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By Jennifer Ted Rau for Enlivening Edge Magazine

The sociocracy experience

I’m part of several sociocratic organizations, and we sometimes get requests from what I call “sociocracy tourists”–people who want to attend a sociocratic meeting to see what it is like. I have a standard response that might surprise you: “Come. But you will very likely be disappointed. Sociocracy is almost invisible. Because good governance is quiet. What you can witness is flow but you will have a hard time seeing where it even came from. You’ll attend just to see how invisible it is.”

If you’ve ever been part of a sociocratic meeting, if it was well-run, you might have not noticed anything. And that’s the point. After all, we come together not to practice a certain kind of governance but to get things done and to connect. We want our attention to be free to take care of both the tasks that need attention and of each other. It feels effortless, like flying.

One thing you might notice as you enter a sociocratic meeting is that people speak in rounds. People speak not at will but keeping an order, one by one. What I have experienced in using rounds is that an amazing flow emerges in mature groups accustomed to them, and members begin to surrender to group wisdom. Very often, I leave a meeting and realize: this decision was actually built in tiny pieces and I cannot even tease apart who contributed what. It was all “us.” That group experience of flow is what I love most about sociocracy and I never ever want to go back to the old ways.

Values of sociocracy

Sociocracy was developed in the 1980s and has since spread to all continents. It is now a worldwide movement with a strong presence in its home country, the Netherlands, and also in other European countries, the US, South America, India, Australia, and with new developments in Africa and Asia. This article will identify sociocratic values and principles and describe the landscape of the current sociocratic movement.

For those familiar with Holacracy: historically, Holacracy built on sociocracy. Holacracy emphasizes autonomy of individuals while sociocracy is less regulated and tends to keep more power and exploration in circles of peers. Holacracy is a more regulated version of sociocracy – holacracy gives more structure, sociocracy gives more choice.

Since all descriptions tell just as much about the author as they tell about the content, let me introduce myself in two sentences. I am operational leader and co-founder of a non-profit, Sociocracy For All, based in the US and operating worldwide. I am a linguist (syntax-semantics interface) and a German native, and I live in a wonderful intentional community with 80 neighbors in the United States.

Of the values that underlie sociocracy, two are fairly universal for self-organized organizations:

(1)  Effectiveness: we join organizations in the hope that they will be effective in achieving their aim (purpose).

(2)  Belonging: we join organizations to connect with others in being part of something bigger than ourselves.

What is special about sociocracy? It is equivalence:

(3)  Equivalence. Everyone’s voice has equal value and we collectively decide how to support needs getting met.

This does not mean that everyone decides everything together, and it does not mean that everyone’s needs will always be met. It means that everyone’s needs will be held with care. The investors’ needs have the same value as the workers’ on the shop floor. The building custodian’s needs have the same value as the CEO’s needs. All are equal, even though they all have different roles in the overall system. No one can be ignored or overpowered.

Sociocracy is a set of design principles embodying equivalence in all areas of an organization:

  • How we structure our work

Authority is distributed to the most “decentralized” level possible and held by circles (an organizational unit or team) who “own” areas of authority. There is clarity about the purpose (aim) and area of authority (domain) of each circle, which gives every circle of workers the freedom to shape their immediate work environment. Any two related circles are double-linked, i.e. two people are full members of both circles so information can flow and the parts become a whole. This maintains equivalence in multi-layered complex organizations.

  • How we learn and evolve

Learning is embodied by different tools providing a feedback-rich environment and active reflection (open elections, meeting evaluations, role improvement, policy reviews.)

  • How we make decisions

Policy decisions are made by consent. A decision is made when no one in the circle has an objection. Consent is the mainstay of sociocracy, an embodiment of equivalence. Whoever is part of a working circle can express their need in the policy process, either in proposals or in objections to proposals. That way, the needs of the workers can be heard and tended to locally and in a nimble manner. Roles can be defined and filled by consent, giving individuals freedom to act in a fast and self-responsible manner.

Thanks to these principles and their interaction, sociocracy has the nimbleness of a role-based organization with the sense of togetherness and belonging of an organization that has a group of peers as its starting point for everything we do. All collaboration is built on relationships, and relationships are supported by small groups that operate with continuity and trust.

The sociocratic landscape

Sociocracy in its modern form, as formulated by Gerard Endenburg in the 1980s, has been shaped by three big ideas:

  • Equivalence: Endenburg had been a student in a Quaker-run school where he experienced what it is like when everyone’s needs are considered.
  • Living systems: nested circles are organized like the fractal patterns in nature, of inter-dependent semi-autonomous systems.
  • Cybernetics: Endenburg, as an electrical engineer, understood that feedback is essential to understanding our interaction with our environment, the impact of our actions, and the possibility of improvement.

There are several international organizations teaching sociocracy. The Sociocracy Group, (http://thesociocracygroup.com/), founded by Gerard Endenburg, is a global consulting organization with offices in Europe and North America.

Sociocracy 3.0 (sociocracy30.org) is an iteration of sociocracy that focuses on the exploration and expansion of patterns and the connection between agile and sociocracy. and has a loose collection of adherents all over the world with a concentration in Europe.

