Tag Archives: Kees Boeke

“Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be” by Kees Boeke

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury
Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

Kees Boeke was an internationally known peace activist and educator. During WW II when he was arrested for harboring Jews, in his pocket he had an early draft of a declaration entitled “No Dictatorship.” It could have cost him his life, but he was released. It described a plan for a truly democratic society and was first published in May of 1945 as Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be. This version was edited by his wife Beatrice Cadbury Boeke and included here with the permission of his daughter Candia Boeke.

We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them, and democracy, even as it is today, has much to recommend it as compared with former practices. But the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracy of people’s dreams. Its weaknesses have become clear enough: endless debates in Parliament, mass meetings in which the most primitive passions are aroused, the overruling by the majority of all independent views, capricious and unreliable election results, government action rendered inefficient by the minority’s persistent opposition. Strange abuses also creep in. Not only can a party obtain votes by deplorably underhanded methods, but, as we all know, a dictator can win an election with an “astonishing” majority by intimidation.

The fact is that we have taken the present system for granted for so long that many people do not realize that the party system and majority rule are not an essential part of democracy.

The fact is that we have taken the present system for granted for so long that many people do not realize that the party system and majority rule are not an essential part of democracy. If we really wish to see the whole population united, like a big family, in which the members care for each other’s welfare as much as for their own, we must set aside the quantitative principle of the right of the greatest number and find another way of organizing ourselves. This solution must be really democratic in the sense that it must enable each one of us to share in organizing the community. But this kind of democracy will not depend on power, not even the power of the majority. It will have to be a real community-democracy, an organization of the community by the community itself.

For this concept I shall use the word “sociocracy.” Such a concept would be of little value if it had never been tried out in practice. But its validity has been successfully demonstrated over the years. Anyone who knows England or America will have heard of the Quakers, the Society of Friends. They have had much influence in these countries and are well known for their practical social work. For more than three hundred years the Quakers have used a method of self-government that rejects majority voting, group action being possible only when unanimity has been reached.

I too have found by trying out this method in my school that it really does work, provided there is recognition that the interests of others are as real and as important as one’s own. If we start with this fundamental idea, a spirit of goodwill is engendered which can bind together people from all levels of society and with the most varied points of view. This, my school, with its three to four hundred members, has clearly shown.

As a result of these two experiences, I have come to believe that it should be possible some day for people to govern themselves in this way in a much wider field. Many will be highly skeptical about this possibility. They are so accustomed to a social order in which decisions are made by the majority or by a single person, that they do not realize that, if a group provides its own leadership and everyone knows that only when common agreement is reached can any action be taken, quite a different atmosphere is created from that arising from majority rule. These are two examples of sociocracy in practice; let us hope that its principles may be applied on a national, and finally an international scale.

Before describing how the system could be made to work, we must first see what the problem really is. We want a group of persons to establish a common arrangement of their affairs which all will respect and obey. There will be no executive committee chosen by the majority, having the power to command the individual. The group itself must reach a decision and enter into an agreement on the understanding that every individual in the group will act on this decision and honor this agreement. I have called this the self-discipline of the group. It can be compared to the self-discipline of the individual who has learned to set certain demands for himself that he obeys.

Three Fundamental Rules

There are three fundamental rules underlying the system. The first is that the interests of all members must be considered, the individual bowing to the interests of the whole. Secondly, solutions must be sought which everyone can accept: otherwise no action can be taken. Thirdly, all members must be ready to act according to these decisions when unanimously made.

The spirit that underlies the first rule is really nothing else but concern for one’s neighbor, and where this exists, where there is sympathy for other people’s interests, where love is, there will be a spirit in which real harmony is possible.

The second point must be considered in more detail. If a group in any particular instance is unable to decide upon a plan of action acceptable to every member, it is condemned to inactivity; it can do nothing. This may happen even today where the majority is so small that efficient action is not possible. But in the case of sociocracy there is a way out, since such a situation stimulates its members to seek for a solution, that everyone can accept, perhaps ending in a new proposal, which had not occurred to anyone before.

