The term for the highest circle or governing unit of a sociocratic organizations is “top circle.” The top circle has many functions of a board but is not all powerful as many corporate boards are. I have used “board” here because it is more familiar and in this context not likely to be confused with absolute power.
When sociocracy is explained the emphasis is often on its benefits for delegating decisions effectively and efficiently, extending policy decision-making down the organization to the shop floor, and eliminating long meetings and reducing the number of meetings. Decision-making is delegated to a hierarchy of subgroups circles or teams.
While cohousing and other community groups are attracted to the values of sociocracy and its ability to preserve consensus decision-making while also delegating decisions, they come full stop at not having meetings of the full membership. Their purpose for forming is not to run an efficient organization focused on producing a product. It isn’t a job in which efficiency is valued because it reduces the work and increases income. Their purpose is partly a different one and partly the result of wanting to avoid hierarchies as they have experienced them.
Fear of Autocratic Structures
In many cohousing communities, all members of the organization are on the board. This avoids creating “condo commandos” who autocratically rule condominiums from their position on a self-perpetuating board. In sociocratic communities where people are elected by consensus and power is distributed this is not a worry. Sociocracy doesn’t have a power-over structure. It’s a circular hierarchy like rock-paper-scissors where each element has equal strength in their relationships.
The standard structure in sociocratic organizations consists of a board, a coordinating or general management circle, and department or team circles. The board does not have the power over the organization that boards of corporations normally have. It is a relatively small group that includes outside experts and focuses on long term planning and the “big picture.” How is the community doing and what would it like to do in its financial, legal, and purposeful relationship to the larger world?
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 community.
The Purpose of Community Meetings
The purpose of a community is the desire and intention to function as one community. Gathering for potlucks or other social gatherings is not the same as working out policy decisions together, wresting 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.
Typically in cohousing communities, either everyone serves on the board so they are all equal, or there is no board, or the board is very weak and decisions are made in full group meetings, by consensus.
When I began considering how to apply sociocracy to cohousing and other residential communities, the task was convincing communities to try it. Unless an established community is in crisis, it is hard to change their current governance system. Asking them to drop their full group meetings was beyond consideration. Some 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 this wasn’t a good solution.
The Function of the Board
The major purpose of the board is to connect the community to its environment, the city or village. This done by having external experts serve on the board with full decision-making participation. Such experts might include a lawyer, an accountant, a cohousing expert, someone from the local neighborhood association or government, and someone related to a special interest, like ecology or gardening. 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 that do not have boards that serve this function.
A second major function is long term, comprehensive planning. What do each of the experts see as possibilities or hindrances in the community’s future? How many communities have 5 and 10 year plans or have focused discussions with their expert advisors all in the same room? That’s why they need a board.
Full Circle Meetings
A better alternative to having everyone on the board is to have full-circle meetings in which all the circles or teams meet together to discuss issues and make any decisions delegated to full-circle meetings. Everyone in a community should be attached to at least one circle in order to be contributing to the work or social activities of the community so such a meeting would include everyone. 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.
A specific domain of decision-making would have to be defined for full circle meetings so they did not overlap with the decisions delegated to one of the circles, and the domain might include decisions on which a circle hasn’t been able to make to reach consensus and that is inappropriate to send to an outside expert.
It is important to have clearly defined domains of decision-making for each circle, and particularly in the case of a full circle meeting. Over-ruling decisions or back-seat driving is not helpful to building strong teams or responsible leadership. The full circle needs to have an aim.
So the preferred method for meeting a community’s desire to meet as one community is to have full circle meetings with a defined domain of decision-making. The meeting would be coordinated and facilitated by elected leaders, perhaps the officers of the board instead of separately elected leaders.