Tag Archives: cohousing

Consensus or Sociocracy?

Drop Cap Letter QWe are 3 months into starting a cohousing community in western MA. We will soon be discussing how we will make group decisions. Consensus and sociocracy seem to be common strategies in cohousing and other intentional communities. Which do you recommend?

“Consensus or Sociocracy?” Is the Wrong Question

(But there are no dumb questions. This one is a very good question and one we hear frequently.)

Sociocracy and consensus are not opposite things.

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

Sociocracy establishes a structure within which to make policy decisions (the planning and leading) and operations decisions (the doing).

Policy decisions are made by consensus. Operations decisions are made by the leader of the work group or as the circle decides. The circle can also decide to use consensus for day-to-day decisions, the consent of 2-3 circle members, or any other methods it decides work. As long as the decision to use another method is made by consent and reviewed periodically—annually, perhaps.

Delegation

The sociocratic governance method allows you to delegate decisions to those who are most affected by them and still ensure that they are within the policies of community.

For example, the CH cleaning circle can decide by consensus to change its cleaning days to Sundays instead of Saturdays. That’s a decision they can make without consultation with anyone as long as they follow the policy that any community brunches on Sunday take precedence. (And announce it to the membership so everyone knows what to expect.)

Coordinating Circle

In sociocracy groups are called circles but they can be called anything as long as they are well-defined as decision-making groups with a defined membership and a common aim. All the circles are tied together by a coordinating circle that is composed of members of all the other circles.

The coordinating circle:

  1. makes policy decisions that affect more than one circle
  2. resolves decisions on which circles have been unable to reach consensus, and
  3. does long-range planning—2-5 years.

The coordinating circle includes representatives and leaders of all circles so it provides a larger perspective on difficult, complex, and long-term decisions.

Long-range planning is often missing in Cohousing. And decisions needing a wider range of knowledge go to the larger membership when it isn’t necessary or effective. The Coordinating Circle can fulfill these needs.

Full Membership Meetings

Some communities have  misunderstood meetings of he full membership and thus rejected sociocracy. Communities may still reserve some decisions for full circle meetings — all circles meeting together to make decisions on the annual budget, capital improvements, widely contentious issues, etc. Or hold full circle meetings to give feedback to circles or to discuss community issues without making decisions.

Policy decisions are those that affect future actions and decisions — the budget, job descriptions, scope of work, standards, etc.

Operations decisions affect the present, the day-to-day activities and are made usually by the leader or as delegated to members of the circle.

Leadership

The circles decide how their leader will lead. In a gardening circle, for example, the leader may delegate tasks to people or decide which needs to be done first. Or they may decide to work together on each task. (Our workday participants did this last year with great satisfaction at seeing each job finished much more quickly and completely with no ends left for another day.)

Communications & Steering

Based on cybernetics, the sociocratic governance structure establishes a clear communications and steering structure so decentralized decision-making can work effectively without fragmentation, overlap, or duplication. In small communities where almost constant communication happens in the course a week, this may not seem important.

In larger communities this structure becomes very important. With 60-80 adults, you can’t talk to everyone all the time and the work is more complex — more buildings, more financial accounting, more children, more repairs, more illnesses, etc. Everyone can’t be expected know everything.

Where to Start?

It is very important to establish a governance system from the start—beginning as a full group coordinating circle. Then other circles are formed as the coordinating circle is ready to delegate decisions. People will usually belong to more than one circle. Circles self-organize and make decisions within their domain (area of responsibility).

It is important to distinguish between circles, which make decisions, and work groups that are assigned tasks and bring proposals, information, etc., back to a circle for decision-making.

Sociocracy is a governance method that both requires and is designed to support consensus decision-making. There is no other governance method designed to do this.

Cohousing Meal Programs and Leadership

Some successful cohousing meal programs require participation by either cooking, preparing, or cleaning once every few weeks. (No one is required to eat.) But other communities that require participation in meal support still have meals infrequently.

A successful program averages 3-4 meals a week and their success is often attributed to  organization and leadership. This statement is typical of those programs:

We have a “meals boss” role, the Scheduler. Meals usually a major reason for joining cohousing. A major difference between our community and others is the Scheduler role. We have people who don’t want to ask other people to be on a meal team, and we have people who are afraid they won’t be asked to be on a team. The scheduler assigns people to meal teams, relieving the pressure of asking others and the risk of rejection.

The meals Scheduler takes everyone’s schedule, preferences, and roles they like  (cook, assistant, clean-up), and creates the schedule for the next two months. The Scheduler has a “community scheduling time” when anyone interested can come and help with this task. If we drop the centralized planning we will lose at least one meal a week, maybe two.

