-offs discourage member support.  If the aim of the organization is to be achieved, its members must still be united after a decision has been made.

Consensus, Compromise, or Pay Offs?

The board of a wildlife federation reaches consensus on a plan to save a threatened wild bird’s habitat by deleting the budget for legal action. A Senate committee unanimously recommends proposed legislation after amending it until all the committee members have something they want but that is only tangentially related. A local bike trail organization calls off its protests against a new parking lot when it is promised a wider bike path on a major street.

Is this the same kind of push and pull that is required to reach consensus? Rather obviously, I’m going to say no.

All these solutions are compromises and payoffs that will not move any of these groups toward their aims as effectively as if they had built a consensus. The wildlife federation board has an action plan with no teeth. The Senate has produced a cluttered resource-wasting legislative proposal for actions that have no clear aim. The bike trail group has shown themselves to be easily bought and their values open to manipulation.

A consensus decision is characterized by its ability to move the group toward its aim because each member consents only when they can actively support and implement the proposed action. The proposal may not be comprehensive or ideal but under the circumstances, in the eyes of each member, it should be both effective and the most effective that can be achieved. By definition, compromises and payoffs do not reach this standard.

The wildlife federation decision may well discourage action altogether and make the organization look foolish. The cluttered legislative proposal with all its aim-irrelevant provisions, is unlikely to be supported, and if passed, not implemented. In the bike trail group where members often have strong social values, even one trade-off will weaken their crucial support for the organization.

Organizations are built by and composed of individual members. Compromises and pay-offs discourage the support of members If the aim of the organization is to be achieved, it can only be achieved by its members, still united as individuals, after the decisions have been made.