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)
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.
In 1978 Endenburg established the Sociocratisch Centrum in Utrecht, later moved to Rotterdam and renamed The Sociocracy Group, and began consulting with many organizations to implement the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method. He also joined the faculty of the school of business at the University of Maastricht and began training business leaders.
In 2014, Endenburg has partially retired but still influences decisions related to the growth of sociocratic organizations world-wide. Students he has trained are now training other consultants internationally. Sociocracy Group centers , organizations, and training programs now exist in the Americas, Europe, and Australia.
Organizations Using Sociocracy
There is no comprehensive list of sociocratic organizations. Most prefer to be known for their work, not how they make decisions. The now include national and international associations, building and manufacturing companies, health care services, public school systems, villages, private schools, Buddhist monasteries, software companies, residential communities, colleges, a wholesale florist company, veterinary offices, and consulting firms.
They are spread over North and South America, all the countries of Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and developing in Africa and Asia.
In addition to consultants working internationally to help organizations implement the method there are a growing number of websites with resources, guides to training and consultants, and social connections. A network of sociocratic organizations and individuals is being formed to increase general awareness of sociocratic principles and methods.
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.
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.)
Beyond Democracy: The Film by Ted Millich is consists of a series of interviews of international leader and consultants in sociocracy. The interviews were done over a period of several years and some excerpts are available on YouTube. The interviews include Gerard Endenburg, John Buck. and Frank Karsten.
The current draft is available in a 29-minute DVD from Ted at his website. The film has menus and subtitles in English, Dutch, French, and German.
Ted Millich also publishes a video blog on YouTube. (He’s an interesting speaker.)
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:
Consent decision-making for policy decisions, including electing people to roles and responsibilities.
Circle meetings in which working groups meet as equals to make policy decisions
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).
Today I completed a post on organizational structure that I began writing in 2010 on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” an article by Jo Freeman published in various versions from 1971-1973. She discussed the problems with the women’s movement in the late 1960s and 70s that began to believe that structurelessness in and of itself was an organizational ideal that would solve the problems of autocratic rule and the exclusion of women and minorities. She defines four principles on which an informally structured group can function well and further defines the practices that would allow organizations to be democratically organized and still be effective.
Freeman was writing at the same time that Endenburg was formulating his sociocratic circle-organization method and addressing the same problems from a different direction. The women’s conscious raising groups had developed strong bonds and personal commitment but had difficulty transferring this to effective social action. Endenburg had a structure and an organization but he wanted more commitment in order to have a more effective and harmonious organization. It was informative to apply a sociocratic analysis to the women’s movement and to compare Freeman’s principles for a democratic organization to Endenburg’s for a sociocratic organization.
The full post is here: The Tyranny of Structurelessness It’s long but I hope worth the effort.
Terra Viva is an agribusiness centered in São Paulo, Brazil begin by the Schoenmaker family in 1959 to grow gladiolas. Though not mentioned on their website, Gerard Endenburg consulted with the owner in the 1970s to develop the company using sociocracy. They now have more than a thousand workers and focus on bulbs and plants for flowers and vegetables.
Their website includes a discussion of the company’s philosophy including an organizational chart, but does not mention sociocracy or Endenburg.
There is nothing about a hierarchy that assumes “the people at the top” are any more intelligent or more highly trained than the people at the bottom. They have a different function, one which requires a specific knowledge base and skill set, not necessarily more of either intelligence or training.
A case in point is a university. The president of a college has, one hopes, a certain kind of knowledge and training. The teaching staff has another kind. Professors are often much better educated in terms of breadth of knowledge, even in certifications and recognitions, than university presidents. Department chairs are not necessarily, and probably not even normally, the most educated or the most intelligent members of their department. (I’m assuming a general definition of “intelligent” as highly knowledgeable with the ability to transfer that knowledge to a wide range of topics. Intelligence is more than memory and diligent processing of research in the field, in other words.)
The brilliance of university presidents is in knowing how to hire and promote people who are smarter than themselves and in knowing when to consult them. That isn’t to say that university presidents do that but for the sake of argument, I’m assuming competence. A president is a person who can conceptualize issues broadly and integrate information from an operational point of view, not necessarily from an academic point of view—and is interested in doing it. Probably 80% of the population has no interest in this at all and only a fraction of the other 20% are good at it.