It is a strategy I think a community could use to jump-start their program, and then talk about how to reduce the centralization after a year or more of successful meals. Since we have quite slowly added new households it is quite clear that our successful meals program is what has helped get more people involved in it.

From the experience of other communities, without leadership, it is probably the reason some decline and others are feeble or never got started. Especially in larger communities where members have little or no experience producing group meals for 25-30 people.

Planning, Leading, and Doing

One of the key sociocratic methods speaks to the advantages of having leaders, in this case a Scheduler or Meals Boss. Sociocracy would create a program in two parts and would never expect anything without leadership, even when one person is doing it alone.

A. POLICY & PLANNING is done with equality and collaboration. Everyone—the membership, the board, a team—sits in a circle (figuratively speaking) with equal authority and respect to decide what they want/need, what it will require, how they will pay for it, and who will do what. They decide who will lead.

This process would usually include:

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

Steps 2 and 3 would be repeated as necessary until a proposal is accepted.

B. OPERATIONS. Implementing the policy and plans. This is usually done fairly autocratically by a leader and people with clear roles. Effective and productive execution needs a leader who can say, “The buck stops here,” a person who is has the authority to make decisions. A person who reports back on whether something works or not.

Leadership might be a shared responsibility between two people but that is sometimes confusing for other people to sort out and it makes communications more difficult. Too many cooks spoil the soup.

Not choosing a leader is often a failure on the part of the membership, board, or team to accept responsibility for making a decision and/or develop and support leaders once chosen.

The operations leader, the doing leader, makes decisions and acts within approved policies and plans. The leader is in charge because everyone decided they were the best available person for the job. Grousing about the Leader will get you nowhere and action will be hit and miss. Supporting the leader is essential or effectiveness. Otherwise productivity will decline.

If a decision comes up that hasn’t been answered by the circle, the leader makes that decision on the spot and “argues about it later.” A special meeting can be called to address the decision or it can wait until the next scheduled meeting. But life can go on because the leader has the authority to make decisions in the moment.

If you think you don’t need policies and leaders, read “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman.

(I realize I’ve posted the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” before but it truly is a wonderful analysis of what “really” happens in leaderless groups — it becomes personality driven or ineffective.)

If you do implement a leadership program in a meals program in cohousing or other community, please let me know how it goes.

Thinking in Systems by Donnella Meadows

Book Cover of Thinking in SystemsI highly recommend Donnella Meadow‘s little book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green 2008). It’s short, fun, and to the point. No math or physics required. Recommended for everyone, literally.

In clear, humorous, commonplace situations, Meadows explains the use of systems analysis and how it can be applied in both large-scale and individual problem solving. She moves from simple to more complex examples ultimately explaining the complex ways that feedback loops are used to create self-organizing systems in nature and society. She also explains methods for fixing systems that have gone astray.

About Donella “Dana” Meadows

Photo of Donella Meadows
Donnella Meadows

Dana Meadows (1941-2001) was a biophysicist and  environmental scientist who taught at Dartmouth for 26 years following her research fellowship at MIT where she worked with Jay Forrester the creator of the study of system dynamics. She is author of one of the most influential essays on systems dynamics, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” available for PDF download and reprinted in Thinking in Systems, pp. 145-165. She received numerous awards for her work including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1994. Her work is considered to have a formative influence in many fields and on many scholars. Unfortunately she died of a bacterial infection at the age of 59 and before completing Thinking in Systems. The manuscript had been circulating amongst students and faculty who added comments. The final manuscript was edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute or the study of global systems and practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including cohousing and ecovillages. The Institute was founded next to Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, VT and has been renamed the Donella Meadows Institute and moved to Norwich, VT. Her papers were donated by the Institute to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in 2011.

One of the wrong-headed ideas discussed in Thinking Systems, pushing in the wrong direction on fixing economic growth, the subject of the landmark book, The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, for which she was lead author. Using a computer model, it projects the effects of continued growth. An extensive review appeared in The Nation in 2012: The Limits to Growth: A Book that Launched a Movement by Christian Parenti. Limits was first published in 1972 and updated. The original version sold 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. It was 205 pages. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) is 338 pages.

To purchase at Amazon: Thinking in Systems: A Primer, softcover 2008.

Switching to Sociocracy in Cohousing Communities

 

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

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

Except for those who have switched to sociocracy, cohousing communities use full group consensus as their primary method of decision-making. Decisions are typically made in meetings open to the full membership and with the consent of each person present. As cohousing communities have grown larger, from 12 to more than 50 households, and include increasingly more diverse populations, full group consensus has become ineffective for many, if not most. Making decisions with less than 50 people is very different from 100 or more.

