Category Archives: Sociocracy Where We Live

In no other place than in our homes and our neighborhoods is it so important that we have control over our lives and understand how to self-organize for the benefit of ourselves and our communities. Practicing sociocratic governance develops leadership, harmony, and strength. Sociocracy can bring harmony to cohousing, condos, coops, and neighborhoods. “Sociocracy Where We Live” is about adapting sociocratic principles and practices to our home lives.

Consensus and Personal Preferences

Personally I object to the use of the word “block” as synonymous with “objection” and this entry explains some of the reasons why.

What is a block? This is not a facetious question. If this is the word people want to use, what does it mean? From the accounts on the Cohousing-L email discussion list between cohousing communities that  uniformly use consent/consensus decision-making, block is used to describe an objection is more a veto. The discussion goes like this:

First the word block is used to describe someone who after much discussion still doesn’t consent to a proposal. Almost inevitably, a block is explained as being based on personal preferences. It’s the personal preferences that seem to be the problem. A “valid block” has to be based on community values. If it isn’t, it is based on personal preferences it is an “invalid block.”

Since a block is an objection based on personal preferences, rather than community values, a skilled facilitator is needed to step in and “fix” it. A magician to assert community values. Someone who can persuade the unpersuadable.

Objections in sociocracy are based on logical arguments and not personal preferences, but in a community where one lives, an objection based on personal preferences may be perfectly logical and thus valid. For example, the right to object to a tree being planted in front of the only window on the north side of your unit. Since your unit only has two exterior walls, north and south, and your personal preferences are to have light and to be able to see the rest of the community from your window, do you have the right to object or are these personal preferences? Others  want a tree there to balance the landscape and address water drainage issues, but these are also personal preferences because there are other ways to balance the landscape and solve drainage issues. Whose personal preferences are based  on community values and whose are not?

Values are important. They give purpose to life. They make us human. Values are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Values have to be translated into actions before they are more than words that make us feel good. For example:

— We value the lives of birds so we will feed them all winter.
— We value the lives of birds so we won’t allow outdoor cats.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have a large bird sanctuary in the common house.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have outdoor cats to reduce the population to a manageable level rather than having them starve.

All of these actions are based on valuing birds. Many actions will rely on  many personal preferences about how to express values. Which result best addresses the value. The key is on what basis will success be determined? Feeding birds all winter is considered to be dangerous to birds because they become dependent on being fed. If the action is to restrict outdoor cats, will that accomplish the purpose? Is a bird sanctuary really any life for a bird? How in danger is the bird population anyway?

What is the aim of valuing birds? Why do you value them? An action is something you can measure. Without measuring whether the aim is being achieved, it won’t be clear that it is being accomplished.  The what and the how is the decision that can be done on the basis of logical argument and then improved by trial and error.  But the aim has to be clear for that to happen, not just the values.

Conditions for Consensus Decision-Making

The people who consent to a proposal also have personal preferences. Weren’t their preferences blocking the preferences of the person who is labelled as blocking? Isn’t this just majority vote but the majority wants everyone to go along because another value is consensus in decision-making?

Consensus decision-making only works when

  1. everyone has a common aim,
  2. is willing and able to deliberate together long enough to resolve all objections, and
  3. chooses to make decisions with this group.

It is said that consensus can’t work in cohousing communities because people can’t choose with whom they make decisions. But the premise of cohousing is that one has chosen to make decisions with everyone who lives there—a diverse, self-selecting group. That group, however, still needs to have a common aim in relation to the decision being made and they still have to sit together long enough to resolve objections.

Consent and objections in sociocracy are based on the ability of the person to support/respect/implement the actions required by the proposal. The ability to do that may indeed be based on personal preferences. If planting  a tree in front of a window causes a person to move away because they can’t do their job of being a good community member, whose  actions have supported the values of the community.

Vision, Mission, Aim

Values relate to a vision statement. A vision is a dream. It’s what you want the world to be. A vision is intangible and not a good plan for action. Measurements based on visions and values will always be based on person preference. You need more: a Mission.

For those reading this website, the mission will probably be cohousing or cohousing plus ___. Plus a bakery, an eco-village, a home school, etc.

The vision and mission together lead to the aim. The aim is the tangible basis for taking action. Actions can be measured to determine their success. Did that action achieve our aim? How do we need to improve it?

