Social Enterprise Start-ups – 5 reasons to implement sociocracy early

At the beginning of every enterprise, there are thousands of decisions to make. Some decisions feel temporary, but some set the path you will be traveling on for years. If you are a social enterpreneur, integrity in your decision-making will be important to you, and you’re not willing to compromise just because you’re just starting out.

We work with organizations of all kinds but what they all have in common is that they care about social change. What we have to offer them is a way of running their own organization so that they can get done what they want to get done but never have to give up on their values and their ideal of “we’re in this together”. We teach them a way of decision-making that connects them, instead of dividing them. That moves them forward, as a team, both in process and in content. A way of decision-making that allows them to hear everyone without slowing you down.

Many start-ups begin their journey with a lot enthusiasm. Any process that regulates how decisions are made within the team seems unnecessary. After all, you all want the same, right? And if you don’t agree, then you… work it out…? Your values are strong, your team spirit is strong, nothing can go wrong. So, what’s the problem? There isn’t really any problem – yet. Your issues will comes down the line. You’re not preparing for growth, and down the line, you will either have to compromise on your integrity, your growth or your effectiveness. Imagine you start a new business and you use a computer with a old processor. Yes, that works. Yes, people did business in the olden days – so sure, you can do that. But just like outgrowing your computer system is a pain, so is outgrowing your governance system. It is actually a real pain. Typical symptoms: There are issues you don’t even bring up anymore because reaching agreement seems impossible. Things call through the cracks, or people step on each other’s toes. Worst case: valuable people leave in frustration or anger. All of those can have governance issues as their root issue. Which means you need (a) a good and clear governance system and (b) a plan for growth. The plan to “just work it out” will not carry you through bigger disagreements. A good process will help you smoothen out the path, which can make the difference between a growing business and failure.

What’s different about the governance system – sociocracy – we are talking about? The three main elements are:

  • Decisions by consent. Consent decision-making method is highly inclusive. A decision is made when no one has an objection. It is a very clear and also very natural decision-making method. Imagine you want to eat out with a friend. You want chinese, he wants pizza. You object to pizza, but he is ok with chinese. How will you decide? Chinese it is. A decision is made and no one is bent out of shape. There is a lot more to say but you get the idea.
  • Nested circles. The organizational structure follows patterns of recursion. Semi-autonomous committees (we call them circles) are making decisions about their area of expertise and authority, and those committees are interlinked so everything is taken care of. Nobody has to be good at everything and you can bud out into additional circles without changing your structure. Growth works well in sociocoracy. And adaptability is baked into sociocracy.
  • Paying attention to feedback. Feedback comes in many different shapes: sales, clicks, emails. But also: how content are your employees? How are meetings working for everyone? Is your meeting time used efficiently? How did it land on you when I said this? Does my leadership style encourage people to speak up if they disagree? How to I react if they do? Feedback is everwhere, and it is always valuable. In order to make the most of feedback and measureables, you have to build them into your processes. Before you make a decision, think about how you will measure its impact. Trial and error is only useful if you notice when you were off base. Many small decisions with quick and effective adjustment will boost your success significantly. Giving all employees the feeling that they are being heard is sweet – but actually hearing them is different.

You might notice: these principles are very simple but deep. But it gets even better. The beauty of this governance system shows in how the pieces interlock and reinforce each other. Taking feedback seriously leads to more effectiveness: when you take in feedback with an open heart and mind, people will be more encouraged to speak up, which will give you better information which will make your work fit better, which will make you more effective. Transparency and clarity in decision-making reinforces effectiveness: When you are transparent about your criteria and decisions, people will know how to plug in well, they will appreciate each other more, listen better, trust each other more, invite each others input more often, work together more efficiently, and so on. Equivalence leads to transparency: when everyone can be heard without being silenced, they can bring their whole self to work, which will lead to more sharing, more buy-in, which will make you more effective. The three ingredients together make a magic sauce, creating an upward spiral of effectiveness, shared and transparent power, and real connection between human beings.
It is not uncommon that integrity is sacrificed to save time. Yes, we’d really like to hear everyone but sometimes making an autocratic decision is good? Yes – but . What makes all the difference is having clarity about what is a decision you can make alone and what is a decision your team makes. In sociocracy, we set policy in the teams (circles), and within that frame, everyone is welcome to make decisions. You can have both the equality and the freedom to act IF you have clarity and transparency in place.