In addition, many communities are more complex. They now have programs that do not involve all members—gardens, chickens, home schooling, yoga groups, etc. Consensus requires a shared aim. Delegating decisions to those who share these aims is a reasonable use of everyone’s time and energy.

Switching to Sociocracy

It is a misconception that communities switching to sociocracy cannot have full group decision-making meetings. When delegating decisions to circles, communities can also delegate decisions to “full circle meetings”, meetings of all the circles. Annual budget approval, for example, is required to be made by all owners in condominiums in Washington DC. Since most cohousing communities are condominiums, this is probably true in other states as well. Another decision that might appropriately belong in a full circle meeting is changing the vision, mission, or aim.

Sociocracy allows communities to keep the collaborative and inclusive qualities of full group decision-making while providing a structure for delegating decisions to sub-groups—committees, teams, circles, etc. Policy decisions and a coordinating structure then guide the sub-groups.

Consent vs. Consensus

While I understand the reasons for opposing consensus with consent, I believe that in the end it is self-defeating. It becomes a battle of definitions and adds a new definition unnecessarily. This distracts from the purpose. By adopting sociocracy, a community adopts a decision-making structure in which consensus more effective. Its principles and practices shift the debate from stalemate to action. It helps organize large communities so they function more effectively as excellent places to live.

Sociocracy Strengthens Consensus

The sociocratic definition of consent is “no objections.” An objection means the proposed action cannot be taken until that objection is resolved—just as it is in full group consensus. Sociocracy uses “consent” to emphasize that the decision is being made by an individual based on their own ability to “live with” the decision. It isn’t based on a hypothetical or projected standard of the “good of the community” as full group consensus practices often does. An objection is made in the context of the aim of the decision, how it affects one’s own participation in the community, and its expression of the communities stated aims (if any).

Consent can be given when there are still concerns and unmet needs but sociocracy values action, moving forward, with what appears to be reasonable decision given the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Concerns, limitations, fears, assumptions, etc.,  can be used to design measurements for evaluating the effects of the decision. Then it can be improved based on results.

The sociocratic circle-organization method is the only one that supports and invigorates consensus decision-making.

Originally written 6 January 2013
Substantially revised 19 April 2014

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Massachusetts, US

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

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

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

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

Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont
Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Cohousing East Village adopted sociocracy in 2013. About their community from their website:

Mission

The mission of Burlington Cohousing East Village is to sustain our community strengths and to create and share better ways to live as neighbors – towards a way of living that welcomes diversity and fosters social connection, affordable living, environmental stewardship, and a smaller ecological footprint.

Values

Contributing to this mission are the following values:

  • We participate in the urban advantages of living in Burlington – cultural, pedestrian, biking, shared car trips, public transit.
  • We support commitment, innovation and personal courage.
  • We aim to make a positive difference in the lives of all.
  • We encourage the development of leadership and group facilitation skills.
  • We promote involvement with the larger community.
  • We practice self-governance with a modified consensus decision-making process.
  • We provide regular common meals which include food grown from our own lands.
  • We gather frequently for mutual appreciation and celebrations.
  • We are committed to non-violent communication and conflict resolution.

The Community

We’re Vermont’s only urban cohousing community; urban in the sense that we’re right across the street from the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care, and about a mile from downtown Burlington. On the other hand, we’re also right next to Centennial Woods, a 68-acre nature preserve. And, as this is Vermont, we’re within easy reach of a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities – Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, etc. Our 32 homes and common house are located on 4½ acres of land, out of which more than 3 acres is open space, woods, and gardens.

Our homes are a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments, two and three-bedroom townhouses, and two single-family homes. We share a large common house that includes a living room, kitchen for preparing shared meals, dining room with outdoor terrace, a large roof deck, guest rooms, multipurpose room, laundry room, and mailroom.

Most of our buildings have flat roofs to minimize visual impact and to facilitate the installation of photovoltaics.
By January of 2011, 113 rooftop photovoltaic panels had been added. By the fall of 2012, an additional 48 panels were installed.

Burlington Cohousing is legally structured like a condominium. Each household owns the interior of their unit, but also collectively owns the common elements including the common house, the roofs, outside walls, and structural components of the buildings, as well as the land. The common elements are managed by the residents, through the homeowners association. The legal documents for the community include the Declaration of Condominium and the By-Laws.

We have two solar photovoltaic arrays. You can see the information we receive on how much power they generate by visiting: Enlighten (powers the indoor common spaces) and Enlighten Public Systems (powers the unit owners who installed their own panels). Click on the Reports tab.