While under the party system disagreement accentuates the differences and the division becomes sharper than ever, under a sociocratic system, so long as it is realized that agreement must be reached, it activates a common search that brings the whole group nearer together. Something must be added here. If no agreement is possible, this usually means that the present situation must continue for the time being. It might seem that in this way conservatism and reaction would reign, and no progress would be possible. But experience has shown that the contrary is true.

The mutual trust that is accepted as the basis of a sociocratic society leads inevitably to progress, and this is noticeably greater when all go forward together with something everyone has agreed to. Again it is clear that there will have to be “higher-level” meetings of chosen representatives, and if a group is to be represented in such a meeting, it will have to be by someone in whom everyone has confidence. If this does not prove possible, then the group will not be represented at all in the higher-level meeting, and its interests will have to be cared for by the representatives of other groups. But experience has shown that where representation is not a question of power but of trust, the choice of a suitable person can be made fairly easily and without unpleasantness.

The third principle means that when agreement is reached the decision is binding on all who have made it. This also holds of the higher-level meeting for all who have sent representatives to it. There is a danger in the fact that each must keep decisions made in a meeting over which he has only an indirect influence. This danger is common to all such decisions, not least in the party system. But it is much less dangerous where the representatives are chosen by common consent and are therefore much more likely to be trusted.

A group that works in this way should be of particular size. It must be big enough for personal matters to give way to an objective approach to the subject under discussion, but small enough not to be unwieldy, so that the quiet atmosphere needed can be secured. For meetings concerned with general aims and methods a group of about forty has been found the most suitable. But when detailed decisions have to be made, a small committee will be needed of three to six persons or so. This kind of committee is not new. If we could have a look at the countless committees in existence, we should probably find that those that are doing the best work do so without voting. They decide on a basis of common consent. If a vote were to be taken in such a small group, it would usually mean that the atmosphere is wrong.

Leadership

Of special importance in exercising sociocratic government is the leadership. Without a proper leader unanimity cannot easily be reached. This concerns a certain technique that has to be learnt. Here Quaker experience is of the greatest value. Let me describe a Quaker business meeting. The group comes together in silence. In front sits the Clerk, the leader of the meeting. Beside him sits the Assistant Clerk; who writes down what is agreed upon. The Clerk reads out each subject in turn, after which all members present, men and women, old and young, may speak to the subject. They address themselves to the meeting and not to a chairman, each one making a contribution to the developing train of thought.

It is the Clerk’s duty, when he thinks the right moment has come, to read aloud a draft minute reflecting the feeling of the meeting. It is a difficult job, and it needs much experience and tact to formulate the sense of the meeting in a way that is acceptable to all. It often happens that the Clerk feels the need for a time of quiet. Then the whole gathering will remain silent for a while, and often out of the silence will come a new thought, a reconciling solution, acceptable to everyone.

It may seem unbelievable to many that a meeting of up to a thousand people can be held in this way. And yet I have been present at a Yearly Meeting of the Quakers in London, held during war-time (the First World War), at which the much vexed problem of the Quaker attitude to war was discussed in such a manner, no vote being taken. So I believe that if we once set ourselves the task of learning this method of co-operation, beginning with very simple matters, we shall be able to learn this art and acquire a tradition that will make possible the handling of more difficult questions.

Talkovers

This has been confirmed by my experience at Bilthoven in building up the school which I called the Children’s Community Workshop. Very early on I suggested that we should talk over how we should organize our community life. At first the children objected, saying they wanted me to take the decisions for them. But I insisted, and the idea of the ‘Talkover,” or weekly meeting, was accepted. Later I suggested that one of the children help me with the leadership of the meeting; and from that time on it has become an institution, led by the children, which we should not like to lose.