The situation of a start-up is special, and even more so for a social enterprise. Integrity is key. But we also want to grow. Here are the five reasons why starting out with a smart, sociocratic governance system is a good idea:

  1. Collaboration on eye-level in the DNA of you business. If you build an organizational culture early that fosters inclusion, welcomes dissent and adapts due to feedback, you will carry those values from the first moment on and will keep them in your DNA. Retro-fitting organizational culture is painstakingly hard. Therefore, start with equivalence and clarity from first moment on.
  2. Seemless growth. The organizational structure in sociocracy works like fractals. Every circle has the same make-up. We can scale indefinitely without having to change the patterns. Like in nature, a few simple rules can form the most complex system. The patterns stay the same, no matter what scale. Grow as big as you want, you cannot outgrow sociocracy.
  3. No burn out, no power struggles. In the beginning, you might agree a lot with your co-founders. If you make your decisions only when everyone agrees, you’re using consensus decision-making. Consensus works well in small, very aligned, homogenous groups. We understand that that is enjoyable – but the more diverse your organization is, the more you will run into issues with consensus. What do you do when a decision is blocked? What if you can’t move forward and get stuck because someone always says no and cannot be moved to even try it? Sociocracy uses consent decision-making, meaning that a decision is made when no one objects. If our threshold is not to make everyone happy but to find a solution that does not slow anyone down, we’re in a better position to make decisions faster without ignoring people and without burn-out. Consent balances out group needs and individual needs like no other decision-making method. It is safe, inclusive and fast at the same timem and it offers you an array of options of how to move forward if there are objections or concerns.
  4. Speed through autonomy. With an inspired team, the last thing you want to do it slow people down. In this situation, clarity is your best friend: if it is clear who has what authority, you give people the opportunity to run with their ideas. But you want to make sure you’re still a team. In sociocracy, policy decisions are made by consent by the team itself. That way, you can be sure to move as a team and stay on the same page. With so much to do, you can stay sane by delegating tasks into roles filled by team members. Ever heard of the too-many-cooks syndrome? We don’t all have to do everything, and we don’t all have to decide everything. The good thing is that you can have both: the safety of knowing you’re on the same page, and the freedom to act freely within those limits.
  5. Easy to share responsibility. Working for a start-up can comsume all your time and energy. It is very easy to burn out. You need to distribute power. In an organizational structure with nested circles and roles, we will be able to give people an area of responsibility that is clearly defined. Domains and tasks are fine-grained and go together in a transparent way. That way, everyone knows their own piece, and everyone knows how it all goes together to create the whole. An organizational structure with nested circles also has another advantage: teams are small and nimble, and we keep all meetings relevant by putting only those people into a team who actually work together. Don’t sit through meetings that do not require your presence. Don’t you have other things to do?

The earlier you start, the earlier you can harvest all the benefits of a sociocratic organization. That way, you do not need to make a big transition later. Sociocracy and social enterprises are a natural fit. Sociocracy translates to “governance by the people who associate together”. You cannot teach positive change if your own business is chaos and power games. Lead by example and start out smart.

Jennifer Rau, for SoFA

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Do feelings have a place in governance?

Sometimes we get asked whether feelings are “allowed” in sociocracy. We are guessing that what people have in mind is a scenario like this:

Are you allowed to be upset when someone proposes to raise the membership fees because you are afraid you cannot afford the membership, or that others can’t? Of course you are allowed to be upset. Does that justify you yelling, name-calling, blaming in a meeting? Of course not.

So, what does that mean? Are feelings not allowed after all?

In our world (informed by Non-Violent Communication), feelings are indicators of needs that are met or not met. If your need for belonging is not met and you fear having to leave the organization because you cannot afford the membership fees, you might get sad, anxious or upset. Your feelings will be important data that will lead you to even more important data: looking beyond feelings and seeing the underlying needs. Once you identify the need(s) that are unmet, you will be able to share your concern:

What is the difference between the first example and the second? In the first example, there is no inner distance from the feelings. They are interpreted as absolute truth, not as data. When we experience feelings in a righteous way, we will not be able to be intentional about what we do with our feelings. Many people, like in the first example, discharge feelings by using blame. Blame often triggers defensiveness and can easily throw a group into an emotional back and forth that is not related to content and that disconnects us — a very ineffective way to spend a meeting. The opportunity to see feelings as an indicator of a need gets concealed, and we might have to restore trust and respect in the group. Since restoring trust and respect takes a lot of time, we have just lost time and energy in two ways: by losing track of valuable data, and by creating the necessity to do emotional “clean-up”.

