There is a narrative in the western society we keep dragging along since the second half of last century, and it is ever more present now as it became the standing ground of much of the debates around the war in Ukraine; we are often presented with a matter of fact: Communism has failed and we can only choose between democracy and tyranny. In other words, democracy is all we have.
Is that true? Is that the one and only way to manage our being together?
As we could see in the recent Brazilian elections, but it is true also for our homelands and other democracies around the world, societies are strongly polarized and using majority voting to select representatives produces governing bodies that oftentimes stand for the instances and view of only 50% (+1) of the (voting) members, leaving the remaining voices unheard, frustrated and marginalized. Is this the best system to make decisions for our country? And for our city? Or our block?
What about other systems we are surrounded by? Businesses, for example? They tend to follow autarchic or oligarchic models, where the CEO or the board decides everything and workers down the ladder implement decisions taken at the top level. I guess we are all too familiar with this approach. But there are also NGOs, collectives or cooperatives, where it is not uncommon to find a flat governance based on consensus and general assemblies. This works well in some cases but the process of bringing everyone to agree on the same point is very time-demanding and prone to generate frustration.
While seeking for other possibilities we lately had the chance to explore sociocracy. We spent 40 days job shadowing in Arterra Bizimodu, an intentional community in Spain which runs in a Sociocratic fashion. We are also in the process of supporting Fundacja Wyobraź sobie, a relatively small Polish NGOs, in adding elements of sociocracy into its original vertical structure. Here is what we understood so far through this journey.
What is sociocracy?
Sociocracy is a form of governance, a way to manage and organize a system. Yet, unlike democracy, it does not make use of majority rule, but it favours consent-based decision making, giving equal voice to every person in the system - being it an organization, an institution or a community - ensuring a flat and resilient structure which on the one hand empowers people, on the other creates a space for effective and flexible actions, focused on specific goals.
As sociocracy.info puts it, sociocracy is both:
A social ideal that values equality and the rights of people to determine the conditions under which they live and work, and
An effective method of organising associations, businesses, and governments, large and small.
Sociocracy has been introduced to various types of organisations, NGOs, businesses, intentional communities, institutions. And in fact the first organisation which based its structure on sociocracy was the Werkplaats Kindergemeenschap, a Dutch school.
How did it come along?
The term “sociocracy” was firstly used in 1851 by Auguste Comte, inspired by sociology. Comte, who lived amid the struggles between monarchy and republic in XIX century France, proposed the idea of a government run by sociologists as a way to ensure the benefits for all and not only for the ruling class. One of the active advocates of sociocracy was Lester Frank Ward, who saw it as a direct development of democratic majority voting. His concept was further elaborated in the middle of the XX century by Kees Boeke and Beatrice Boeke-Cadbury who used sociocracy in their school in the Netherlands (Werkplaats Kindergemeenschap - Children's Community Workshop, the school exists till today). In the 1960s one of Boake’s students, Gerard Endenburg, brough sociocracy into business - at that time invariably an autocratic system, where the boss alone made the decisions. The idea was to convert the classic vertical, top-to-bottom structure of his parent’s engineering company into a flatter organization that would empower its workers. Endenburg created the Sociocratic Circle Organizing Method, based on circular process and feedback loop - the organisation is divided into circles, corresponding to units or departments, and they are connected to other circles through a feedback loop, making the work more effective and inclusive. The principles behind this method became the base of today's sociocracy.
What are the main principles?
A sociocratic structure is based on small groups called circles. Each circle has a specific domain and typically a few members are involved in its implementation. Depending on the size of the organisation there can be just one circle or several of them, set into a so-called circular hierarchy.
In each circle there are specific roles to be fulfilled in relation to the decision making process:
Leader, who is responsible for the general management of the circle.
Delegate, who is the second link to the higher circle, as explained below.
Secretary, who typically takes the minutes and ensures that information from the meetings are available to all members of the organisation.
Facilitator, who prepares the agenda for a meeting (in consultation with the leader) and facilitates the conversation during the meeting fostering effectiveness but also ensuring equal voice for everybody.
Some of the roles can be filled by the same person while others are separated for conceptual or technical reasons (e.g. leader and delegate need to be two different people, it’s also not recommended to match the facilitator role with the secretary as it’s difficult to lead the process and make notes at the same time). So, there are different roles, but each member has equal decision making power.
Circles are responsible for the implementation of specific goals and they have full power over decisions which concern their job. The idea is that people who are responsible for a specific work are the best experts to decide how the work should be organised. Their decision may influence other circles and should be announced (and open for consultation) in a clear and transparent way. Decisions which involve more than one circle are made at a higher level (for example in the coordination circle).