When I began to hold these Talkovers, I was aware that I was using the procedure of the Quaker business meeting, and I saw in the distance, as it were, the great problem of the government of humanity. It was also curious to discover whether the art of living together, understood as obeying the rule we had all agreed upon, would be simple enough to be learned by children. An experience of some 20 years has shown me that it certainly is.

For Society

But something more is necessary before this method can be applied to adult society. When we are concerned, not with a group of a few hundred people, but with thousands, even millions, whose lives we wish to organize in this way, we must accept the principle of some sort of representation. There will have to be higher–level meetings, and these will have to deal with matters concerning a wider area. Higher-level meetings will also have to send representatives to another higher body, which will be responsible for a still wider area, and so on.

After my hopes for the success of school meetings had been confirmed by practice, I was very curious to know if a meeting of representatives would work also in the school. One day when the number of children had grown too large for one general meeting at which all could be present, I suggested the setting up of a meeting of representatives. At first the children did not like the idea; children are conservative. But, as often happens, six months later they suggested the same plan themselves, and since then this institution has become a regular part of the life of the school.

Neighborhood and Ward Meetings

Of course such meetings, if ever they are to be used by adults for the organization of society as a whole, will have a very different character from those of our children’s community. But how in practice could such methods be introduced? First of all, a Neighborhood Meeting, made up of perhaps forty families, might be set up in a particular district, uniting those who live near enough to one another, so that they could easily meet. In a town it very often happens that people do not even know their neighbors, and it will be an advantage if they are forced to take an interest in those who live close by.

The Neighborhood Meeting might embrace about 150 people, including children. About 40 of these Neighborhood Meetings might send representatives to a Ward Meeting, acting for something like 6000 people. In general it will be true to say that the wider the area the Meeting governs the less often it will need to meet. The representatives of about 40 Ward Meetings could come together in a District Meeting, acting for about 240,000 people.

District and Central Meetings

In approximately 40 or 50 District Meetings the whole population of a small country might be covered. The representatives would bring the interests of all the Districts to a Central Meeting. It is an essential condition that representatives have the confidence of the whole group: if they have that, business can usually be carried on quickly and effectively.

Functional Groups: Industries and Professions

As the whole sociocratic method depends on trust, there will be no disadvantage if, alongside the geographical representation of Neighborhood, Ward, District and Central Meetings, a second set of functional groupings be established. It seems reasonable that all industries and professions send representatives to primary, secondary and, where necessary, tertiary meetings, and that the trusted representatives of the “workers” in every field should be available to give their professional advice to the government.

I have here used the word “government”. It is not my intention to put forward a plan according to which the government itself could one day be formed on sociocratic lines. We must start from the present situation, and the only possibility is that, with the government’s consent, we make a beginning of the sociocratic method from the bottom upwards; that is, for the present, with the formation of Neighborhood groups. We, ordinary people, must just learn to talk over our common interests and to reach agreement after quiet consideration, and this can be done best in the place where we live.

Only after we have seen how difficult this is, and after, most probably, making many mistakes, will it be possible to set up meetings on a higher level. If leaders should emerge in the Neighborhood Meetings, their advice would gradually be seen to be useful in the existing Local Councils. Later, in the same way, the advice of leaders of Ward Meetings would be of increasing value.

The sociocratic method must recommend itself by the efficiency with which it works. When the governing power has learnt to trust it enough so as to allow, perhaps even to encourage, the setting up of Neighborhood Meetings, the system will be able to show what possibilities it has, and then the confidence of the governing bodies and of people at large will have a chance to grow. I can well believe that trusted leaders and representatives of Neighborhood Meetings may be allowed, or even invited, to attend Local Meetings.

These men and women will of course take no part in the voting, for sociocracy does not believe in voting; but they might be allowed a place in the centre between the “left” and the “right”. After a time it may even be deemed desirable to ask them for advice about the matter in hand, since it would previously have been discussed in their Neighborhood Meetings, and a solution sought acceptable to all. It is conceivable that, as confidence grows, certain matters might be handed over to the Neighborhood Meetings with the necessary funds to carry them out. Only when the value of the new system is realized, could the higher-level meetings be begun.