I think groups may be trying to make decisions based on their vision, not their aim. What is called a “personal preference” is really a values issue and can’t be measured as valid or invalid. Though values may guide actions, only actions and results can be measured. The resolution of objections should be focused on the aim of the proposal, how to accomplish it, and how to measure the results. Is the aim shared by everyone? Who decided that?

If there is no common aim, how can there be a consensus? If the proposal has no aim, no measurable result, how can it be useful?

The problem with “blocks” is usually:

  1. lack of a common or well-defined aim and/or
  2. avoidance of using a more appropriate decision-making method, like preference rating or majority vote.

Unless the group can meet all the conditions necessary to use consensus, “blocks” will continue to occur as the result of trying to use a decision-making method that isn’t appropriate.

Consensus or Sociocracy?

Drop Cap Letter QWe 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.

  1. Consensus is a decision-making method.
  2. Sociocracy is a governance method.
  3. 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.

Delegation

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.)

Coordinating Circle

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:

  1. makes policy decisions that affect more than one circle
  2. resolves decisions on which circles have been unable to reach consensus, and
  3. 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.

Leadership

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.

Cohousing Meal Programs and Leadership

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:

  1. scheduling an initial ideas-generating meeting,
  2. assigning the writing (or rewriting) of a proposal for a policy or plan by a person or team, done outside the meeting,
  3. holding another meeting to discuss, amend, and adopt the proposal by consensus, and
  4. 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.

Consent vs Consensus : Laird Schaub on Sociocracy

Laird Schaub
Laird Schaub

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.

Stalking Consensus

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.)

Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn 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.

Switching to Sociocracy in Cohousing Communities

 

Ecovillage of Loudoun County
Ecovillege of Loudoun County in Virginia was one of the first in the to adopt sociocracy when it began in the 1990s.

As is true with all governance changes, it is easier to begin with sociocracy than to switch midstream. Communities tend to stick with “the devil they know” rather than take a chance on a new one, but more and more and more communities are switching full scale 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

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Massachusetts, US

Jerry Koch GonzalezJerry Koch-Gonzalez is a certified sociocracy consultant  and  partner in the Sociocracy Consulting Group. His focus is individual and organizational development in governance, decision-making, communication skills, and conflict resolution. His career has been in  organizing, educating, and consulting for social justice.

The approaches he uses are sociocracy/dynamic governance, Non-Violent Communication and Mediation, Restorative Circles, and Transformational Mediation. The organizations with which he has worked include Movement for a New Society, the National Coalition Building Institute, DiversityWorks, Cambridge Youth Peace & Justice Corps, Lesley College Center for Peaceable Schools, Boston College Center for Social Justice, Spirit in Action, United for a Fair Economy and Class Action.

Pioneer Valley CohousingTeaching and implementing sociocracy in intentional community is one of Jerry’s areas of focus. The cohousing communities and community leaders with whom he has worked include Pioneer Valley Cohousing Community (where he has lived since its founding in 1994), Green Haven (CT), Champlain Valley (VT), Burlington (VT), Pathways (MA), Jamaica Plain (MA), Cambridge (MA), and Cornerstone (MA). He is also active in New England Non-Violent Communication.

Jerry is a partner in the Sociocracy Consulting Group and publishes a blog, Both-And Consulting.

Outside Experts on the Board of Directors

Image from the Getty Museum of a Council of war from the 19th century.Residential communities customarily do not have board of directors members from outside the organization. Corporations normally do, but they may not be chosen by their ability to balance expertise. Non-profit organizations and independent schools often choose board members based on their ability to raise money or influence government or foundation decision-makers.

Balanced Expertise

Balanced expertise on the board of directors steers the organization from multiple perspectives. Balance can be achieved with experts on larger community issues, on financial and  legal requirements, and areas specifically related to the mission and aim of the organization. An independent school would have an expert in education, perhaps fundraising, perhaps child development, etc. A soup kitchen will benefit from experts in food service and preparation, nutrition, perhaps motivation, perhaps efficiency in service.

From Outside

Outside expert directors can bring advice and judgements that are not influenced by possible internal biases. And they contribute new information. They cross-pollinate with ideas and cautions learned from other organizations. Condo leaders to other condo leaders. An outside expert in housing would bring information from government agencies, architects, financial institutions, etc. They may be better able to identify possible risks to the organization.