Although we use words such as “hierarchy” or “higher”, in fact a sociocratic structure is flat or often called circular. It doesn’t include power over. Circles ensure effective work and decision making in smaller groups. A typical circular hierarchy may consist of several operational circles (or sub-circles) which are organised by areas of interest around a smaller number of department circles which on top have the general or coordination circle. Each operational circle has representatives in the relevant department circle and each department circle has representatives in the coordination circle. Representatives are full members of “higher” circles and they are included in consent based decision making. This avoids power over - the top cannot take autocratic or majority-based decisions about what people directly involved in a task should be doing.
How does it look in practice?
In Arterra Bizimodu, which consists of around 30 full time members, there is one coordination circle made up of two representatives for each of the three management circles, plus one coordinator chosen by consent every two years. A management circle consists of leaders of the operational circles which pertain to it. Each management circle is responsible for a different area; for example there is the ecological management circle, under which you can find operational circles working on gardens, animals, mushrooms, as well as energy including biogas, solar panels, etc. Arterra is a 9 years old intentional community of people living together and it experiments with sociocracy from the very beginning of its existence.
On the other hand, Fundacja Wyobraź sobie was trying to introduce sociocracy to an already existing structure. In this case we started with the idea of creating around 10 circles based mainly on the educational programs already up and running, yet we quickly realised that that's quite a number and it would give us more work instead of making the management more effective. As for the moment, we have established 8 circles, including 5 operational circles: Global Education, Skills for Future, Emotional and Social Development, Personal Development, Parental Development and 3 supporting circles: promotion, fundraising, finance. It makes 8 operational circles all together. We also have the leaders circle which includes leaders from each operational circle. It gives us two levels of “circular hierarchy” (operational circles - leaders circle), while Arterra operates on three levels (operational circles - management circles - coordination circle). The point is, each system has different size and needs, so the complexity of the structure has to be adjusted accordingly. And that is a process.
2. Double link
Each circle has two representatives in the “higher” circle in the hierarchy - the leader of the circle, responsible for passing the information from the “higher” circle to its own (top-down link), and the delegate who is responsible for passing the voice of the circle to those on the higher level (bottom-up link). The double link ensures the transparency and objective representation, avoiding that points of view of a single person get in the way but also preventing this person from being teared apart by the natural dynamics between higher and lower circles. Furthermore, it keeps the slant toward a flat, inclusive structure as the leader and delegate are members of both operational and “higher” circles with full rights in decision making. It also allows constant flow of information and feedback which is one of the bases of sociocracy. On the flip side, having two representatives instead of one doubles the time people need to be involved in the task.
How does it look in practice?
In Arterra Bizimodu each management circle is represented in the coordination circle by two people. The management circles consist of leaders of the operational circles or people whose main involvement is based on a specific operational circle (each person usually belongs to 2-3 different operational circles and one management circle). Community members can also decide to not be part of a management circle and in this case they get more time to work at operational circle level.
In Fundacja Wyobraź sobie at the moment each operational circle is represented by only one person in the leader circle. On the other hand most of the leaders belong to more than one circle so they can keep other leaders accountable and give their contribution in terms of connection and feedback from operational circles they belong to but do not lead.
Decisions in sociocracy are made on consent, which means that a motion is approved if there is no objection. It differs from consensus, which requires approval of all members. In other words, in consensus a decision is made only when everybody says “yes”, in consent it is enough that nobody says “no”, and that makes quite a difference.
To understand consent well it’s crucial to catch on the role of objection. Consent doesn’t mean that the decision which a circle is making is the best possible decision from my point of view, it simply means that it is in my range of tolerance, even if it’s not my personal preference. What’s more, thinking about potential objections I don’t take into consideration my personal interest, but the goals of the circle I belong to. I object if I feel that this particular decision will stop me (or the group) from being able to fully contribute to the goal. In other words, an objection is seen as a gift. With the objection should come tangible arguments and a new proposal. After an objection the proposal is re-formulated and open again for opinions and discussions. Usually before the round of consent (when everyone gives their consent, objection or expresses doubts), there is a time for questions to the proposal, first reactions expressed for example by thumb up or down and round of opinions. Rounds are a typical element of sociocratic meetings which ensure to hear the voice of everybody before the group actually makes a consent-based decision. One by one every person in the meeting expresses his or her opinion about a given topic.
Again, an important aspect is that even as a group the aim is not to reach the best possible decision, but the one which is “good enough for now, safe enough to try”. In sociocracy, decisions are often reviewed and adjusted in an iterative fashion. It's a flexible, effective, agile system based on feedback, experimenting and constant improvement in search of the most suitable solutions for the time being.
