A Sociocratic Movement?

I sat in on a conference call with the SociocraticConsultingGroup-en last week on forming an organization for sociocracy. I found the discussion to be about the same issues we had several years ago, when Socionet tried to form. It’s the same problem that the NVC organization has had, and that the Austin Belly dance group discussed on the [email protected] list many years ago. The problem of conflicting aims and energies between professionals and enthusiasts.

The problem appears when trying to build an organization that can’t decide if it is promoting sociocracy for all or promoting professional consultants. The energy now is largely in the consultants. This is because the people who most see the need and opportunity often are consultants already or become consultants. That’s good because they can train people who will be most likely to apply the method in their organizations.

A Peer-to-Peer Sociocratic Movement

I’ve never seen mixing of professionals and enthusiasts work in one organization to serve everyone’s needs. It can’t be built around classes, mostly because enthusiasts and sociocrats don’t want to join an organization in order to be marketed to. But it is also because professionals have different needs. They need to ask questions at a more complex level than people who are just learning about sociocracy. They need to discuss professional issues relating to the implementation in situations that they may need to discuss confidentially. They need to ask questions related to building their practices as sociocratic professionals.

The general population may want classes but they also want peer-to-peer interactions and information in a different form. Written materials and tapes. DVDs. Ideas and experiences to discuss with each other, not in teacher-student interactions. Enthusiasts will pull away from professionals and professionals pull away from them.

Ironically, the sociocratic organization has not managed to produce equality in sociocracy.

Discouraging a Sociocratic Movement

The global organization has been supremely afraid of letting the method go viral and still has not released its norms. The fear is that the method will be badly applied by anyone except certified experts and thus reflect negatively on sociocracy.

Professionals have also not encouraged a movement of enthusiasts to form. One negative reaction from professionals to people seeking information and association as other than clients is that such people are asking them to work free. That kind of attitude will dampen any movement. A movement needs the support of experts, but enthusiasts want to join an organization of equals who share information and experiences freely.

What Associations Do

Associations are usually non-profit, dedicated to charitable and public service purposes. They form around a purpose and draw members in to help them accomplish their purpose. They may maintain a speakers bureau that will speak anywhere for low or now cost. They distribute flyers to the public at no cost. Generate books and other materials that can be purchased. Members receive benefits to encourage them to further the purpose, usually a discount on publications, invitations to meetings of various kinds, and a newsletter.

Public Dissemination of Ideas

Business people and government officials have informal groups that meet for lunch and have a speaker. Sometimes the speakers receive an honorarium and sometimes only a free lunch. If the roundtable is for business people, sometimes a gift or gift certificate donated by one of the members. These are networking lunches of highly committed and ambitious people.

How many people have been prepared to speak at such a gathering about sociocracy? What resources are available to help them do so? Outlines and public speaking guides.

When Tony Robbins was beginning his career, he spoke anywhere. Other speakers would only speak to certain groups or if they were paid. Because Robbins accepted any request he spoke several times a week. He was able to hone his message and understand his audience. This is one thing that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point: that success depends on the frequency of performing, speaking, running, etc., usually from a young age.

Bill Gates had access as a teenager to computers and programming. Access others didn’t have. The Beatles were performing on a circuit for years before they became famous. When Tony Robbins developed his motivational speaking skills, he was working as a janitor and , if I remember correctly, took the opportunity to discuss ideas with the executives whose office he cleaned.

Leadership

Movements also need leaders. Extroverts who love talking to people and being out front. The skills that make good politicians. I don’t think such a person has surfaced in the sociocratic community. Possibly because such a person doesn’t fit in with the global organization which is fairly rigid and closed. The new website is a huge step forward but has been years in the making. The current version has been under consideration for over a  year.

While a leader needs to understand the method, the requirement that they be certified is counter-productive and anti-movement unless the purpose is to organize certified people.

A sociocratic movement will not be successful until the needs of professionals as consultants are separated from those of enthusiasts and practitioners, and a leader emerges.

Elizabeth Warren on the Social Contract

Elizabeth Warren, American Harvard Law School professor and United States Senator from Massachusetts
Elizabeth Warren, American Harvard Law School professor and United States Senator from Massachusetts

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. … You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Elizabeth Warren

Quoted in  Elizabeth Warren Meets the Ted Kennedy Myth by Tom KeanePolitico, 29 March 2015

Sociocratic Democracy

Can an illiterate, uneducated person living on $2 a day with no financial resources in a village chronically devastated by malaria be expected to have the personal energy to fight for human rights? Do they have to wait for outside intervention? Do they know there is an outside? An outside beyond the God they believe brings them disease and death because that’s the way life is?