There is much more information about the community, their environment, and cohousing on the community website. 

Consensus: Community or Decision-Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pivotal Consensus Experience

In 1972 with a group of parents forming a cooperative school, predominantly young Yale faculty members who had moved to town to join a new college. We were committed to diversity and having a hard time recruiting people of color and from a different socio-economic class.

We were having an equally hard time finding appropriate space that we could afford. This was long before charter schools so we were funding the whole thing ourselves. We had been offered a space in a Presbyterian church in the center of the city, just where we wanted to be. We had had hours of discussion. Everyone consented to accept the lease except one very young African American single mother. No one wanted to either pressure her to consent or disregard her opinion or to lose her from the group. We had met several times in the previous two weeks and were exhausted, ready to take anything. It was after midnight when we finally agreed to sleep on it and meet again the next night.

After the meeting as we all went to our cars the conversations were about what we would do if she didn’t change her mind. No one agreed with her reasons but some thought we should give up the space in order to empower her personally and prove that we were serious about diversity. Others found this condescending and patronizing.

When we reassembled the next night, everyone was tense and not meeting each other’s eyes. We started the round with the young woman. She said she was willing to respect the group’s decision but still felt strongly that it would be a mistake.

One by one, every person in the room sincerely agreed with her. The space was in the basement of an all white church that was fairly conservative. Most parent cooperative schools then had been started in reaction to segregation or the teaching of evolution in schools. We would be reinforcing that view of our school if we chose that space — even though we would have a separate entrance and an address on another street. Even though we were going to be an open school and had hired teachers with fairly radical ideas, there would also be pressure to conform. It wouldn’t be a long term home and would be a bad start.

The self-assured optimism of the educated elite that believed it could change the minds of anyone with their successful progressive school and rational arguments, no matter how different their values, had melted overnight into her realism. She knew from her experience and her perspective that these people wouldn’t change — they liked who they were and it was a church where they had full control. They would be more than we could bear when we were still so new and untested.

We found other space shortly afterward.

One thing I’ve learned is that few groups are willing to spend the amount of time and listening required to work out this level of consensus. Perhaps in cohousing the aims are too diverse. Pre-move-in the task is huge and complex but the aim focused. We set aside our other aims. After move-in, all the personal aims we had deferred reemerge and exist in one place. With 65+ adults, there are a lot of aims. People with strong personal aims elsewhere don’t have that much the time or energy to spend on community aims unless they consciously make and preserve room for them.

Conflict Resolution: The Fixer

Many communities—cohousing, religious, etc.—believe that conflict resolution is based on loving and understanding. That if we just care more and understand each other’s needs, conflict will go away. They emphasize how hard this is. “This is the hard work we all need to do.”

Peace workers, in particular, are big on love and understanding and couple attempts to acquire it not only with hard work but with courage. “It takes a lot of courage to sit down one-on-one and have a hard conversation about our common needs.” Conflict is war, peace is understanding. Both require courage, however, so even though we are avoiding war, we are still courageous. Even more courageous.

And how do we acquire love and understanding? Face-to-face. Contact.

The perfect process is face-to-face conversations focused on understanding needs and love is the only solution. Now, in day-to-day living, this is a non-starter in the worst conflicts, and will ensure that many minor but festering conflicts will never be mentioned in public, or not until they are the size of neutron bombs. Some people thrive on face-to-face conversations. Others are drained beyond belief. Plus when living in a community, how many face-to-face conversations can one have in a week and still keep your home and family functioning?

Those who do not thrive on or do not have time for more personal contact will certainly avoid even admitting a conflict. The fear that they would be coaxed into such a conversation, even by trickery from those who are convinced that this is just what you need (as if it were a laxative), be blamed of triangulating because they might express their conflict to someone other than the object of their frustration, or be called out in public as requiring salvation, like a Baptist in a prayer meeting, would ensure that they suffer in silence or leave the community.

You notice that the emphasis amongst the hard-work and courage advocates has been deftly moved from the content of the conflict to the need for love and understanding. Accept the hard work, sit down for the face-to-face, and the wonderous joy will come out. We will be one. Harmony will hold us in its arms. All else will fade away.

Without going into all the research demonstrating that love is not enough, and not even necessary, I’ll say that the method I would like see developed is The Fixer. Something like NVC’s 4 steps and more manageable than the 12-step programs. The method used in the Vernon Jordan School of Getting Things Done. It would go something like this:

1. Find a savvy insider who knows what is possible and what is probably not.
2. Talk to Bill.
3. Talk to Monica.
4. Repeat as necessary until everyone is satisfied.