Democracy as It Might Be

Is such a development as this a fantasy? When we consider the possible success of government on the sociocratic principle, one thing is certain; it is unthinkable unless it is accompanied and supported by the conscious education of old and young in the sociocratic method. The right kind of education is essential, and here a revolution is needed in our schools. Only latterly have attempts been made in them to further the spontaneous development of the child and encourage his initiative.

Partly because the stated aim of the school is to impart knowledge and skills, and partly because people regard obedience as a virtue in itself, children have been trained to obey. We are only beginning to realize the dangers of this practice. If children are not taught to judge for themselves, they will in later life become an easy prey for the dictator. But if we really want to prepare youth to think and act for themselves, we must alter our attitude to education.

The children should not be sitting passively in rows, while the schoolmaster drills a lesson into their heads. They should be able to develop freely in children’s communities, guided and helped by those who are older acting as their comrades. Initiative should be fostered in every possible way. They should learn from the beginning to do things for themselves, and to make things necessary in their school life. But above all they should learn how to run their own community in some such way as has already been described.

A World Meeting

Finally we must return to the question of representation. We have not gone further than the government of our own country. But the great problem of the government of mankind can never be solved on a national basis. Every country is dependent for raw materials and products on other countries. It is therefore inevitable that the system of representation should be extended over a whole continent and representatives of continents join in a World Meeting to govern and order the whole world.

Our technical skill in the fields of transport and organization make something of this kind possible. Finally a World Meeting should invite representatives of all the continents to arrange a reasonable distribution of all raw materials and products, making them available for all mankind. So long as we are ruled by fear and distrust, it is impossible to solve the problems of the world. The more trust grows and the more fear diminishes, the more the problem will shrink.

A New Spirit of Reconciliation and Trust

Everything depends on a new spirit breaking through among men. May it be that, after the many centuries of fear, suspicion and hate, more and more a spirit of reconciliation and mutual trust will spread abroad. The constant practice of the art of sociocracy and of the education necessary for it seem to be the best way in which to further this spirit, upon which the real solution of all world problems depends.

(Subtitles and additional paragraphs have been added to improve readability on computer screens.)

Sociocracy FAQ

What Is Sociocracy.info?

Sociocracy.info is the first comprehensive website on Sociocracy. It is maintained by me, Sharon Villines, coauthor with John Buck of We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy. It contains information on the history, principles, and practices of Sociocracy and a blog to answer questions from readers.

The sister site is A Deeper Democracy where I explore  sociocracy in as a method for better achieving the values and purposes of democracy

Harmony?

Gerard Endenburg developed the modern implementation of sociocratic values. His purpose was  to create a harmonious workplace. He believed that in order to do this members of his company had to be able to consent to their working conditions and to be able to self-organize, to take responsibility for planning and evaluating their work.

The dictionary definitions of harmony are  agreement, accord, harmonious relations, and a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity.

In addition to Endenburg’s experience as a student in a sociocratic school noted for being a harmonious environment, he knew that research had shown  groups that work together in harmony are the most productive.

What is governance?

Governance means the way we steer ourselves. The way a boat is governed by the crew to keep the boat afloat and their own needs met as they move toward shore. It’s how we guide ourselves individually and in groups toward a common purpose.

In sociocracy, each person has a place in which they are equally respected and expected to assume leadership and governance responsibilities. They are in charge of fulfilling their roles and responsibilities—of steering themselves in harmony with the whole organization.

What is sociocracy?

Sociocracy is both a social ideal and a governance method. The ideal, developed along with the science of sociology, is an effective society that ensures freedom and equality for all. Unlike democracy, sociocracy is based in science and scientific method as well as social justice.

A “sociocracy” was first defined by French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte in 1850 and later popularized by American sociologist Frank Ward in the late 19th century. In 1926, Beatrice “Betty Cadbury Boeke and Cornelius “Kees” Boeke, both Quakers, pacifists, and educators, combined Quaker teachings  with the theories of Comte and Ward to create the first sociocracy in their residential-school community of 400 students and staff in the Netherlands. The school still exists and is still governed sociocratically.