In a sociocracy, they would be able to participate in governance at the local level to control local resources and create jobs. The national economy would  be based on providing for all—for just compensation for labor, for education, for health care, for emergency support. All  the things that wealthier nations take for granted. All the citizens would be ensured of making the decisions that most affect their lives—their homes, their work, and their children.

While many reject democracy because it has become associated with dominance of the majority, democracy is still the best and most admired form of governance. Its values of freedom and equality represent a vision universally admired.  As in Angola and even in the United States, those values are not always expressed, but the values are there. It’s a base to work from and an  ideal to achieve.

Sociocracy & Democracy

For several years, I’ve been torn between writing about sociocracy and about democratic values, struggling to choose between them on two blogs, Sociocracy and A Deeper Democracy. In my mind they are joined but how could I join the different readers—those committed to sociocracy and those suspicious of another movement calling itself “new.” Especially one with a new foreign sounding name.

The best I’ve done so far to merge them is to describe sociocracy as a deeper democracy. But I was still attempting to maintain a blog on democracy.

The Value of Retaining “Democracy”

Democracy is still growing. It is still the ideal around the world. Every year, democratic forms of government are adopted by the largest number of countries reforming their governments. It isn’t time to claim to have a new governance method to overthrow it.  The problem with the democratic vision is not the ideals but the implementation.

Could majority rule be replaced by another standard to achieve the ideals of democracy? What other governance structure would be more effective at guaranteeing freedom and equality for all?

Sociocratic Democracy

In writing the post on Transparency International and Corruption, I was searching for a word to describe a governance system that would still be a democracy but benefit from sociocratic practices.

“Sociocratic democracy”emerged from my keyboard to describe what I have previously referred to as “a deeper democracy.” One that works. One that is based on knowledge and good research. One that is fully inclusive and fair. One that builds harmonious and resilient communities and nations. It was a nice moment.

And Sociocracy.info and A Deeper Democracy will soon become SociocraticDemocracy.org, “Democracy as It Might Be.”

Transparency International

How can people participate in decision-making if they don’t have access to information? Can those denied both education and knowledge  of governance in any form be held responsible when they elect corrupt leaders?

Transparency is fundamental to accountability and an inclusive society.

Reading an article in the New York Times this morning on the lives of two women in Angola, Two Women, Opposite Fortunes, I discovered Transparency International. Transparency International was started in 1993 by Peter Eigen, a former director of the Word Bank programs in East Africa, Its purpose is to expose corruption in government and to reverse the practice of accepting government corruption as inevitable.

It is an accepted fact that if you want to do business with many governments, you have to pay bribes. In order to help provide medical care to the poor, you have to look the other way when most of the funds go into the pocket of the rich—even in a catastrophic emergency like the earthquake in Haiti.

Transparency in Government

Transparency International develops a wide range of resources for understanding and resting corruption:

  • Tools including business principles for countering bribery, a business integrity toolkit, corruption fighters toolkit and integrity pacts.
  • Research on corruption, including a Corruption Perceptions Index, national assessments, anti corruption helpdesk, and a Bribe Payers Index.
  • Numerous publications, programs, and other activities

On the Index of Corruptions Perceptions Index of 2014, the United States ranks 17th with Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Norway perceived to be the least corrupt.

The Extent of Mind Boggling Corruption

It’s hard to understand how bad corruption is many countries. We are talking about corruption on the scale of billions of dollars, not a free trip to the Azores to study international progress in farming. Or the gift of a new mink coat. Or paying for your daughter’s wedding. Or the free cup of coffee offered to police officers.

With a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 19 with the lowest score being 100, Angola is an example of one of the most corrupt nations in the world. When the International Monetary Fund first studied Angola’s financial records for 2007-2010, $32 billion dollars was missing. Most of the $58 million allocated to renovate one hospital just vanished.

Angola’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world. Income inequality in a country rich in diamond mines, oil, and other lucrative resources is extreme. After the decades long civil war ended in 2002, Angola adopted a nominally democratic government but lineages of kings still exist in some areas. The power is controlled by the president. According to an article in Forbes, the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is worth $3 billion in a country where 70% of the people live on $2 a day.