Forget the hard work. Forget the courage. Forget the love and understanding. Focus on the conflict and the people involved. Look around and see if this is systemic. Does it need a limited solution or policy change?

Someone please go for it.

The Fixer

Many communities—cohousing, religious, etc.—believe that conflict resolution is based on loving and understanding. That if we just care more and understand each other’s needs, conflict will go away. They emphasize how hard this is. “This is the hard work we all need to do.”

Peace workers, in particular, are big on love and understanding and couple attempts to acquire it not only with hard work but with courage. “It takes a lot of courage to sit down one-on-one and have a hard conversation about our common needs.” Conflict is war, peace is understanding. Both require courage, however, so even though we are avoiding war, we are still courageous. Even more courageous.

And how do we acquire love and understanding? Face-to-face. Contact.

The perfect process is face-to-face conversations focused on understanding needs and love is the only solution. Now, in day-to-day living, this is a non-starter in the worst conflicts, and will ensure that many minor but festering conflicts will never be mentioned in public, or not until they are the size of neutron bombs. Some people thrive on face-to-face conversations. Others are drained beyond belief. Plus when living in a community, how many face-to-face conversations can one have in a week and still keep your home and family functioning?

Those who do not thrive on or do not have time for more personal contact will certainly avoid even admitting a conflict. The fear that they would be coaxed into such a conversation, even by trickery from those who are convinced that this is just what you need (as if it were a laxative), be blamed of triangulating because they might express their conflict to someone other than the object of their frustration, or be called out in public as requiring salvation, like a Baptist in a prayer meeting, would ensure that they suffer in silence or leave the community.

You notice that the emphasis amongst the hard-work and courage advocates has been deftly moved from the content of the conflict to the need for love and understanding. Accept the hard work, sit down for the face-to-face, and the wonderous joy will come out. We will be one. Harmony will hold us in its arms. All else will fade away.

Without going into all the research demonstrating that love is not enough, and not even necessary, I’ll say that the method I would like see developed is The Fix. Something like NVC’s 4 steps and more manageable than the 12-step programs. The method used in the Vernon Jordan School of Getting Things Done. It would go something like this:

1. Find a savvy insider who knows what is possible and what is probably not.
2. Talk to Bill.
3. Talk to Monica.
4. Repeat as necessary until everyone is satisfied.

Forget the hard work. Forget the courage. Forget the love and understanding. Focus on the conflict and the people involved. Look around and see if this is systemic. Does it need a limited solution or policy change?

Someone please go for it.

Are Sociocratic Corporations Legal?

Sociocratic corporations are perfectly legal. All the laws that constrain corporate functioning can be met while applying sociocratic values, principles, and methods.

Laws governing corporations, both for profit and not for profit, are generally written to prevent abuses that corporations have committed in the past, often with investors’ or donors’ money. In writing the law, the government is presenting its solution to that problem. If you can determine what the law intended to prevent, you will have a good guide to functioning within the law and build a sociocratic structure.

For example, in the US, there is often a requirement that the Board of Directors function by majority vote. The law was intended to ensure that “at least” a majority were in favor of an action. It is a minimum standard, not a maximum standard. Consent contains within it the majority. There is no contradiction in the numbers.

Corporate legislation requires an organization to have a Board of Directors with full authority to govern the organization, but the board can delegate its authority. This is what higher circles do when they create lower circles.

The legal protection for investors and donors is that if the lower circles do not carry out their delegated duties, the Board has the authority to take control. The Board can delegate authority as long as it retains responsibility for the results. This is also perfectly sociocratic since a higher circle can decide to eliminate a lower circle that is not functioning properly.

Even if you are confronting an old law that protected someone 200 years ago, however, the worst thing you can do is to try to convince the government that they are wrong at the same time you are trying to become incorporated. Get legally incorporated, then demonstrate the superiority of the sociocratic structure. Until you have done that, no one will listen to you.

We had this problem with cohousing communities getting approved by town zoning boards. Most cohousing communities are legally structured as condominiums. There are very clear laws about “common interest” real estate in which each owner has a percentage interest. Instead of explaining how the cohousing project met all the legal requirements for condominiums and was financially sound, groups were going to banks and zoning boards talking about shared meals, consensus decision-making, supportive environments for children, changing the world, recycling, etc.

This information was distracting the banks and boards and creating uncertainty about totally sound real estate developments. Cohousing groups were routinely turned down until they found a conventional developing partner, a very sympathetic banker, or began sounding like the legally established condominium that they were.

To ensure that you are both within the law and not undermining the self-optimizing sociocratic structure, you only need a lawyer and a sociocratic consultant with the level of training required to set up a complex organization.

Full-Circle Meetings

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.