Tag Archives: governance structures

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

Equating Consensus and Non-Violent Communication (NVC) with Governance

Often heard: “We don’t use sociocracy or dynamic governance; we use consensus.” Or, “We don’t use dynamic governance; we use non-violent communication (NVC).

The simple problem with these oppositions is that neither consensus nor NVC are governance methods. They don’t come with a set of principles or practices for structuring an organization, managing operations, and ensuring that the appropriate people are making the necessary decisions.

Consensus is a method for making decisions, just like majority vote is used to make decisions.

NVC is a technique for clarifying one’s feelings and needs, and can be very helpful when making decisions.

To say that you govern or organize yourselves using either of these is to say you have no governance structure. In the case of consensus, you have a decision-making method, which is usually used by the whole group participating. In the case of NVC, you have is a method for each member to clarify their needs and attempt to have them met.

So What Is Governance?

A governance method determines:  Who are the decision-makers and what decisions can they can make. How decisions are made. How resources—money and people—will be allocated. How policies be established and changed. How the work of the organization will be done. Who will determine what that work is. Most of our organizations, of course, don’t do this very clearly. Or they do it from time to time but then things change and the policies and practices aren’t updated.

Organizations, like systems, need a coherent structure of relationships between parts and a clear flow of information and resources. A governance method is necessary to establish and maintain that structure. Neither consensus nor NVC provide this.