What is sociocracy, and do you need it?
by Ted Rau
Sociocracy is a governance system. We know, ‘governance’ doesn’t sound very appealing. It sounds dry and reminds us of governments and marble halls. What does it have to do with you? Quite a lot, actually!
Governance is the way we run groups, the operating system. Governance is not restricted to board rooms or the senate. No matter whether we care about governance systems, we are always answering the following questions:
- who makes what decisions?
- how do we make decisions for the group?
After evolving to its current form in the 1980ies, the intention of sociocracy was to design a set of governance tools that would give groups a chance to self-organize in a fractal way, inspired by natural systems. It balances the desire to move forward towards the group’s mission with making sure every voice can be heard in the process. We can have both!
People are interested in sociocracy because they want to make their organizations more human. It is currently used in for-profits, non-profits, coops, schools, communities, and unincorporated projects. They often combine it with Nonviolent Communication, Agile, and various forms of personal and organizational growth.
How it works
- Who decides?
Everything that needs care in an organization is divided into domains. Each domain is taken care of by a group of people (=called a ‘circle’). For example, a membership circle takes care of the membership domain, making decisions and policy about members and membership. A website circle makes all the decisions about the website domain. A marketing circle takes care of the marketing domain and makes all decisions and policy needed along the way. Makes sense, right?
Here is an important piece you might have missed: these circles actually have all the authority (and responsibility!) in their domain. The Website Circle doesn’t need to ask anyone for permission on their decisions on the website. There is no central power making decisions while the rest just carries out as they are told. That’s why we call this system decentralized or distributed authority: many decisions are made in many different places.
(b) Why isn’t there just chaos?
There is no chaos because we know exactly which circle or individual is responsible for decisions in each domain. And we know exactly how each piece of the whole relates to the others.
To make sure all the related groups can keep each other in the loop, we have a special way of connecting two circles. Two circle members are chosen to be part of both so they can tell one circle what the other is doing and vice versa. That way, all activities can be aligned and form a whole. Even better, those two “links” are chosen by the circles themselves.
(c) How does sociocracy make decisions?
Here is how we don’t make decisions: we don’t talk forever, we don’t vote, we don’t control people. Then, how? Thanks to the circle structure, everything fits into neat, bite-size boxes. That allows us to make decisions in small groups which makes it easier to hear each other. To ensure everyone takes time to listen, we talk in rounds: one person speaks at a time, one by one. Since you know you will get your turn, you can actually listen to everyone else.
After a proposal is well-understood and ready to make a decision on, the circle decides by consent:
- Consent means you can work with the proposal and are willing to move forward, either because it’s your preference or something you can work with.
- An objection (no consent) points to something in the proposal that isn’t good enough yet, for example when a new policy would have unintended negative consequences somewhere else that need to be addressed somehow. Instead of arguing, we focus on the purpose of the group and find the best solution that aligns us with our mission.
We even chose each circle’s leaders and facilitators by consent — only when there is no objection, may the person fill the role. If you want to fill a role, polarizing behavior will not get you there! Instead, collaboration and listening become the new culture.
What’s good about sociocracy? What’s hard about sociocracy?
The best thing for me personally is the clarity. I can’t stand sitting in meetings where everyone is changing the topic all the time! I also can’t stand situations where everyone is tip-toeing around an issue because it’s not clear who decides. All of that goes away in sociocracy: it’s clear, efficient, transparent and doable.
Rounds are another personal favorite! Talking one by one is magical! It helps me listen better to my peers. And I can be sure my peers hear me out when it’s my turn to speak. As a result, we all get to know each other better and build more trust. Things don’t feel as rushed, heated or defensive. They’re calm, focused, and there is flow.
In a way, sociocracy is a very common sense way of being and working together! Yet, you have to be willing to reconsider how you do things. You have to be willing to learn. For some, it’s a learning curve. Others just say “this is exactly what I have been looking for all my life! Why didn’t anyone tell me this 20 years ago?!”