Diversity of experience is as important as technical expertise. Outside experts also relax the organization. They can confirm that the organization is following best practices and any problems are, or are not, being experienced by other organizations,

On the Board

The importance of having experts on the board of directors is the synergy created by discussion. Most organizations have a lawyer on retainer, an accountant, an insurance broker, a banker, etc. When they are on the board, however, they respond to questions and issues together, not in isolation. The legal expert comments on the advice of the food service expert. Concerns by one expert about the effect of a decision on another expert’s area can be answered in the moment. The advice of one raises concerns for another that can be discussed and resolved. The concerns of one can be resolved by a solution from another.

Even though it may seem costly and time consuming in the end it saves time. Normally a board of Directors meets 3-4 times a year for 1-2 hours. For non-profit organizations, there may be no charge for this time. In businesses, these experts are often on retainers already. In the end the time saved by not having individual meetings or telephone calls. Saved time from having to repeat conversations or making costly mistakes pay for themselves. The increased value of having more informed advice is invaluable.

With Decision-Making Authority

It is important that boards are not advisory. Decision-making authority creates accountability. Decision-makers take decisions more seriously than advisors. Some fear that decision-making power will create a board-dominated organization. That the attempt to create a more democratic organization will be undermined by “outsiders” who impose negative opinions.

However, in a sociocratic system, boards make decisions within their specific domain. The domain of the board is long-term strategic planning, financial sustainability, assessing risk, and connections to the larger environment—its market or industry. The board can be asked to make a decision when another domain is unable to resolve it. Otherwise, the board should not micro-manage or make autocratic decisions except in emergencies.

As Part of a Whole System

An organization is a system with each part having a responsibility that is essential to the whole. The whole controls its parts. The board of directors is one part of a whole system, not the controller. The board has a different responsibility than the marketing department or the kitchen or the front desk but not more power.

Outside members on the Board of Directors strengthen the organization.

(In sociocracy, what most jurisdictions call a “Board of Directors” is called a “Top Circle” to emphasize that it functions according to the rules for a circle, not the traditional rules of a Board of Directors. When a Board with the traditional rights is required by law, it is formed within the Top Circle.)

Homeowner Association Boards (HOA)

blog post on the tyranny of homeowners association boards sparked a chord of frustration and disdain in me this morning. The blog post was by Jonathan Nettler, “The Tyranny of America’s Homeowners Associations,” on the Planitizen website, “a public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design, and development community.”

Nettler’s post selectively quotes a post by Kaid Benfield, “Coercion by Contract: How Homeowners Associations Stifle Expression, Sustainablity” on the Natural Resources Defense Council site for staff blogs, Switchboard. Benfield’s original post is much more  balanced than Nettler’s quote that portrays condominium boards as equal to Nazi’s in style and substance. It was Nettler’s distortion that was frustratingly passive aggressive.

Who Rules Homeowners Associations?

The problem with associations of homeowners, when there is one, is not the board, but the homeowners themselves. HOAs are self-governing. The state in which they are established generally has few regulations, usually limited to disclosure and owners rights. These are totally minimal compared to what homeowners themselves establish. The board can only enforce the regulations the homeowners have approved.

New homeowners agree to follow the HOA regulations when they sign their contracts. One presumes that these are adults who are beyond the age of consent and can read. They rule themselves.

Self-Governing Democracies

One of the tragedies of life is the lack of understanding of self-governance. In the years between 1850 and 1950 when people were struggling to build new democratic governments out of the aftermath of revolutions, the right to self-governance was hard-won. The refrain of progressive education in the early part of the 20th century was the importance of universal education in order to maintain a democracy. Civics was a required study on high schools. I don’t remember the statistics but this is no longer true.

Self-governance requires knowledge. The skills and understanding have to start in the family, the neighborhood, the schools, and villages. Whether a homeowners association is responsive to the needs of residents, depends on the residents, and on their ability to self-govern.

Do Condo Boards Have Any Power?

A homeowners association board only has as much power as the homeowners give it, and the only people on the board are the ones the homeowners elect. Objecting is hard but it’s the only way to confront the issue of badly performing board members.

Board members are people who have the same skills and deficiencies that each of us has. They are not miracle workers. They need help and support too.

The Buck Does Not Stop at Voting

Voting is not enough to ensure that our associations are democratic. Voting is actually nothing. What is important is the day to day understanding of what decisions are being made, how they are made, and evaluation of their results. It’s a living process, not a voting booth process—though attention to voting would be a start.

After serving on a condo board, I understand completely why board members become Condo Commandos: the behavior of homeowners. They don’t participate, don’t educate themselves, and don’t pay attention even to the financial health of the communities in which they have invested both financially and personally.