The Effects of Corruption

The effects of corruption run deep. For diamonds sold on the world market to create billionaires, the poor suffer deep deprivation. A very small percentage goes to education, healthcare, or economic development for the bottom 70%.

The majority does not rule in all democracies.

Only 54% of Angolan women are literate; 83% of men. In 1995, only 61% of children are even enrolled in school and many rural areas had no school buildings or teachers. Those children uneducated in 1995 are now adults. Democratic ideals expect them to determine how their country will  be governed.

How?

Sociocracy would be a start.

Recommended:

Movie poster for Living on One DollarLiving on $1 a Day. A 53-minute documentary in which four college students live for two months on $1 a day in rural Guatemala. This award-winning film has been called “A Must Watch” by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

The depth of such deprivation goes even beyond daily food. And daily food in some households is not sufficient to maintain normal activity. Available on Netflix and often shown my non-profit groups combating world hunger, economic development, and micro economies.

Guatemala is 115 on the Perceived Corruption Index with a score of 37 out of a perfect low corruption score of 100.

Whole Planet Foundation Review

The Living on One website

There is also a book (that I haven’t read) by the award-winning photographer Renée C. Byer and Thomas A. Nazario, founder and president of The Forgotten International.

Doing Rounds Takes Too Long

In our monthly community meeting we discuss and make decisions. We are a circle consisting of all residents, often 20-30 people are present. This means that the rounds often take more time than a lot have the patience for.

Possibly we could break down into smaller groups, just as it is presented on the courses and workshop as some of us have attended. But it gives some other challenges regarded the dual link and the number of meetings.

As you have probably discovered, doing rounds is a very important activity. Doing rounds ensures that everyone is able to function as an equal, has an opportunity to state any concerns or objections, and to contribute information. Rounds also focus members on their purpose as a group, on their shared vision, mission, and aim.

Rounds Form and Re-Form

Each time the group meets, whether a policy setting circle, a team, or a committee, each member will be a different person. They will have had more and different experiences. Knowing what is foremost at the moment brings individuals together and prepares them for collaborative planning and decision-making.

To make decisions as a group, individuals must form a group. If the group has been working together for a long time, doing rounds will be faster and more focused. The group will be skilled in establishing harmony quickly.  While it may take time to reach this stage, harmony will allow the group work in collaboration and fulfill their purpose. Harmony requires understanding.

Focusing Rounds

If rounds are too impersonal or unfocused, attention can wander and the purpose of the round lost. Before beginning a round, state the purpose. You might remind people to

  • offer what is uppermost in their minds in relation to the meeting,
  • speak in terms of what they are anticipating or need from the meeting. and
  • speak personally, not give speeches or announcements, or respond to what others have said.

Avoid stating the focus of the round too restrictively. If people are unsure if what they want to say is the right thing, it will inhibit speaking  Sometimes people have had a major event in their lives and need to speak longer or off-topic. This will probably be of concern to the group, and sharing it will enable the person to  participate in the rest of the meeting more attentively.

Listening

Listening is half the round. Speaking brings out information, but it means nothing if others are not listening. The facilitator should be modeling listening, not leading the round by calling on people and trying to explain or interpret what they have said.

The facilitator is not the focus of a round. Unless the round is being conducted specifically to identify issues to be added to a written list, the facilitator should disappear as much as possible, just giving a nod if it is unclear who should speak next.

Not listening, assuming you know what someone is going to say, is probably the number one reason for boredom and impatience when doing rounds.

A Round of 300 People

Size is not necessarily the cause of inattention and impatience in rounds. Rounds can certainly be too long if they are unfocused and not achieving their purpose. Or the room is too hot or no one can hear.  Or the group is so large it doesn’t share a common purpose.

If the purpose of the round is clear and compelling, the size unless obviously physically impractical, can be quite large.

I once read an account of a community meeting conducted on a highly contentious subject. The neighborhood had been in serious conflict for a long time with no resolution in sight, A mediator was called in to seek a resolution and an open meeting was arranged. The first thing the mediator said was that each person in the meeting would have a chance to speak. The conditions were that

  • each person had to listen to all the others, and
  • no one could leave until everyone had spoken.