Levels of abstraction characterize the levels in a hierarchy. The higher levels think in longer time frames and larger budget categories. An even clearer distinction is that the higher the level the more it is concerned with the meta data of an organization. A university is about education, but what presidents do from day to day has very little to do with educating. Presidents need to understand educational issues but what they are responsible for is facilitating education: obtaining and overseeing the allocation of resources, representing the institution at ceremonial events, guarding public reputation of the institution, etc.
A university president has probably not seen the inside of a classroom in decades. And students only at commencement and while walking across campus. Or in the newspaper when there is trouble.
The value of the sociocratic structure as conceptualized by Gerard Endenburg is that it recognizes this and provides a way for presidents not only to be informed by administrators, professors, and students alike, but to be informed in a way that requires them to listen. The president has specific roles and responsibilities that are governed, directly or indirectly, by the rest of the organization. The president is led by the organization, not the other way around.
The problem of those who advocate the ideas of sociocracy as they establish organizations internationally is to determine how those national organizations will lead the movement, which for decades has been confined to the Sociocratisch Centrum in The Netherlands. Ironically, the principles and methods of sociocracy are being tested as the struggle for the control of ideas is waged. Who controls ideas? Who can teach them? Can there be an authority apart from the Centrum?
The Sociocratisch Centrum was founded by Gerard Endenburg who developed the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method.
In 2014, it reorganized and became The Sociocracy Group (TSG) to distinguish itself as an international consulting firm with affiliates in many countries. The Sociocracy Group serves as a professional association for certified facilitators, trainers, and consultants, and oversees the Certification of Sociocratic Experts worldwide.
The standards, norms, and certification process are posted on the site. Along with an international list of Certified Experts by country. Annewiek Reijmer is now the General Manager.
From the website:
The Sociocracy Group is an organization that promotes sociocracy as a method of governance for all facets of global society. It is legally organized in The Netherlands and headquartered in Rotterdam.
Sociocracy enables people to live and work together as different, unique persons through dynamic structures and mutual equivalency in decision-making.
The Sociocracy Group adds the sociocratic circle-organization method (SCM) to global society by guiding regional TSG offices and providing a corps of certified sociocratic experts using the sociocratic norms.
A great concern of the Global Circle of the international sociocratic certification body is and has for many years been convinced that certification is essential to preserving the core principles and their proper application. In addition to a concern about the principles being misapplied and the method misrepresented, the Global Circle is concerned about “sociocracy” becoming like “democracy” — having no definition and the name being used by anyone inaccurately, even deceptively.
Professional associations are a good way to establish standards and credibility in new fields. They can give some measure of assurance to clients that the person they are trusting to reorganize their companies has a certain level of training. Professional associations also form an information and education network for their members — very important functions. Individual certification and professional associations are not just about selling yourself to clients.
To focus only on certification, however, is more likely to produce rigidity than rigor. It has already inhibited the growth of sociocracy.
Gerard Endenburg began developing his method in 1970 and established the Sociocratisch Centrum in 1978 to implement sociocracy in other businesses and in other countries. While there are many companies and at least one international and one national associations using the method, in 2010, there are only two certified consultants in the United States. One is mentoring ~20 people whose aim is to become certified but some, by their own admission, are years away from certification since it requires an active consulting practice.
The Centrum, which has now formed the Global Circle, has been functioning since 1978. The members of the Centrum have not moved sociocracy to the forefront after more than 30 years. Jack Quarter in 2000 reported that there were 15 employees.
To move an individual or an organization to new creative heights requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In this case, the mechanistic thinking of reward/punishment narrows the focus to the details of certification, instead of broadening perspectives and applications of the values and principles of sociocracy. That is the chaos that produces energy.
Is there enough energy in the thinking of the Global Circle to balance the urge toward standardization with the need for integration and testing of sociocratic values, principles, and methods in the wider arena of ideas?
(Originally published 2 April 2010. Revised 24-26 June 2010)