Sociocracy – “Effective, Efficient, and Fun”

“Sociocracy,” a governance and decision-making method, means “governance by peers or colleagues.” It is essentially a system for organizing work and making decisions to guide that work, and it is increasingly popular in ecovillages, cohousing communities, and other kinds of intentional communities worldwide. It is not a modification of consensus. Sociocracy is based on the values of transparency, equivalency, and effectiveness. When a community uses it (and uses it correctly), the group tends to get more done and enjoy more high-energy, effective meetings. In the US it is sometimes called “Dynamic Governance.”

1. The seven parts of Sociocracy. Gerard Endenburg, a Dutch engineer, inventor, and cybernetics expert, designed Sociocracy in the 1970s to help his company, Endenburg Elektrotechniek, function more harmoniously. It was so effective that other businesses and nonprofit organizations in The Netherlands began using it too, and later it spread to organizations in Europe and internationally.

Sociocracy has many parts, but in my opinion, the following seven parts are the minimum needed to provide checks and balances against any potential abuses of power. These seven parts work together synergistically, each mutually benefitting the others: (1) “double-linked” circles, (2) clear aims (ongoing objectives) for each circle, (3) feedback loops built into every proposal — and four meeting processes — (4) consent decision-making, (5) proposal-forming, (6) selecting people for roles (elections,) and (7) role- improvement feedback.

(1) Double-linked circles. Semi-autonomous, self-organized “circles” (like committees, teams), organize all work tasks, including administrative tasks and physical labor tasks. Each circle provides a specific, concrete function for the community; for example, through a Membership Circle, Finance Circle, Land Use Circle, and so on. Most circles are relatively small, with perhaps four to eight members.

A central circle like a steering committee (called a “General Circle”) creates all the other circles determining their areas of responsibility, aims, and budgets. The General Circle also provides longer-term planning for the whole community — coordinating and overseeing the work of the other, more specifically focused circles.

“Double links” are two people who are each members of two different circles, and who convey information between the two circles. This ensures a direct, two-way flow of information circles, and helps all the various work areas of the community function smoothly and synergistically in relation with one another.

 (2) Domain and aims. Aims (ongoing objectives) are what the circle produces and provides for the community. The aims of a Finance Circle, for example, with the domain of financial management for the community, would be to provide financial services, including, the work of paying the community’s taxes, utility bills, insurance premiums, and so on, and invoicing and collecting dues and fees from members. The aims of a community’s Promotions Circle, with the domain of community promotions and advertising, would be to provide the services of promotions and advertising in order to inform and inspire potential visitors, neighbors, and the general public about its mission and activities, and its specific work could be creating and managing the community’s website, blog, online newsletter, brochures, tours for visitors, and other tasks. Again, Sociocracy is about organizing work, and for intentional communities, this means providing a clear, effective system for doing this — and with clear domains and aims, everyone knows what each circle is doing and why they’re doing it.

Aims are not goals, which have a beginning and end. Rather, aims are ongoing and continuous. Aims are crucial because when circle members make proposals, object to proposals, and resolve objections to proposals they do so based on how the proposal may or may not support the specific aims of their circle.

 (3) Feedback Loops. Engineers and inventors use the three steps of feedback loops to create and test their ideas. First they create a design or plan. Next they implement their design by creating a prototype in order to try out the design. And lastly they measure and evaluate the prototype in order to learn how it works in real-life circumstances. Then they may revise their design, based on what they learned in their measurements and evaluation, and create a new prototype.

Feedback loops are built into Sociocracy too, because the wording of every proposal includes criteria for how it will later be measured and evaluated for effectiveness after it is implemented, and dates of upcoming meetings in which these evaluations will occur. Criteria for measuring proposals can include “how much” and “how many” questions. Criteria for evaluation are more subjective, and might include questions such as “Do we like it?” “Is it working well?” “What do community members say about it?” and so on.