Sociocracy For All (sociocracyforall.org), is a non-profit membership organization operating globally that was founded in 2016 with the goal of making transitions to sociocracy easier by producing training and implementation materials and by interweaving the connections between sociocracy and related movements. For transparency, the author of this article is a co-founder of and on staff in Sociocracy For All.

Since sociocracy is open and accessible as a tool, it is impossible to make a realistic guess of how many organizations are using sociocracy worldwide. Sociocracy For All is aware of and connected to about 100 sociocratic organizations and we assume there are at least 3 times more organizations that have implemented sociocracy to some significant degree.

Sociocracy has spread the fastest within movements that share values with sociocracy. Natural breeding places of sociocracy exist wherever people come together as peers and have a bias for action, for instance:

  • Intentional communities (like co-housing and eco-villages) where people are inspired to live together as peers, supporting self-management and evolving together as human beings.
  • Agile and sociocracy naturally share some basic principles of self-organization, local decision-making, and a focus on experimentation and learning.
  • Permaculture: In particular in its social dimension, permaculture and sociocracy share their affinity to patterns while creating non-extractive, sustainable practices both in the natural and the interpersonal sphere.
  • Nonviolent communication (NVC): Conceptually, NVC and sociocracy are siblings, creating environments where we can be together without coercion while tending to each other’s needs. NVC does that on an interpersonal level and sociocracy on an organizational level. A natural fit, NVC is often intermeshed with sociocracy.
  • Independent Schools: Since sociocracy started in a school, quite a few schools particularly in the Netherlands have been using sociocracy for years. (See org for an inspiring project.)
  • The largest sociocratic organization is in India where neighbourhood parliaments (video interview) use linked circles and sociocratic elections to practice self-governance of their immediate environment. At more than tens of thousands of circles as of now, the neighborhood parliaments are growing in India and starting to be replicated in other countries, like Spain, Nigeria, and the US.

How do the values of sociocracy inform our actions in Sociocracy For All? They apply to our vision of social change: how can we create a world where everyone’s needs matter and where people are empowered to take charge of the matters that affect them?

To us, that focus has specific implications:

  • Information needs to flow back from the practitioners to the teachers and between practitioners and teachers so everyone can learn. This also means that meaningful relationships of peers are at the center of our attention.
  • Information is power. We want governance as equals to become the new norm, striving to make it accessible in all ways, not only financially and by using creative commons licenses, but also in practicability by making sociocracy as easy to use as possible without underestimating the culture change it implies. Open finances, open pay, and open meeting minutes have to be standard

(3)  People are creative and hard-wired to fill in gaps in patterns. In order to fill those gaps intentionally, we tend to teach with a lot of detail and examples, very specific and grounded in practicability. We seek to find the balance between experimentation and the use of the ever-emerging set of best practices.

We operate from the conviction that all humans have a capacity to cooperate and a need for contribution and connection. What we need in order to unlearn unhelpful historical patterns and to unleash that capacity are supportive systems and practices.

Here is why:

  • The Performance gap between what we ideally want to do and what we can pull off consistently. We all want to be the best version of ourselves. However, this will not always be the case. We cannot run an organization on good intentions. Systems support us to have quality connection and process even when we are not at our best.

A practical example: time is a scarce resource. Even with best intentions and awareness around gender equivalence, it has been shown in experiments that group members are more likely to resort to sexist patterns when under time pressure. Understanding this is key for understanding the why of sociocracy: given that conditions will not always be ideal. systems help us be who we want to be more of the time. Processes are like a safety net so that we know what to do, even under time pressure, when we’re angry, impatient, tired or hurt.

  • Practices can help us grow. Systems are not only a safety net but good systems can also widen our horizon.

A practical example: In rounds, when it is not your turn to talk, you sit back and listen. Real listening is a different mental state that I discovered for myself in sociocracy. For a while, whenever I felt the urge to cross-talk, I wrote down all ideas I had on a piece of paper. When it was my turn, I would go through my list and … it was sobering. Most of what I had wanted to blurt out had been said by others. Some of my ideas did not seem so relevant anymore. Teaching me to hold back, rounds made me a better team player.

(c)   A German proverb says “There is nothing good unless you do it”. Culture can only change with concrete and doable, consistent practices that bring equivalence to all levels and contexts of our interpersonal interactions. Live the revolution now.

To us, sociocracy is much more than a way of running an organization. It is culture change, one organization at a time. If we all learn the skills of governance as equals, if children grow up in sociocratic schools where they have a say in what and how they learn, if our volunteer organizations and our workplaces are run by equals, if neighbors feel empowered to take their destiny into their own hands, then the mind set of cooperation can supersede competition and fear, creating a more beautiful world for everyone.

Exciting news:

  1. SoFA is publishing a print manual in Spring 2018 that describes sociocratic tools and its variations to an unprecedented level of detail. That manual will inspire people to immerse themselves in equivalence and effectiveness on all levels of their organizations. More information here on our website.
  2. On May 1st 2018, SoFA is hosting an international online sociocracy conference. For schedule and more information see on our conference page.

Sociocracy. The organization of decision-making “no objection” as the principle of sociocracy. Gerard Endenburg. Rotterdam 1998.

 Jennifer Rau is operational leader and co-founder of Sociocracy For All and a linguist, and fond of the syntax-semantics interface. A German native, home is now an intentional community in Massachusetts. jennifer@sociocracyforall.org 

 

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