Tag Archives: circles

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.

Maximum Size for Rounds?

Drop Cap Letter QHow large a group can effectively do rounds?


The recommended maximum size for circles is 20-40 people so that would apply to the optimal maximum size for rounds as well. But rounds have been done in groups of 150 and even 400.

Years ago, before I had heard of “rounds” I read the account of a round with 400 people. A mediator was working to resolve a community issue at a town hall meeting. She said everyone in the room would have a chance to speak. The only condition was that everyone in the room had to stay until everyone else was finished speaking. Everyone spoke and everyone listened. I forget how long it took but it engaged everyone and a solution was found shortly afterwards.

The article didn’t say if there was a time limit, but I’m not in favor of time limits on rounds. If you want to hear from people, you want to hear from them. To say I care about what you feel or think, but I only care for 30 seconds or 2 minutes is a contradictory. The focus becomes the time limit, not the issue. That can freeze up or distort responses. (As you can see from my long posts, an issue is rarely yes or no or one word. Or even 30 seconds.)

In experienced groups, a time limit might not have a hugely negative effect. It usually works to say, “this is a quick round, yes-or-no or one-word responses please.” Then you might get a sentence but not an explanation. Or “we have 30 minutes left for this item, let’s try to do the round in 20 minutes.” 

The optimal maximum group size of rounds is also affected by the experience of  the group. I think doing rounds effectively is learned with practice by each member. The more experienced members the group has the faster rounds will go. (It isn’t up to the facilitator to produce an effective round.)

It helps to remind people not to lecture or present arguments. Stick to expressing what they themselves think or feel about the issue or question presented.

A problem in using examples learned in workshops is that workshops exercises cannot by definition be representative of real-life. People don’t have the investment in issues presented for practice. Particularly in intentional communities and in conflict situations, people will be very invested and emotional. In employment situations, this might not be the case or be so less often.

How Can Everyone Make Decisions?

How could it be possible for everyone in a company to be making decisions? There is too much information. People would be in meetings all day and most people don’t want all that information and won’t listen anyway.

In the sociocratic structure of interconnected decision-making circles, everyone participates in the decisions that directly affect their daily work, but only in those decisions. Unless they are the elected representative or the operational leader they don’t participate in larger decisions.

The key is making work units small enough that the decisions that need to be made are relevant to each worker in the circle. That any information they receive is relevant and necessary. People pay attention to relevant information. They need it in order to do a good job — and almost everyone wants to do a good job.

How small the unit needs to be depends on the complexity of the work. If 50 people are doing the same job, the information and decisions that affect one affect them all. If 50 people are doing 15 different jobs, they probably need smaller work units.

The principle is to empower people to be responsible for their own work. That requires also having control over how that work is done. Participation without meaning can be as oppressive as no participation.

Circle Size

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