Self-Governance Requires Self-Education

It takes lot of work to make the decisions board members have to make. It can be overwhelming to do all the research and study that each decision takes. On top if it, to have to gently coax homeowners (or jerk them up by their collars) to make them pay attention is more than most board members have time for.

Being a board member means giving up many evenings and weekends to do the work required. Homeowners have to do the same in order to develop and protect a community they would be happy living in.

Each homeowner, like each citizen, has to self-educate if they want to self-govern. They need to help board members make good decisions. What many people do is leave the decision-making to someone else then sit around and complain about tyrants.

Consensus: Community or Decision-Making

Q: Discussions of consensus on cohousing discussion lists seem to be focused on or limited to facilitated, time-bound, decision-making events rather than building a culture of relationships in a community. Is this intentional?

Questions about consensus generally do focus on the technicalities and problems of using consensus to make decisions in meetings. And building community is one objective of using consensus because it ensures that the interests of everyone will be taken into consideration. However, cohousing communities, as opposed to other kinds of intentional communities, try to avoid ideologies or anything that might appear to be an ideology. Cohousing groups also vary widely on the degree of community that is expected of members and members vary widely on how they participate in the community. Diversity is welcomed even in this respect, though perhaps not by all.

Since consensus (or sense of the meeting) and peace as daily practices are most often associated with the teachings of the Quaker church, anything reminiscent of this becomes touchy.

Even sociocracy (dynamic governance), the only governance method designed to use consensus decision-making tends to discuss it as a tool, not a socially desirable objective. The official sociocratic organization, the Sociocratisch Centrum in Rotterdam, and its certification program focus specifically on how to implement the method in to design and govern better organizations, not to produce a better society. Even equivalence is presented simply as the best way to create a harmonious organization. Their desire is to have sociocracy taught in as many kinds of organizations as possible and to develop a sociocratic society. This aim requires not adopting any cultural messages that might be interpreted as religious. This is one reason they prefer to refer to “consent” decision-making and to avoid the word consensus. Its connotations are too inclusive.

While sociocratic methods can be used simply as management tools, the underlying values of equivalence and harmony ultimately produce a worldview that is more inclusive and mindful. A leading consultant in Montreal, Gilles Charest, has extensive experience in Gestalt psychology. He teaches the principles with a decided focus on personality development and the way the principles address people’s need for attachment, security, and influence (being listened to). His leadership training has long focused more on psychology and sociology than on organizational engineering.

So the avoidance of discussing the contributions of consensus to community building are not necessarily because anyone wants to avoid building community. It is to be as inclusive as possible and this requires not imposing values or expectations of unanimity, and not interpreting harmony as agreement. It’s a difficult balance.

When to Review Policies

Q: How can a developing cohousing community protect itself from a member who joins and immediately wants to review all the policies?

A:This is can be very difficult for forming groups, but it doesn’t’ stop once you are moved in. Almost every new member will immediately want to start redesigning the community as soon as they have their boxes unpacked. Often they have good ideas and bring new energy, but more often they are re-walking the same paths that the group has already spent months or years walking.

A good practice is to assign a buddy to new members so they can ask questions and make suggestions to their buddy before or without presenting them to the whole group. The buddy needs to be someone who can spend the time required to explain why a particular policy is a policy

 Since forming communities are adding new members very quickly (one hopes) this is a much bigger problem than in mature communities, because it occurs more frequently and there are fewer “old” members who can serve as buddies. In forming groups, it is essential to keep moving forward, not running in place or going backwards.

One protection from constant review is to have an agreement, a policy, that states that members who join the community do so accepting all the policies that are in place when they join. This should be in the bylaws because it will continue to be an issue as long as the community exists.

If the community is so new that you don’t have bylaws, write a membership agreement. The membership agreement should include the aim of the group and the acceptance of the policies in place. The person should receive a copy of all the policies and sign the Membership Agreement. (Keep the agreement in a safe place and review it from .)

Policies are reviewed for specific reasons. Reviews are triggered by new information related to the aim of the policy, or in a regular review of policies, like once a year. If the policy is that the group is forming a rural community with land for small farming by individual households, then “new information” might be that land is available but close to a city or the failure to find appropriate land after looking for 3 years.

Policies should state clear aims and a rationale, and be based on specific data if appropriate. If this is done, then it is easy to go back and say well, nothing has changed that requires a review.

The presence of another person in the room rarely changes the aims of the policy or constitutes new information.

Being inclusive and welcoming is important but if you welcome all opinions and all requests, your ability to accomplish your aim can be affected.