A full statement like in example two might provide insights on many levels: someone’s feelings, the underlying need or value at stake and a description of how this need relates to the idea on the table. A statement like that does not hide or ignore the fact that feelings rise when something is important to us. But we are not victims of our feelings. We use them as data, not as truth. We are in choice about what we do about the need that underlies the feelings. That way, we as a group can jump directly to finding out whether this need is important enough to change the decision. If we decide it is, we can think about how the need that might be left unmet could be met so more needs can be considered in the decision we make. We are now using the feelings in the best possible way: to learn about needs and values that might inform our decisions.
We don’t always get input from circle members that is as clear as in example 2. But we can work together to complete the picture. A good group will be able to deal with just “something here leaves me anxious but I can’t put my finger on it” and will try to guess the underlying needs together. An even more advanced group will be able to deal with the raw feeling, will help the group member to calm down, identify their needs and formulate their concern, if style does not make it impossible to stay connected in a conversation. This might take time. So the question is not whether feelings are allowed in sociocracy, but the questions are:

  • Are group members able to be respectful and responsible even if they are emotionally triggered? > If feelings are owned, they can be expressed without harming the group dynamics.
  • How quickly and effectively can we go from experiencing feelings to naming our concern? > The faster we understand the underlying need, the sooner we will get to the meat of the issue.
  • Are we able to let our decision-making be informed by concerns or objections people bring up, so we can make better decisions? > The better we listen if someone has a concern, the more ground we will cover in our decisions.

This also answers another question we get asked from time to time: if I am upset about something, who is responsible to deal with that? Me or the group who made a proposal? The answer is: both. You can make it as easy as possible to use your data as input by giving a complete picture of what is going on for you, and by leaving out anything that will require the circle to restore a good working culture. You can express your feelings anytime, if you own them. The group’s responsibility, whatever you say and in whatever way you say it, is to hear the need underneath and to consider that need in their decision-making. (Remember that “considering a need” does not mean automatically that we meet the need.) If the individual that is triggered and the group both make it easy, this will save time and it will be a smooth process.

Let us say a few words on what happens if we ignore feelings – or pretend to ignore feelings (because we cannot ignore feelings, really). It is a reality of humanity that feelings come up. Only if we are completely detached from the cause and the contribution we make, we will be without feelings. (We cannot believe anyone would want that.) Feelings will come up, and if we ignore them, they will leak. People will be sarcastic, discouraged, disengaged. They will withdraw, lack accountability, work to rule, slow processes down or undermine the system. Ignoring feelings is not worth it in the long run.

In sum, it is not a question whether feelings are allowed or not because they will be there, inadvertently. There is also not a question whether feelings are good or bad because, again, they just are. Depending on how we react to our own and other people’s feelings, they can contribute or distract from the group’s goal to make decisions together. The only question is: how effectively can we use our meeting time to transform feelings into data for good decisions while staying connected as a group, based on trust and respect?


Jennifer Rau, SoFA

Giving feedback – a bundle of resources

Without feedback, we are stuck forever in the same patterns. Without feedback, we will not learn and will never improve. We will never understand how we impact others, whether our intentions match our impact. Why would we not want to hear feedback from others? The ability to receive and give feedback requires: (1) a mindset in which we see feedback as data that we can use to improve. (2) skill.

This is a section devote to feedback. We have two resources for you that go well together.

  1. You can read much more background about feedback in sociocratic organizaitons in this 25 page article. It explains the basic ideas from NVC, the role of feedback in sociocracy, and some more examples.
  2. The recording of the webinar is here. The slides are here. The feedback form is on the top. (Click on the image to open as high resolution pdf version.)


Article: Sociocracy. Connecting Humans for a Shared Purpose.

This article is published on the site.

Sociocracy. Connecting Humans for a Shared Purpose.