There were 300 people in the room. Everyone who wanted to speak, spoke. Everyone listened quietly without interruptions. No one left. It took hours. In the end, because everyone had been listened to and had listened to others, resolution was possible. They had come together as a group in a shared experience.

I have lost the reference for this story because I read about it many years ago and before I had heard the word “rounds.” I would love to have the reference if anyone recognizes the story. It was probably in the mediation literature because I was doing work with an AFL-CIO-affiliated union at the time.

Sociocracy and Sociology

Drop Cap Letter QI’d never heard anyone claim sociocracy was based on sociology. How do you interpret that?

The relationship between sociocracy and sociology was there from the beginning. The first use of the word sociocracy was by Comte, the father of sociology, who created it in the 1850s to refer to a government based sociology, the new  science for the study of society.  Frank Ward, the father of American Sociology, was  the next strong advocate for Sociocracy. Both Comte and Ward focused on national governance, not business.

Betty and Kees Boeke were the first to implement a sociocracy based their practices on those of the Quaker Meeting. In their school consent was the  basis of decision-making and all members of the community participated in making policy decisions and governing the school.

Business management is a social science. Economics is also a social science, oddly enough. An essential part of the education in an MBA program is the leadership and working with people. Self-understanding is stressed, though perhaps not using those words.

Governance

Governance, taught as political science and civics, is a social science.

The “socius” or “socio-” in sociocracy refers to societies, people who have social or organizational relationships with each other.

The mechanism of feedback is based on cybernetics, the science of communications and control. How do systems communicate with and control their parts to adjust to their environment while maintaining their inner functioning. This is fundamental to the sociocratic principles and methods as they are applied to the governance and operations of an organization, particularly businesses.

Endenburg, Sociocracy, and Sociocracy

Gerard’s 1988 book has pages of insightful discussion about social issues, including civil rights and fairness. The ways in which we make women invisible, for example.

Many discussions of sociocracy are one-sided in stressing the technical and mechanistic methods of governing and not the purpose of governance which is harmony. Endenburg’s purpose for implementing and  adapting the principles sociocracy that he learned from the Boekes to a business environment was to create the same conditions he experienced in school in his business:

People’s Rights Amendment

Today, the Court has enthroned corporations, permitting them not only all kinds of special economic rights but now, amazingly, moving to grant them the same political rights as the people.

United States Bill of Rights

Constitutional law expert,

The movement to reserve the rights ensured by the US Constitution to citizens and stop them from being awarded to corporations is rapidly gaining steam. The legal standing of corporations as people began in 1886, in the famous case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company in which the court based its arguments on the Constitution in denying Santa Clara County the right to right to tax property unfairly assessed for taxes. This decision was the beginning of a long string of decisions that accorded corporations as legal entities the same rights as persons. The problem is that corporations have no personal conscience. They are legal entities with no sensibilities. Their boards, executives, and managers can act on under shelter of the corporation with legal impunity. A corporation that controls a town and all the jobs in it, can close its factory with no personal sense of obligation or legal responsibility to the people it employs. It can destroy a town.

This was not always the case. When the corporate charter was established legally it had term limits. The corporation had to apply to the state in a given number of years in order to continue conducting business as a corporation. The State, acting on behalf of the people, could refuse to renew the charter of a company that was not acting in the best interests of a community and withdraw the special rights of corporations to protect their investors from personal responsibility. The investors could continue to operate as a business but they would be liable for their actions.

Today corporation can claim the people’s inalienable rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association, and all such other rights of the people. But there is no there there. Corporations a shifty giants with enormous power for which no one can be held accountable. They have more money and power than local governments.

The People’s Rights Amendment seeks to correct this. It reads as follows:

Section 1. We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.

Section 2. The words people, person, or citizen as used in this Constitution do not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulation as the people, through their elected State and Federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.

Section 3. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association and all such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.

To sign a petition supporting the People’s Rights Amendment to the US Constitution:

http://www.peoplesrightsamendment.org/

What Is Sociocracy?

Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010
Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010

Literally, sociocracy means the sovereignty of the socius: I myself, the next person, the alter ego, the otherness. From a structural point of view this corresponds with the definition of sociocracy as a situation where the principle of consent predominates or is socially all–determining in the sense that it governs the making of decisions at all levels of society. The sociocratic circle organization is a cybernetic means of making this possible and then, as a dynamic balance, it maintains, regulates, and develops it.