It was a graduate of the Boeke’s school mentioned earlier, Gerard Endenburg who combined the Boekes’ principles with the modern science of cybernetics and best practices in business to create a sociocracy that worked in a highly competitive and complex business,

Endenburg’s purpose was to create in his electrical engineering company, Endenburg Electric, the harmony he had experienced as a student.

Why sociocracy and not democracy?

Sociocracy implements the knowledge of the sciences and the use of scientific method to guide decisions that result in the best solutions for everyone, not just the majority. Its objectives are the same as those of democracy: freedom and equality for all, but its methods ensure that these freedoms will be guaranteed.

In most democratic countries, majority vote is used to elect officials and make laws. In fact, voting is most often cited as proof that a government is democratic. Sociocracy has a set of principles and practices that ensure the effectiveness, Inclusiveness, and accountability that are required to fully implement democratic values.

What is particular to sociocracy?

Sociocracy is based on:

1. The ideal of a society that values equality and freedom for all. It practices transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness. It uses “no objections” as the ideal standard for governance decisions.

2.  Scientific discoveries and methods—measurement and evaluation are used to decide effectiveness and guide corrections. The organizational structure is designed to produce self-organization, resilience, and coherence—the characteristics  of harmonious systems.

Sociocratic principles and practices can be used to organize and govern the day-to-day operations of all organizations, including governments and businesses.

Does anyone do this?

Yes. Sociocracy is used world-wide in multiple kinds of organizations, large and small, business and nonprofit, religious and educational. There are centers in several countries and many consultants teaching and implementing the methods in organizations. Offshoots combining sociocracy with other governance and social  methods and techniques have been developed and taught.

The last frontier is national and local governance.

 

Consensus, Consent, and Objections

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.

A Biography of Kees Boeke

Cover of Dutch Biography of Kees BoekeWell-received biography of Kees Boeke in Dutch by Daniela Hooghiemstra, a noted Dutch Biographer.

Available from Bol.com

Description

De christen-pacifist Kees Boeke (1884- 1966) wordt wel ‘onderwijshervormer’ genoemd maar hij beoogde niet minder dan de stichting van een nieuwe wereld. Toen de poging om die gemeenschap te stichten mislukte, besloot Boeke een school te stichten waar de ‘nieuwe wereld’ van de grond af opgebouwd moest worden. Deze unieke school kreeg na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een prominente leerling: prinses Beatrix. De koninklijke aandacht leek de kroon op zijn werk, maar luidde ook het begin in van de ondergang van Kees Boeke en alles waar hij altijd in geloof had.

First Implementation

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury
Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury

When WW II began to engulf Europe, the first implementation of sociocracy was achieved. Before the war, Dutch educator Cornelius “Kees” Boeke and his wife, English educator Beatrice “Betty” Cadbury, had been active internationally in Quaker peace education, predominantly in the Middle East. Boeke was a vocal pacifist and spoke against war with Hitler. When WWI began the Boekes were expelled from England. In 1914, they settled in Kees Boeke’s hometown, Bilthoven, a small community in The Netherlands. They continued their peace work, actively supported pacifists, and started several European and International peace organizations.

The First Implementation: The Childrens Community Workshop

In 1926, the Boekes founded the first sociocratic organization.       Needing a school for their children, they started the Children’s Community Workshop and began adapting Quaker egalitarian principles to its governance. By 1945, the residential school community had grown to 400 students, staff, and teachers who participated as equals in school functioning and program design.  Decisions were made by consensus and no actions taken until everyone agreed. The school still exists and functions according the same principles.

Although confined to the Netherlands and arrested by the Germans during the occupation, Kees Boeke continued to write about the abuses of power that were becoming evident in democracies. His most well-known essay is “Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be.”

