Sociocracy’s structure is based on delegating decision-making to a hierarchy of semi-autonomous subgroups called circles or teams. This structure gives sociocratic organizations the ability to
(1) delegate decisions effectively and efficiently,
(2) extend policy decision-making throughout the organization to the shop floor, and
(3) reduce the number of meetings.
Cohousing and other community groups are attracted to the values of sociocracy and its ability to support consensus decision-making. But they are wary of delegating decisions. And they come full stop at not having meetings of the full membership.
The purpose of cohousing is not to run an efficient organization that produces a product. Increasing income is not the purpose. The purpose of a community is entirely different. In a community, everyone knows each other and shares many parts of their lives. They do maintenance tasks together and manage their own communities because it deepens relationships. They often share meals because it is fun.
Fear of Autocratic Structures
There is a fear of recreating in cohousing the same hierarchical structures that discourage a sense of community elsewhere in society. To avoid a hierarchy, for example, many cohousing communities put all their members on the board. They govern equally and meet as a full group for discussion and decision-making.
In sociocratic communities, people are elected by consensus and power is distributed. But sociocracy doesn’t have a power-over structure, is power-with. Delegating decisions is a careful process that includes accountability. A feedback structure ensures regular communication throughout the organization. This structure is a circular hierarchy like rock-paper-scissors. Each element has its own unique characteristics and abilities but is equal in strength to the other elements.
The standard structure in sociocratic organizations consists of a board, a coordinating or general management body, and teams or circles. The board does not have power over the organization that boards of corporations normally have. It is delegated its own functions including long-range planning and relationships with the larger community. Its delegated task is to manage the organization’s purposeful relationship to the larger world. The board also includes outside experts, like a lawyer, accountant, etc. It often has duties that local laws may require the board to perform.
In transitioning to sociocratic governance, the fear of an autocratic board could be resolved in time, but there is an even larger concern—the community’s desire to be a whole community. It doesn’t want to be divided.
The Purpose of Community Meetings
The purpose of a community is the desire and intention to function together as a group. Gathering for potlucks or other social gatherings is not the same as working out policy decisions together, wrestling with hard financial decisions, or resolving conflicts related to values and beliefs. These are things that communities want to do together and not delegate to someone else, even to a sub-group of their own members.
When I began considering how to apply sociocracy to cohousing and other residential communities, the first task was convincing communities to try it. Unless an established community is in crisis, it is hard to change their current governance system—no matter how dysfunctional. Asking them to drop their full group meetings was beyond consideration. Many believed that sociocracy prohibited full group meetings.
I initially proposed a structure in which everyone served on the board. It was an attempt to adapt the current structure and practices to fit a forming sociocratic organization. Once the organization was comfortable with delegated decision-making, a normal board could be formed more naturally. This was never an ideal solution and eventually, a better one surfaced. But first, let’s examine why isn’t.
The Function of the Board, or Top Circle
The major purpose of the board is to connect the community to the larger community, the city, village, or the countryside. Since the primary job of the board is not to deal with internal day-to-day matters, its function could easily be neglected if everyone served on the board. I think this is evident in many communities. How many communities have 5 and 10-year plans? This is often forgotten when everyone is dealing with day-to-day issues. That’s why organizations to fill this need a board, but not to overrule circles or make decisions for them.
Full Circle Meetings
A better alternative to having everyone on the board is to have full-circle meetings. In these meetings, all the circles meet together to discuss issues and make any decisions specifically delegated them. Condominium laws often require an annual meeting of the owners to approve an annual budget among other things, so this is not unusual even in standard home-owner associations.
The full-circle meeting has a specific domain of decision-making that doesn’t overlap with the decisions delegated to one of the teams. The full-circle might include topics on which an individual team hasn’t been able to reach consensus. They might also discuss topics to give feedback to a team and let the team make the decision. Over-ruling decisions or back-seat driving by the full-circle meeting is not helpful in building strong teams or responsible leadership.
The full-circle meeting would be coordinated and facilitated by elected leaders, perhaps the officers of the board instead of separately elected leaders.
Originally published January 2007