From Sociocracy as Social Design  by Gerard Endenburg (English Translation, 1998)

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.

Moving Objections to the Beginning

One of the ways the methods used in sociocracy that speeds up decision-making is going directly to objections instead of or before discussing the advantages of a proposal. The perceived advantages of a decision should be stated in the proposal or its presentation. The presenters will probably recount the issues and options they considered. There is usually no need to repeat the discussion that has taken place in previous meetings or to hear arguments in favor again.

The Process for Making a Decision Effectively

Prequel: Discuss or request comments from everyone who will be affected by the decision. A formal discussion in a  meeting of the circle may be preferable, but is not necessary if there are other ways to collect information and multiple viewpoints.

1. Present the proposal.

2. Answer clarifying questions.

Questions should be clean questions with no embedded messages. If there is an embedded message, don’t discuss it. Answer as if it had been a clean question or defer it for rounds.

4. Do a quick reaction round.

Responses of 1-2 words will indicate if there are concerns or objections that seem serious or unresolvable. Is the proposal ready for consent or should it be referred back to the proposal writers?

5. Ask for concerns and objections in detail.

(a) Refer these back to proposal writer(s) or
(b) Begin consent rounds to resolve them.

Asking for detailed concerns and objections should usually be done in a round but if there are only a few this can done more effectively by asking each person individually.

6. Consent rounds.

Several rounds may be needed to reach consent. The early rounds will suggest resolutions and later rounds to clarify remaining objections.

The decisive question is: “Do you have objections that will influence your ability to support this decision?”

Clarifications

Addressing concerns and resolving objections is a group process, not the duty of the facilitator. The facilitator decides how to proceed but this decision is subject to objections.

The facilitator participates as an equal, including in rounds.

The goal is consent to a decision that everyone can support in day-to-day operations.

Effectiveness, transparency, and accountability are the prime values in this process:

  • What will produce the most effective decision?
  • Does everyone have all the information relevant to this decision
  • Who will be accountable for the outcome of the decision

Rounds may be interspersed with discussion:

  • Rounds establish and maintain equivalence in the room. They keep decision-making balanced by encouraging everyone to participate as equals—the reticent as well as the more expansive.
  • Discussion, free form or dialogue between 2 or more persons, can be helpful to clarify questions or to give information others in the group may not have.

A proposal needs:

  • a person(s) to implement the decision and
  • a method to measure outcomes.

If there is no plan for implementing the decision or means of measuring effectiveness, the decision will probably be meaningless. Not worth the time.

Moving Objections to the Beginning

Moving objections to the beginning of consideration of a proposal instead of considering them at the end of the process moves time and attention to the issues that may not have been considered or that are in opposition to the proposal.

The arguments are then more likely to be presented and examined clearly, not in the context of a back and forth of pros and cons by skilled and unskilled orators. This kind of rhetoric can easily obscure the aim of the proposal and the nature of the objection.

The endpoint of decision-making is an action that works. Consensus decisions, those in which all the objections have been resolved and/or measurements set to test them, work best. They are not always possible but they work best.

Consensus, Consent, and Objections

Heresy, I know, but I think Holacracy has a good point in using “objections” and not “consent.” Brian says in his Introduction to Holacracy video: “Consent has no place in Holacracy.” We want to hear objections to the proposal.

Restrictions on Consent

One of my criticisms of groups using full-group consensus is that first they commit to one for all, and all for one, then they begin putting restrictions on it. All for one and one for all except when only one person doesn’t consent. Or except when only 10% don’t consent. And that the objection has to be based on group values, which are often non-existent or unclear in respect the policy.
People who consent are never asked for the reasoning behind their consent. What restrictions are placed on consent? What does it mean? Do people explain their reasoning?
The number of restrictions placed on withholding consent proliferate almost as soon as consensus is adopted. Even sociocracy adds  restricts consent to  “paramount and reasoned.” “Reasoned” is logical but “paramount” is in the eye of the beholder. Who ever refused to consent who didn’t think their objection was paramount?