At an informal weekend gathering in Cabot, VT in the summer of 2016, we were asked to guide a group of strangers on making a decision together. The decision to be made was which topics the group would devote our precious time together. We started a first go-around, following the standard Sociocratic process. It seemed easy. Our facilitator made a proposal and we all seemed to be on the same page. Then someone in our group — let’s call him Mark — objected to the proposal. He felt strongly about one of the parts of the proposal. Without any process, our group decision would likely have come to a halt. We might have turned into potential winners and losers, and the objector might have become the “perpetrator” who threw a monkey wrench into the harmonious group process. (Or we might have come to a compromise, although compromises oftentimes make everyone feel a little bit like a loser.)

Instead, we trusted the process. And the group trusted us. So we … (read more)


Jerry Koch-Gonzalez (2017). Sociocracy: Connecting Humans for a Shared Purpose. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

What does self-governance have to do with class?

Interview by Jennifer Ladd with Jerry Koch-Gonzalez.

Jennifer Ladd (JL)

How did you come to sociocracy? You’ve had a journey around non-profits. How did you go from working with class issues to working with sociocracy? 

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez (JKG)

The first time I really got seriously involved with issues of class was with a group called Movement for a New Society. We wound up figuring out that it did not really make sense from a class issue perspective that everybody was spending the same amount for the training programm, and that people should be more paying according their capacity. That exploration led to financial disclosure and thinking about how we pay for programs according to capacity rather than simply flat fee which is in favor of people who have the resources. So I think that piece stayed with me. In order to get to that discussion, we had to talk about our class backgrounds and all of that has really been the heart of what we had talked about in Class Action.

Often we talk about ending classism and about what is wrong with the power-over that we have but we don’t often talk about what we want instead. What is the constructive program instead of the challenging program? What do we want to see in its place? So Sociocracy for me it is like this is a really neat answer. It may not be the end of the answer eventually but it is something we can work with. It is something that actually can coexist with capitalism as we know it, it is not anti-capitalist. One significant aspect of it is that decisions are made by those who work together, they are making decision-making by consent. Consent is a form of consensus but fairly organized so it might not be what we associate with consensus. So there is an organized format to how we make decisions that honor every voice.

And we do that on a large scale. Typically, if an organization is small enough that a group of five or six people can be making decisions, that’s doable. But if we tak
e a hundred people, how do we make that work? So then we are looking at circles where people work together and make decisions about their domain of work, and then their circles are linked with each other so regardless of the level of abstraction or concreteness of a circle’s work — a board of directors is very abstract, whereas a shop floor is very concrete– people make decisions by consent that then govern how they work. It is them who make the policy.

Each of those circles are then interlinked bottom-up and top-down. Top-down by leaders who are selected bottom up, and top-down by delegates and that circularity is how all the voices get heard about anything that impacts the whole organization on those particular levels. So everybody has a voice. In an organization that operates sociocratically, its members are having a voice in how pay happens. So they’re not going to go to the extremes of incredibly high pay for the top leaders, and they’re not going to go for incredible low at the lower ends of the organization’s work.

JL: So, in sociocratic or dynamic governance organizations, is pay pretty transparent so that people know what other people are making? 

JKG: At least there would generally be access to that kind of information. Because there would at least be delegations where a group who is responsible for that —the whole group is giving that group that authority— that information is made public. The outside world is is a different question, sometimes this gets into issue of competition with other organizations and what can be public about how you operate internally. In terms of specific salaries the generic intention of smaller range of salary of course they would make that public.

JL: Within a small organization, what if there was secrecy about who was being paid, and some people got raises and some didn’t, and once that got known it would be very difficult between people who worked there. How does sociocracy prevent that?

JKG: One of the key principals in sociocracy is transparency. All the minutes of all the meetings need to be accessible. Anybody from any place in the organization can go find all the meeting minutes, who was there, what they talked about, and how they made their decisions. So that when there is transparency you don’t have that kind of after-effect of secret decisions being known to people

JL: It sounds like people who are applying this tend to be middle class professionals. Is that true, or is that off?

JKG: I think there is a whole variety of people who are involved in this. When Dynamic Governance comes into an organization, it does bring some challenges to the existing power structure. Those who have been used to being power are now being asked to share power. And that can be challenging for those since they are shifting power. They used to say jump and people jumped, and now they ask can we have a policy that says jump, and and people have to agree to that. So it’s a change. For people to let go of that historical power that they had, that can be challenging. On the other hand, the same challenge can apply the other way. Those who traditionally have not had power may be afraid and reluctant to take the responsibility. For me, this is one of the exciting things about sociocracy, it challenges both power-over and power-under in that it says to step up and share the power and share the responsibility, let’s treat each other as equals here.

