Tag Archives: Cybernetics

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, 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:

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)

Symbol of Sociocracy?

The power of using a tree as a symbol of sociocracy is not that it turns the hierarchy on its head, which one can do just as easily with the rake diagram. It’s that the tree  is an almost universally positive  living image  and its biology understood. It is universal symbol of life, growth, beauty, and eternity.

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

From the film, Batman Begins, 2005.

A tree demonstrates the circular hierarchy created by the principle of consent and does it without triggering negative reactions. Many people believe “hierarchy” implicitly means “autocratic” and “power over” because that is their only experience.  People are in intentional communities and humanistic lifestyle movements, at least in part, to avoid autocratic hierarchies and to find an alternative. References to “higher” and “lower” circles in sociocracy can end the conversation.

Unit, department, division, council, and board could be used to avoid the higher-lower terminology, but they are still attached to autocratic bureaucracies. Roots, trunk, branches, and leaves just as clearly illustrate the functions and relationship between parts and can be used without triggering negative reactions.

Trees better illustrate  foundations of sociocracy in cybernetics, the study of systems that use communications and control to sustain themselves and adapt to their environment. Each part of the tree communicates its needs to every other part. Each controls the condition of the other. No part can ignore any other part and thrive. No leaves, no roots. No leaves, dead trunk. Damaged trunk, dead roots.

Instructive and Symbolic

Giant Oak TreeA tree is an illustration of a specific process and a symbol of all processes. It is a semi-autonomous, self-organizing system that is self-correcting and well integrated into its environment. The environment feeds and protects the tree while trees protect and provide for the environment.

The lawnmower spark-plug is a good example of consent that removes it from the realm of personal preference. When the spark-plug is dirty, it “withdraws its consent.” It can’t function. Its range of tolerance has been surpassed.  But as a symbol, it doesn’t work. Who wants to think that in order to object, they have to bring the whole system to a halt. If that were true, very few people would ever object and the purpose of objecting, to improve the proposal, would be defeated.

Few can empathize with a lawnmower or a spark-plug. Creating a diagram that looks like a flower with petals for circles is credited with convincing one community to try sociocracy. It was familiar and welcoming.

Recognizing Diversity

There are flowering trees, tall trees, low to the ground trees. Trees that grow on rocks and trees that grow by swamps. There are twisted trees like those in tornado alley that are gnarled and bent sideways but still grow, putting out new leaves every spring. While there are many kinds of trees, each with its own ability to trigger empathic responses, they are still trees.

Row of tree graphics.

Each organization has its own personalities, its own leaves. Its hidden roots.  If tree were the symbol of sociocracy, by choosing a specific tree to be the symbol of its uniqueness, a sociocratic organization would at the same time take on the symbol of sociocracy.

American Society for Cybernetics

American Society of Cybernetics LogoThe American Society for Cybernetics is an interdisciplinary association whose members are interested in the study and application of first and second order cybernetics and general systems thinking. ASC holds annual conferences in changing locations.

The History page is an interesting history of cybernetics in America.

“The science and art of understanding”—Humberto Maturana

“Interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences”—Heinz von Foerster

Gerard Endenburg: The Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method

A Sociocracy for Business

Photograph of Gerard Endenburg in 2010.
Gerard Endenburg at Sociocracy Day in The Netherlands in 2010.

It was a graduate of the Boekes’ school, Dutch electrical engineer Gerard Endenburg, who developed a method for implementing sociocracy in a competitive, results-oriented corporation. After completing his military service, he worked at Philips where he invented the small speakers still used in mobile devices. In 1968, he became the managing director of this family’s electrical engineering company, Endenburg Electric.

As an engineer, Gerard Endenburg found it frustrating that he could design remarkably successful electrical and mechanical systems but in managing people, it seemed impossible to produce satisfactory results for everyone—managers, workers, and investors. He knew from his experience at The Children’s Community Workshop that everyone’s needs have to be considered to  create a highly productive organization. Anything else was self-defeating.


While teaching radar technology in the Army, Endenburg had become interested in cybernetics, the study of communications and control. Cybernetics focuses on the ways that systems self-regulate. Primarily they do this  by communicating in a chain of cause-and-effect that creates feedback loops. This allows the systems to manage themselves successfully by self-correcting in response to their environment.

In 1970 Gerard Endenburg reduced the size of his company from 160 to 100 employees to create a laboratory for developing a sociocratic business model. His goal was to produce the same environment of harmony and self-directed achievement that he had experienced at school. He found intolerably counter productive the negative spirit of competition he found in the university, the army, and now in his business,

Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method

Over the next few years, step by step, Gerard Endenburg developed the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method (SCM). He based it on the now famous three principles:

  1. Consent decision-making for policy decisions, including electing people to roles and responsibilities.
  2. Circle meetings in which working groups meet as equals to make policy decisions
  3. Double linking of circles to form a circular hierarchy that functioned as a feedback structure.

He spent ten years planning, testing, measuring, making corrections, and starting over again. Finally,  Endenburg had developed a revolutionary method of organizing and managing organizations, Including his own producing electrical systems for the Dutch shipping industry. It expanded the ideas of Comte and Ward, and was more broadly applicable than the Boekes’.

In the Children’s Community Workshop, Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury had created a  harmonious society of self-organizing equals. But their methods only worked in a homogeneous population and was dependent on the valuing of  love and concern for each other. In a demanding, fast-paced business waiting until everyone loved each other was no more an option than majority voting.

Gerard Endenburg Applies His Method

By the early 1980s, Endenburg had developed a method that produced a harmonious, self-regulating, and highly successful business. Remarkably, it could be used to govern any kind of organization effectively. He founded the Sociocratisch Centrum in Amsterdam and began consulting in other businesses and organizations.

When Endenburg stepped down as managing director of Endenburg Electric in 1995, the company, still kept at 110 employees, had an annual income of fl 14 million (~US $5.6 million).