Consent Means No Objections

Holacracy has avoided the ambiguity and contradictions of the words consent and consensus by going straight to the definition that Gerard Endenburg realized would work in a performance-based organization in the first place — “no objections.”
I suggest that it is a historical artifact that the word “consent” exists at all in Endenburg’s implementation. Just as I think it was a historical artifact in Comte’s to think that a panel of sociologists should be, not just advise the government. He was steeped in autocratic his experience of a single ruler or ruling body. In 1850s France, democracy was admired but not all so accepted as practical. It’s cracks were showing even then.
In the 1940s, Boeke clearly meant consensus in the traditional Quaker sense. Everyone had to consent that a proposed action was in the best interests of the whole and all individual interests had to be considered. Even though Endenburg was educated in Boeke’s tradition, he actually stepped outside it in his method by using the logic of the physical sciences, not religion or politics.

The Basis of Objections

Endenburg based his definition of consent on the absence of objections and objections based on a specific criterion — the ability to work (or function) toward the aim if the proposed action took place. Consent is written in Sociocracy (1988) as “consent (no objections).” Since “consent” was the historically accepted word, he naturally used the word “consent.”
And I’m also sure he meant consent in the spirit of being inclusive. In the 1960s and 70s when he was developing his ideas there was a general reaction in the Western World to the exclusiveness and elitism of society. “Objection” was a harder sell with revelations of WWII still emerging. Objections had made no difference. Consent would have been more acceptable.

Branding Sociocracy in the United States

The letter S as a cattle brandSince sociocracy was introduced in North America, problems with the name “sociocracy” have hounded it.  Unlike European countries, Americans associate sociocracy negatively with “socialism,” sociocracy is harder to say in English than in many other languages. Unfortunately, the rejection of the word “sociocracy” and the use of alternatives continue to confuse the public and obstruct efforts to develop a cohesive image, a “brand” in the current marketing vernacular.

A Solution for Branding Sociocracy

Some of the various names for methods based on the principles fo sociocracy are  Dynamic Governance, Bio-Dynamic Governance, Dynamic Self-Governance, Holacracy, and most recently, Circle Forward. All are unique in emphasis and aim but share the same principles. One solution to unifying the field would for all to use a common phrase as a subtitle or in descriptive content.  “Implementing the principles of sociocracy” or “an implementation of sociocracy.” This would clarify confusion and  unify forces while allowing unique identities, business branding, etc.

Acknowledging a common methodological base would also encourage more dialogue about the nature if that base. This kind of dialogue about methods of teaching and practicing would be valuable to all. It would provide the kind of analysis that is necessary to the further development and application of sociocracy.

Collaborative Governance

I’ve been looking for a new description for Sociocracy.info and have tried several. In reading recent posts on [email protected] and sociocracy-related websites, I found the word collaborative used the most often to describe sociocracy and, perhaps more importantly,  to be used consistently with the same meaning:

Collaboration is working with others to achieve a common task and to achieve shared goals. It is more than the intersection of common goals found in co-operative organizations.

Why Not Consent?

The word consent is used by many to describe sociocracy but I haven’t found that people are attracted to it. Some because they don’t know what it means outside of a marriage ceremony, and others because they are afraid of it. They envision long meetings and months of discussion. However fundamental consent is in creating a sociocratic organization only those already familiar with consensus decision-making seem comfortable with it and many of them also want to avoid it.

Consent also doesn’t convey the feeling of a group, of a socius, of a society. It’s singular. I may want my singular rights but a sociocracy isn’t a singular. It is singulars working together, moving in the same direction, accomplishing shared aims. Sociocracy is a set of values, principles, and practices that help people do that.

Collaborative as a word has positive connotations* and without doing a statistical study is desirable to most people—if they also desire to be members of organizations. Not everyone does, particularly in their personal lives.

Collaborative Governance, Not Organization?

Using the word governance provides an opportunity to discuss the meaning of governing, of steering. People generally do not understand what “governance” means. They think it means “government.” Before a sociocracy can be created, the  concept of governance must be understood.

While sociocracy is also a method of organizing, the organization is the result, not the aim. What sociocracy does is establish a communications and decision-making structure that can steer an organization so that it accomplishes its aim. That is governance: an ongoing stable structure of relationships between people who self-organize and maintain communications and control in order for an organization to be most effective.

Collaborative organizations are inherently self-organizing. Each person, as an equal, also has to be a leader. Sociocracy is based on a set of values and can be discussed philosophically, but it is about steering and effectiveness, not just organizing.

Sociocracy will make the most impact when governance and leadership are understood.