JL: Do you have any suggestions for people who work in organizations that are hierarchical and big and probably aren’t going to have any major shifts from the top? Are there any ways that they can integrate some of these principles in their sphere of influence?

JKG: Sociocracy has three main areas. One is the organizational structure based on the groups of people working together. We may not have much impact on that aspect in an organization that you are talking about. However, another aspect is that of the decision-making process. Any group within an organization could adopt all or many parts of the consent process. At the very least, when you are in a meeting, you can say “can we do a round and hear from everybody on this?” A round is simply “let’s hear from each person”. I many meetings, what happens is debate style. I’ll say this and then you’ll oppose then I’ll respond to you and then a third person will come in, and so we have a few people who dominate the debate and a lot of the people are silent. That does not allow us to hear what everyone is thinking. It does not allow us to be influenced by each other. When you do a round and hear from each person, that is one of the things that equalizes everyone’s voice. So for me that’s an example of anti-classism right there. Everyone’s voice matters.

Because when you’re doing a go-around, not only do you hear everyone who is getting to speak but you’re also listening. So rounds increase listening. What happens in the debate format, it is not a lot of listening. It is just about winning, about winning over the other person.

JL: You said there was a third part. The first ones were structure and consent,…

JKG: The third part is creating feedback loops. In every meeting, end with an evalutation of the meeting. So you are looking at what went well and what did not go so well in the meeting, you are looking at what can be improved in a meeting. Every work process that you do, when you look at the work process that you do and evaluate it, see if you can streamline it, make it more effective, make it more efficient. Every policy that you make for the organization, instead of it being set in stone forever, set a timeline for it. Say, in two years we will review this poilicy and we will look at these kinds of issues. And then ask yourselves, is this policy helping us meet out aim of the organization, or is it getting in the way, do we need to amend it? We are looking at various ways of generating feedback within the organization so that learning and adaptability can happen.

JL: So people would maybe be willing to try something if they knew it was going to be tried for a certain period of time, rather than being locked into it?

JKG: We have a few slogans that we use in sociocracy. One of them is “good enough for now”, and “safe enough to try”. So if we’re scared about making this policy or when some people in our group are anxious because they don’t know if this is going to work, and we try it out for three months orany short period of time, we can get some feedback, some experience. Then, from that experience, we can make an improved decision.

JL If we have part-time workers and full-time workers participating in this — how do part-time workers have a voice?

JKG: The notion is in sociocracy is, socios, governance by the people who work together. Any group of people who work together can be a circle and their voice can be heard within that circle. If there is a group of part-time workers and they have a shared area of work, they can form a circle. They can meet as frequently or as infrequently as they need to. They can make the policies about their work and pass the messages on to the circle that they might be connected to, the uplinking or downlinking circle as is appropriate to make sure that whoever else needs to understand their issues is hearing that.

So the higher in the hierarchy of an organization you go, the more time you spend doing meetings. The board of directors, they meet and make policy. Whereas the people who are on the shop floor, on the front line of a non-profit, they are doing a whole lot and not that much policy-setting and that also makes sense. The time spent on policy making and on operational work, both have to be appropriate to each level.

JL: Does it take a lot of time? People are so busy, their lives are so busy, how do they take time to be able to be in all those meetings? 

JKG: If you want to change the culture of an organization, then it’s going to take an effort. The fastest thing to do is say “because I said so”. That’s very efficient in the short run but not the way of life that we want to have for most of us. A worker who is content, that is important. And it would make a real difference if workers had a voice. And yes, that takes time. It takes time to launch and streamline systems but once they are in place, then the long-term efficiency really has its impact. – particularily in worker-coops, in more consensus-based organizations that are shifting to sociocracy. The improvement is really clear early on. In more hierarchical organizations, the impact takes a while longer to show.

JL: For a small organization, do you still think the form will work? 

JKG: If the organization is small enough then it is really just one group within the decision-making process and you cover it all. You basically have two kinds of meetings, policy meetings where all are equal and policies that govern the work. And you have operational meetings where even in a small group different people will have different domains of responsibility. They are in charge of their area and they have authority over their area.