Lost Valley Intentional Community, Eugene, Oregon

A video has been posted on YouTube that talks about using sociocracy at Lost Valley Intentional Community. This is a nice video for residential communities — cohousing, cooperatives, condominium, and intentional — because it talks about the values and benefits of creating a sociocracy without the corporate/business vocabulary and concerns. It is also set on the community grounds rather than in an office.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyw0gBsDeho

About Lost Valley

Lost Valley, Oregon. View of rainbow over trees.The Lost Valley Intentional Community is associated with Lost Valley Educational Center, a long-established and relatively well-known North American permaculture education and intentional community near Eugene, OR. It has been a model for many similar entities and work exchangers, interns and students flow through on a regular basis.

http://www.lostvalley.org/

Implementation of sociocracy at Lost Valley was initiated in part by a contact at a workshop given by John Schinnerer and attended by Melanie Rios at the 2010 Northwest Permaculture Convergence in Seattle, WA.

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.

Freedom in the Crosswalks

It is absolutely right that pedestrians are as irresponsible as drivers are and that the difficulties of getting laws changed are gargantuan and that groups have been working for years to get the police to enforce stops before making right turns on red. That’s the big picture and understanding the big picture is important. I’m a big picture person if there ever was one. I always want to understand the big picture, but action starts with the little picture.

I once saw an East European tourist at a festival in the park dumbfounded at how Americans would allow people to crowd in line in front of them. Not just being polite to someone who is late to work or with a crying baby. “You let people walk all over you. This would never happen in Russia.” I’ve heard similar comments from exchange students from countries that were not democracies. On a daily basis they were much less tolerant of law breaking and violations of social norms than we are.

We give up our own freedom in the name of “what can we do.” And “what can we do” is not a question, just a lament. “We can’t get city hall to do anything.” City hall? That was your toe that car just about took off.

Whenever I suggest confronting bad drivers, even with a sign, people say, “Oh, we can’t be rude.” Or, “We might get shot.” “We can’t take the law into our own hands.”

Painting extreme scenarios, like “Law & Order,” help us avoid actions the same way focusing on the facts helps avoid the truth.

Why can’t you lean over, knock on a car window, and point out to the driver of the only car waiting at that stoplight that they are sitting on the crosswalk? Why can’t you yell at a driver who has just run a red light? Or is talking on their cell phone while making a left turn in front of an elementary school while children are present?

How many times do you think it would take for drivers to think twice about ever doing that again if the 15 parents and three crossing guards who witnessed this, ran over and banged on the car trunk as it passed and yelled at the driver. And used their cell phones to call the police and report the license-plate number? Take photos and post them on the school website?

This tiny action would not make anyone late for work and in less than a week would make crossing the street a lot safer.

Is a Family a Hierarchy?

How does equality and freedom work in a family when a child’s ability to make decisions without harming themselves or others is inherently unequal? How can a family apply sociocratic principles if children cannot consent to the decisions that affect them? Can a family be a hierarchy and still be nurturing or does it have to be a hierarchy in order to be nurturing?

Most people agree that children are not born with the ability to make the decisions necessary for them to live safely and well. For children to be successful as adults, they need parental guidance, or the guidance of other adults in their lives. Is this a hierarchical relationship? If so, how does the child grow out of it? When do the children become free and equal? And how?

Systems Definition of Hierarchy

A definition of hierarchy that I find very useful is from  Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. It is a small book, very accessible, and an excellent introduction to systems thinking.

  • Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers is to serve the purposes of the lower.
  • Systems are often self organizing, meaning they have the ability to structure themselves and to create new structures. To learn, diversify, and complexify.
  • Systems need to be managed for resilience, not just for productivity or stability.
  • There are always limits to resilience.

By analogy, applying Donella Meadows’ characteristics of a hierarchy to the family, the responsibility of the parents would be:

  • Serving the purposes of the children, which is to become independent, self-supporting adults, leading satisfying lives.
  • Teaching them to self-organize meaning to learn, diversify, and become more complex.
  • Teaching them to be resilient, not just productive and stable, and
  • Teaching them to understand that they are human, there are limits to resilience.

As a guide for parenting I think that works very well. It also establishes the purpose of a hierarchy in a family system. It points the hierarchy toward the development of self-organizing systems, toward enabling children to create new family structures, new hierarchies. The understanding of sociocratic principles would be helpful in managing the process of parenting self-organizing children. (Who clean their rooms, sometimes.)