*The one negative meaning associated with collaboration arises when a person aids an occupying enemy and betrays their own people is called a “collaborator.” Collaborators, however, work as equals and have shared aims. Wartime “collaborators” were not equals and were often treated as inhumanely as their fellow citizens. They sometimes “collaborated” in  fear of threats to harm family members, for example.

In collaborative organizations, people are rarely called “collaborators.” They are said “to collaborate” in “collaborative organizations.”

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.

A Biography of Kees Boeke

Cover of Dutch Biography of Kees BoekeWell-received biography of Kees Boeke in Dutch by Daniela Hooghiemstra, a noted Dutch Biographer.

Available from Bol.com

Description

De christen-pacifist Kees Boeke (1884- 1966) wordt wel ‘onderwijshervormer’ genoemd maar hij beoogde niet minder dan de stichting van een nieuwe wereld. Toen de poging om die gemeenschap te stichten mislukte, besloot Boeke een school te stichten waar de ‘nieuwe wereld’ van de grond af opgebouwd moest worden. Deze unieke school kreeg na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een prominente leerling: prinses Beatrix. De koninklijke aandacht leek de kroon op zijn werk, maar luidde ook het begin in van de ondergang van Kees Boeke en alles waar hij altijd in geloof had.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

Ornamental Capital Letter CCollaborative, collective, and cooperative are words often used interchangeably. When I hear them I wonder which one the speaker or writer means. I use them interchangeably too, sort of giving equal time to all of them. I have a preference for cooperative because it seems to have fewer political overtones than collective, and collaborative reminds me of clabber. It sticks in my throat.

The Problem with Dictionaries

The dictionary definitions of these three words don’t help very much because they tend to give each as a synonyms of the other, particularly collaborative with collective and collective with cooperative. Remember when dictionaries told you which word was correct? They might have been too proscriptive but at least they preserved the precision of language.

There is great value in language becoming new with inventive applications and combinations that play off the original, but smushing words together with no regard for distinct word origins and historical use is not inventive. It’s lazy.

So I decided not to be lazy and look for something that did more than reflect how words are used whether the usage is meaningful or not.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

On distinctions between collaborative, collective, and cooperative, journals in education are  the clearest—with economics, sociology, and political science not very much interested—at least as far as I was willing to go in a Sunday afternoon library search. In education the distinctions become important because educators are teaching skills. To teach skills you have to be clear what you are teaching and what you need to accomplish. educators have learned that:

One can design a collaborative task in which there is no collective learning and reward coöperation without producing collaboration.

According to dictionary definitions this sentence is gibberish. In reality it is very meaningful and in seeking to develop sociocratic societies, crucial. Self-organizing people may be cooperative but not have the skills to collaborate well enough to produce a collective result.

Collaboration

Collaboration is sharing knowledge or services with others on the solution to a problem, an investigation of an event, or development of a product. Collaboration doesn’t mean necessarily that people are working together in unison. They contribute in a way that helps others  accomplish very different aims. They may be working toward the same aim in their own domain,  but not necessarily.

Collaboration does not require that each person contribute equally to a task but means they all share what they can that will help to accomplish each other’s goals.

Collective

Collective refers to actions done as a group. A Corn Collective grows, picks, and sells corn. A Collective to Stop Hunger in Chicago, will be composed of people working together on projects that serve the aim. Members function more or less as equals in the sense that they work together and the company or resources are typically not owned by someone else. They have both unity of ambition and self-determination.

In the education program where students learned to work collaboratively but not collectively, most individuals were able to contribute in tasks but some were not able to function as a member of a group that accomplished a particular task. Some students remained individual collaborators.

Cooperative

Cooperative means people are willing and able to accommodate and support others. A cooperative person may not have a common aim with another person or group, but they are tolerant and helpful. They are not generally belligerent or refusing to participate.

In cooperative organizations, like food coops, there are many different kinds of participants— customers, investors, workers, managers, governing bodies, etc. They are not collaborators because they aren’t independently sharing information or tasks. They aren’t a collective because they aren’t all doing the same thing or have the same socio-economic interests.

They all assume a role and often make a commitment to make the food coop successful, but they do so as individuals with individual aims—individuals in that each one serves their own needs differently even though they all eat food. They often don’t know each other.

Of Course  …

Of course all these words have noun, adjective, and verb forms and secondary meanings  that confuse things. This exercise, however, was useful to me in making distinctions between the skills required to participate in collaborative, collective, or cooperative organizations.