After each evaluation circle members can keep the implemented proposal as it is or change it as needed or even dismantle it (if possible). So when circle members are creating or considering a proposal, they know that, depending on the proposal, they may later be able to keep it, change it, or throw it out. Thus no proposal or decision has to be perfect, but only “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try.” This flexibility reduces the fear of making a mistake or of failing to create a “perfect” proposal where they’ve thought of everything. Because using feedback loops takes the pressure off circle members to “get it right,” meetings tend to be much more relaxed than when using consensus, since in consensus it is difficult to change a decision once it’s finally been decided.

 (4) Consent decision-making. This meeting process includes checking in with each person in the circle, called a “round.” After a round to answer clarifying questions and a round hear quick reactions, there’s a round to hear whether each circle member consent to the proposal or objects to it. Objections indicate the proposal needs more work. Circle members resolve objections by modifying the proposal and then doing another consent round. These two steps — consent rounds and modifying any objections — are alternated until there are no more objections — which means the circle has consented to the latest modification of the proposal.

When consent decision-making is practiced correctly, no member of a circle can stop their circle from approving a proposal because the proposal violates the person’s own personal values or lifestyle choices. Objections to proposals are a necessary and desirable part of consent decision-making and are not blocks or vetoes. As noted above, the checks and balances provided by the seven parts of Sociocracy — including that when a circle has clear aims no one can object for personal reasons, which helps prevent power abuses in decision-making. Thus in Sociocracy there is no “personal blocking” or implied or actual “threats to block.”  Each of Sociocracy’s other three meeting processes are based on the principles of consent decision- making.

(5) In proposal-forming, circle members draft one or more proposals about an issue that relates to the circle’s area of responsibility and aims.

(6) In selecting people for roles (elections), circle members choose people for specific roles in their circle, and their choices are based on the specific responsibilities and qualifications for each role rather than on whether or not they like the person or other personal reasons.

(7) In role-improvement feedback, circle members give feedback — what’s working well, what may need improvement _ to other circle members relative to how they are fulfilling the specific responsibilities of the role.

2.  Sociocracy’s Three Values:

  • Equivalence — circle members have an equivalent voice in decisions in their circle.
  • Transparency — policy decisions are known to everyone through the double-links.
  • Effectiveness — when practiced properly, Sociocracy tends to take less time and help people accomplish their goals more easily than with other methods.

3.  How Sociocracy is best learned and implemented successfully.  Sociocracy tends to not to work well in a community or member-led group when (1) people understand it only partially, (2) some members understand it and others don’t, or (3) the group uses some but not all of its seven parts. Or — the worst — if the community misunderstands Sociocracy by viewing it through the lens of consensus, and inadvertently creates a Sociocracy-consensus hybrid. This doesn’t work as well as either Sociocracy or consensus and tends to generate confusion and frustration.

The positive responses to using Sociocracy in communities and member-led groups seem to occur only under the following circumstances:

(1) The group understands the need for ongoing training or periodic reviews, such as with an ongoing Sociocracy study group and/or an in-house coach. Or they have in-person or online consultations with a Sociocracy trainer. They use an outside Sociocracy facilitator when they can.

(2) The group makes sure all members learn Sociocracy — especially new incoming people. The community doesn’t assume new folks will just “pick it up” by attending meetings; rather, training in Sociocracy is provided for new members before they have full decision rights in meetings Without training people tend to misinterpret Sociocracy through the lens of whatever decision-making method they are most familiar with, often consensus.

(3) Group members who do not or will not learn Sociocracy for whatever reason nevertheless agree to support the group in using it, perhaps by signing a written agreement saying this and saying they promise to learn Sociocracy as soon as they can. And they agree not to interrupt or undermine the facilitator’s work of leading circle members through Sociocracy’s various meeting processes.

(4) Since the seven main parts of Sociocracy work together synergistically to provide efficient governance and effective meetings, the group uses all seven parts.

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