Consent is used also to decide which topics will be discussed during the meeting and how much time the circle will dedicate to them. Consent is a tool used in department and coordination circles, operational circles may make a consent-based decision about using another way of decision making, more suitable for their particular goal.
How does it look in practice?
Consent in Arterra is fully embedded in the meetings, which have a very specific structure, providing each person with the opportunity to express their opinion and co-decide. At Fundacja Wyobraź sobie, meetings don’t have such a clearly outlined structure, we are still at the stage of experimenting and looking for the best way to make decisions, taking into account the uneven distribution of responsibility (which, especially in financial matters, rests almost entirely with the management board).
4. Elections without candidates
Some sources mention elections without candidates as a separate principle while others see it as an extension of the principle of consent. Roles in sociocracy are usually decided using consent and with no candidates. When an election time comes, the circle firstly describes the particular role at hand, indicating responsibilities, qualifications and term of office. Then, each member of the circle writes on a paper the name of the person who thinks best suited for the role - he or she may also write their own name. After revealing all the names there is a round of opinions when people give arguments toward their choice. After the swirl of opinions goes by, the facilitator proposes a specific person, based on what he or she heard. Then, usually is a round of consent, to see whether everyone gives their consent to the indicated person, including the person him/herself, which expresses the opinion at the end, after hearing all the arguments and voices of others. If there is no consent, the facilitator may check the arguments or propose another person.
Elections without candidates may be used to choose people for each role in the circle (leader, delegate, secretary, facilitator and others) and ensure that all the positions are held by people who are trusted by the group.
How does it look in practice?
According to our experience in Arterra, where elections without candidates are a common practice, this is probably the most challenging principle and requires a serious mind switch when accustomed to more conventional practices. The more so in a structure which already exists and has roles already in place (for example leaders). This is the case of Fundacja Wyobraź sobie, which had leaders in specific areas when we decided to introduce sociocracy. The leader's team almost didn’t change and in fact we haven’t run elections without candidates yet. As mentioned before, we don’t have a delegate role yet, it’s usually the leader who also facilitates the meeting and we choose the secretary at the beginning of each meeting. This part still needs discussion, yet as we are just a few months into the process we give ourselves time and space to see what works best for us.
Is sociocracy good for you?
That’s a question every group, collective, company, organisation, community has to answer themselves. What convinced us about sociocracy is how inclusive it is of everyone’s voice while keeping flexible and effective. In fact, effectiveness is one of the 3 (somebody says 7) rules of sociocracy, together with equivalence (everyone’s voice matters) and transparency (access to information for everybody in the organisation and open work, with no hidden agendas and closed meetings). Using feedback and making decisions which are good enough for now allow organisations to stay flexible and experiment with various solutions, finding the one which for the time being suits them best. Decisions made by consent ensure that each member owns the project, feeling heard and co-responsible for the outcome.
What can be challenging on the other hand is that sociocracy requires time and specific interpersonal skills, for example being able to give and receive feedback, look at the proposal from the perspective of the common goals and not of the personal taste and mood, communication skills, but also courage in expressing one’s opinions and taking responsibility. It is especially challenging in groups which are used to hard hierarchy and autocratic approach, but also to those conformed to majority voting decision making - the change requires openness from the side of the leaders as much as from that of the workers or members who will become more accountable for their work, yet also more free to organise it the way suits them and the goal best. To be effective, sociocracy requires a certain number of people who understand it well and trained facilitators for the good flow of the meetings. Sociocracy also requires a significant level of trust. There is no transparency, but also no agreement for independent decisions, if there is no trust. We need to feel we are a team working together toward a common goal and assume others come with the best intentions, even when they stand for options which wouldn’t be our first choice. While the knowledge and skills connected to sociocracy and facilitation can be learned, trust and dedication to the group and the goal do not come out of a seminar - they require constant work and focus. But then again, sociocracy or not, wouldn’t that be the foundation of any successful entity?
In the article we focused on organisations, businesses, communities - relatively small groups as sociocracy was mostly used in these kinds of systems. There is no country or even city which tried to introduce sociocracy instead of democracy and majority voting. But the fact it didn’t happen so far doesn’t mean it cannot. Every governance system was created by people and it can be changed or improved. Maybe by socioracy, maybe by another idea which brings more equality, more space for those voices that are not included for the moment, more engagement and co-creation. Sounds like a dream? Democracy, women voting, human rights - they were all just a dream before we turned matter of fact.
The text was inspired by the following articles as well as Anna Książek and Andrea Pucci’s experience of 40-days job shadowing in Arterra Bizimodu and their experience in coordinating the introduction of elements of sociocracy in Fundacja Wyobraź sobie, both implemented within Ze Skawiny w świat project, co-financed by the European Union.