In the end, sociocratic organizations could be any of these. Since sociocracy is a governance system that can  be adapted to any form of organization, it can be adapted to collaboratives, collectives, or cooperatives.

The question is the method inherently collaborative? Collaborative is the hot word these days. People like it and I see it in many places in descriptions of sociocracy. I’m not sure any of these words is appropriate in a general application. Organizing sociocratically doesn’t necessarily make an organization collaborative, collective, or cooperative. But it does encourage all three.

Definition of Consensus Decision-Making

This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.

This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.

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.

Addressing Emotions: Laird Schaub on Sociocracy

Laird Schaub’s blog is Community and Consensus. In his Monday 18 August 2014 post, “Critique of Sociocracy,” he presents his “reservations” which are deep and well-stated. Some are quite justified and others misunderstandings. Just like anything else, it’s easy to get the wrong information. This is the second of several posts addressing the points I think are valid and those that are at least partly in error.

Emotional Input

EmoticonsOne of Laird Schaub’s criticisms of sociocracy is that it  “does not address emotional input.” I think this depends partly, at least, on what one defines as “emotional input.” One person’s input can be considered personal and overwrought and another’s perfectly logical depending on who is doing the interpreting and labeling. But let’s assume we are talking about objections that seem temperamental, idiosyncratic, heated, etc., with no logical foundation or argument.

Any topic one cares about is likely to raise emotions whether it is a budget issue, loud music at 3:00 am, having a television accessible to children 24/7, or  eating meat. People care about things. That’s at least one point of living, right?

I’m not sure any governance system has a method of addressing emotions any more than it has a method for addressing global warming. Governance methods address how an organization will do the work of the organization. They are designed to steer a group of people toward an aim. It is quite likely that many people will have strong emotions about how to do that.

Addressing Emotions

Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?

The process in sociocracy and many other collaborative groups is to clarify concerns or objections and look for ways to resolve them. The input that most would label emotional might take more time during the clarification process than addressing a perceived budget problem. The budget problem might take more time and research in the resolving objections process.

Sociocracy has developed a happy handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. Many sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.

When emotions are felt to be overwhelming in any group, they are often handled personally by friends and facilitators, or by calling in a process consultant, like Laird. In part, the expertise of process consultants is sorting out emotions, the emotions about the emotions, and the underlying causes of emotions. One instance in which consultants are called in almost everywhere is a crisis.

The focus in a crisis is on restoring order when people are devastated by events. While the ultimate aim might be to get back to accomplishing their work, the immediate aim is emotional support. A sociocratic trainer might  come in to organize delivering supplies, making decisions about housing, etc.  Psychologists, grief workers, and Laird would come in to process emotional reactions and shock.

That Said…

Like Laird, I have also heard people say, “If you use sociocracy all the emotional stuff ends or never arises.” Right. That’s a hopeful person.

I agree that sociocracy is too trusting in saying that all will go well when the process is understood. The process provides a place for everyone to speak and raise objections. The problem is that many people do not know how or are afraid to express objections which are often full of feeling. There is the tired criticism that some people dominate discussions. Well, they can only do that if other people are silent. Sometimes they are just filling a void.

Rounds give people a time to speak and more people do raise concerns using that process. Some people need more than an opportunity.  They don’t have experience speaking in groups and have probably spent most of their lives being discouraged from disagreeing with anything. It takes time to adjust to the fact that they can, should, and are expected to speak up. Even to have an opinion.

Though many people are more insecure in groups than I think has been addressed in the sociocracy, it is also true that many sociocracy trainers have extensive experience facilitating and working with emotions in groups.  The fact that emotional processing isn’t addressed as a separate topic doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

In the same way as choosing a  mediator, matching a consultant’s experience and interests to the needs of the situation can be important. Some trainers are more experienced in implementing sociocracy in corporate and institutional settings and some are more familiar with community groups and small organizations.  There is the method which may be standard, but then there is application to the problem at hand which is practice and is formed by experience.

Emotional Reactions Fade with Success

People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.

The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they  don’t go anywhere. They just no longer impede productivity.

Hackman found  that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish. A harmonious workplace was Gerard Endenburg’s first aim.

Hackman’s “Six Common Misconceptions about Teamwork” addresses in part the issue of what does and doesn’t  make a successful team.

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.)

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