Consent vs Consensus : Laird Schaub on Sociocracy

Laird Schaub
Laird Schaub

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.

Stalking Consensus

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.)

Conflict Resolution: Strategies vs Trust

Drop Cap Letter QWith connecting over needs and empathizing with feelings going on, people don’t get hung up on strategies. Why not table discussion of strategies until there is universal agreement that all parties fully and deeply understand and appreciate each other’s feelings and needs, then strategies need not be points of conflict— but of creativity to find solutions that work for all.

The reason Gerard was unable to use Kees Boeke’s style of consensus decision-making is that in the workplace, people are not interested in or expected to connect over [emotional] needs or empathize with feelings. A business generally can’t wait until everyone, in Boeke’s words “loves and trusts” each other, or stop the work for personal conflict resolution. An organization might require this and it might be necessary when a problem is clearly about emotional reactions between two people or a group of people and it is seriously affecting productivity in a small business or a work unit. But normally tensions unrelated to the aim/role/job probably need other resolutions. But this is not properly the role of the circle or the operations leader to resolve, though they may. The work can usually not be set aside until this is resolved.

Clear Aims and Conflict Resolution

Not expecting people to make connections at an emotional level allows more people and more diverse people to work together in a job situation. Clear aims and roles prevent many conflicts from occurring. Many if not most conflicts are not the result of interpersonal misunderstandings but lack of clarity in the organization, the environment.

A difference in aim affects the approach to conflict used. In a community, the emotional needs/reactions of members (except in case of pathology) often is the aim of the community.  In this case it would be the work of the community and part of the governance of the community. Non-Violent Communication (NVC) could easily be the method of choice for addressing this kind of situation. Some cohousing professionals, for example, are recommending that all members of a new community have such training. A designated person, external or internal, might be identified to fill this role. 

NVC and Sociocracy

We’ve had a lot of discussion on the [email protected] list about NVC and sociocracy. A few years ago some people were equating them. They are not the same class of things. They are not inter-changeable. Sociocracy is a method of designing and managing organizations effectively. NVC is a technique for sorting out needs and identifying means of addressing them. They are complimentary but have different aims.

Personal trust and empathy won’t address all conflicts and expectations that may be present. And it isn’t always possible or necessary for effective action. 

Kees Boeke, Cosmic View

Kees Boeke is perhaps best known outside of The Netherlands for his book, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957), which served as the basis for the film by Charles and Ray Eames The Power of Ten (1968) which is now the basis of an extensive interactive web site at www.powersof10.com and inspired the IMAX film the Cosmic Voyage (1996).

The book presents a series of forty pictures composed to help children develop a sense of scale and to understand themselves in relation to the universe. Each picture jumps, in exact scale, in powers of 10, from a picture of a girl outdoors in a chair up to a view of her neighborhood, then to her country, and so on until the pictures reach the edge of the universe. Then they move back from the girl in the chair into microscopic views of her skin tissues and finally, under a magnification of ten million, the nucleus of a sodium atom. In the forward, Boeke said:

At school we are introduced to many different spheres of existence, but they are often not connected with each other, so that we are in danger of collecting a large number of images without realizing that they all join together in one great whole. It is therefore important in our education to find the means of developing a wider and more connected view of our world and a truly cosmic view of the universe and our place in it. (Boeke 1957)

How Many People Know about Sociocracy?

In another post, I just asserted with no evidence what-so-ever that more than 99% of the world’s population had no knowledge of sociocracy, the world’s most deeply democratic method of governance. Someone might have a method of measuring this but I have a quick way.

When I Googled “sociocracy” in 2002, there were 12 pages listed by Google. Most were repeats of links to Kees Boeke’s essay and to the Sociocratisch Centrum site.

Today, as of one minute ago, there were 56,000. The even number is a bit suspect and some are probably to the same site, but the difference between 12 and 56,000 eight years later is certainly significant.

Democracy, on the other hand, returns 66,900,000 pages. Autocracy, 1,360,000.

We have a long way to go.