Tag Archives: Theory & Practice

Three Principles of Sociocracy

The numeral 3 in orange.Three Principles vs Four

There were originally three principles of sociocracy: (1) Consent to policy decisions, (2) circles arranged in a circular hierarchy to make policy decisions, and (3) double linking between circles. The election of people to roles and responsibilities was intended to be a part of the first principle of consent.

Allocation of resources involves the allocation of human resources as well as materials, machinery, space, and money. With three principles of sociocracy, this was not well understood. Organizations were still using traditional methods for hiring. This was often done by the operations leader or the operations leader combined with interviews by a subset of future coworkers. Consent decision-making, however, is dependent on being able to consent to those with whom one makes decisions. It is logical that all members of a circle must consent to the choice of a person to assume a particular responsibility. The fourth principle was added to ensure that these were consent decisions.

Working Memory

In the studies of working memory and the synthesis of ideas, three concepts have been found to be easiest for most people to comprehend. Many people can remember up to seven items in a list and train themselves to remember many, many more. This is  function of long-term memory, however, not working memory. Working memory refers to our ability to simultaneously examine a number of concepts and create a synthesis amongst them. If you found you could remember the first three principles and their relationships, but stumbled over the fourth, you are in good company.

Elections for Allocation of Resources

The fourth principle is also not the same in substance as the first three. The first three are conceptual and relate to how people in an organization structure policy decision-making. The fourth principle is a process for making choices between several possible options. It can be used equally well to choose between the purchase of large machinery, hiring a new CEO, or choosing a new program. There is nothing in the process that makes it particular  to the choice of a person for a job or a role in the organization.

Revision of We the People

Thus in the next revision of We the People, with Endenburg’s approval we will be referring to three principles of sociocracy, not four. And more clearly explaining what the allocation of resources, including the assignment of people to roles and responsibilities, is a policy decision and requires consent by circle members.

For an overview of the studies of memory and of working memory, see the Wikipedia article. Working Memory.


Hierarchies 101

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?

Sociocracy Joining the Mainstream

Sociocracy joining the mainstream would allow it to relate its own methods/ideas/concepts to those of mainstream management theorists and industry leaders. This is crucial to the wider acceptance of sociocracy for two reasons:

1. People relate new ideas to what they already know. That can be to concepts or to names/words.

2. When I explain sociocracy to management people, educators and management consultants, they shrug and say all the best organizations do that. Or that’s been focus of management theory since 1967.

The Mainstream

When sociocracy present ideas as uniquely its own it seems to be appropriating ideas, calling itself unique. In fact, these techniques are common, but sociocracy has a better way to combine the techniques of business with democratic values. Management theory has nothing but (sometimes) good intentions.

If sociocracy were presented with phrases such as “Like Peter Senge, sociocracy advocates……” “As did Peter Drucker said in 1957, sociocracy maintains that….” “X corporation’s strategic plan process is similar to that of sociocratic organizations with one exception.” Then people listen. They open up because they can hear ideas in the context of what they have personally already validated.

That’s why I worked so hard to relate sociocracy to other management theorists in We the People. This hadn’t been done before. The relationships in the book are not complete, partly because of my lack of knowledge of management theory in 2007, not that it’s so huge now, but it was a lot of research because I like to work with original sources. The other reason was because of space. The book couldn’t do two things at once. The immediate need was for a comprehensive guide and handbook on sociocracy with as much context as possible.

Unique to Sociocracy

What is unique to sociocracy, I think, are double linking, moving policy making to the bottom of the organization, and structuring policy and operations decisions not to “higher” and “lower” management, but as separate functions. At the upper levels of well-managed organizations, they are separated, if not by those names and if not always consciously. Policies are most often discussed and adopted in special meetings, often at retreats.

Even the use of consent is not unique to sociocracy. Upper management levels also use consent, though consent may not always be binding—there will be a fall back. The lack of a fallback in sociocracy and the clear definition of what “consent” means, however, are unique. The definition of “unique,” despite the word police who say either it’s unique or it isn’t, is a blurry one. Better said that is that consent is extended universally in the organization and used for many more types of decisions.

Sociocracy won’t be widely accepted until it begins to debate the big ideas in an arena where its own ideas will be heard.

[email protected]

[email protected] was started in October of 2000 by Marielle Jansen who was a member of the Sociocratisch Centrum in Rotterdam, beginning in the early 1990s. Sharon Villines became moderator of the list in 2002 when Marielle moved to Australia. In 2002 there were 12 members. In 2010, there were 272. In 2013, 304.

This is the most active forum for discussion about sociocracy. List traffic varies depending on the current topic. Topics range from questions about theory and practice to stories to discussion of the principles and practices.

Everyone who is interested in sociocracy is welcome. To join, send a blank email to:

[email protected]

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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.

The Downside to Standardization

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)

Central Authority?

Does anyone believe that there should be a world-wide hierarchy of double-linked sociocratic organizations?

There definitely are. They don’t perceive the Big Brother implications of this because of consent and double-linking. If an organization, through its double-links can object to the decisions of the world-wide organization, there is no possibility of establishing a dictatorship or placing limitations on that organization. The implications of this kind of thinking for a democratic society, and for sociocratic ideas becoming mainstream are significant.

Since a world-wide organization would have to consent to the circle below it becoming a member, however, this control is not necessarily operable. If an organization wants to extend itself, it would logically follow that the only position it could take is:

You can join us if you are operating sociocratically. If as an organization we need to change or develop, you will become part of the consent process that determines that — but first we have to determine that you are sociocratic according to our standards.

This is a reasonable requirement. One must consent to those with whom they are to make consent decisions. Consent doesn’t work without that agreement.

The problem arises at the point of saying who is sociocratic and who is not.

Some believe that if an organization wants to call themselves sociocratic, they should be certified in the same way that consultants are certified. They understand the ability to trademark “sociocracy” is impossible — one can’t trademark an idea. Nor can one limit the use of a word that has been in use since 1851.

The three-triangles symbol will be trademarked and groups/individuals will have to be certified to use it.