I live in a cohousing community where we have meals together a couple of times a week. So the meals committee or the kitchen committee sets the policy about cost of the meals, what’s going to be served – not exactly what’s going to be served but more general, like whether it is going to be vegetarian, or policy on variety so everyone’s needs can be met. It sets some policies around the meal. And then the team, which might be a the head cook and the assistant cooks will still be the ones to decide. Within the polcy, the head cooks decides when the meal is ready to serve. So there is that balance between policy making and operational decision-making that can happen in a small group.

JL: How long did it take the cohousing that you’re part of to change from one form of decision-making to sociocracy?

JKG: Well, there is probably a couple of parts to the answer to that. How long did it take to persuade everyone to give it a try…

JL: Well, that’s a big part of it.

JKG: That is a big part of it. It took us probably around a year of discussions in small groups. Once the decision was made, it rolled out within a month. We kept some of the systems that we had and changed some of the system. It was not a whole throw everything out and start brandnew. And I think within 6 months or so people really had the swing of how we do the meetings, how we relate one circle to the other. Within 6 months to a year the systems starts flowing and reinforcing itself.

If you have an organization where new people are coming in, it is also important to have continual training. We all have a tendency to go back to the old way, whether the old way was consensus or was voting, or the old way was “I said so”. So we have a tendency to drift back to the societal norms, and here, we are really trying to establish new norms, to support the equality and more voices being heard.

JL: How does a board fit in, or clients or donors?

JKG: If we’re talking about a non-profit or a for-profit, there is often the separation between the board and the workers.

In the context of sociocracy, the executive director or the CEO of the organzation is a full member of the board with equal consent rights. And the delegate from the management team would also be on that board. And that delegate could be anybody from the management team. It could even be a delegate from a lower circle if you will and could be elected to that level. So there are at least two voices on the board of directors that represent the experience of the workers. It is two voices, not only one voice, because the level of accountability is lower when it’s only one voice.

The board would also have the usual outside experts around finances, their fundraising, legal or around similar aims. What I think is interesting is that some organizations have a general membership, like some non-profits. A representative from the general membership would be serving on the board as the representative of the general membership. Or there could a funder circle, for a non-profit. Or, if there are several foundations that form a group, then they can have representation from the funders’ group on the board of directors. In that case, the funders do not control the organization, they simply have a voice, like any other person in that board. The same goes for for-profits. We think of for-profits as generally being owned by the shareholders. In this context of sociocracy, the company really owns itself. Because the shareholders may have representation on the board of directors, but it is just one other equal voice.

In a for-profit, the board of directors must have consent for majors decisions. So you won’t have the by-outs because someone on the board is going to say, no, we want to keep this in our community.

JL: Sounds like there have to be really clear agreements written up.

JKG: There needs to be a constitution that states really all the principles of sociocracy and how they’re going to be implemented in this organization.

One other important piece is money. Money is another aspect of feedback. Because profit is feedback. If you sell a lot, that is useful information. In a sociocratic organization that is working with their renumeration policies —how people get paid– , the investors get a fixed rate of return, and they would get a variable rate of return. That rate is variable depending on how well the organization is doing. The workers in the organization also get a fixed rate of return, their salary, and they also get a variable rate of return, depending on how well the company is doing. So if there are investors and there are workers, they are both interested in everyone succeeding because everyone benefits.

Non-profit organizations need to work financially successfully, so that the funders want to keep funding it, so that people who are doing it are having jobs and the benefit for the community keeps happening. A lot of the feedback there needs to be on how what they are doing is contributing to the well-being of the people who are being served by that. So sometimes the feedback is in money. Sometimes the feedback is in information about how what you’ve done has had an impact.

JL: Is there anything concluding that you think would be useful to people who are fairly new to this, anything else particularily addressing class that comes to mind?

JKG: When I think of the core issues of class, my hope is that dynamic governance or sociocracy can have an impact on all the different levels. One that we talked about is voice. Everyone has a voice.

Another is around meeting basic needs: an organization that is run sociocratically is going to make sure that basic needs of its workers are met and that the people who are in that organization want to do something that is beneficial to society rather than just produce junk.

In a sociocratic organization, it may not be that everybody gets the same pay. But it is going to cut out the high and low extremes that many organizations have.

In terms of equity, if everybody has a voice then we will have a way of really hearing everyone. In terms of people able to develop to their full potential, a lot of sociocratic principles are that every circle, every individual would have a development plan. How are we going to learn more? How are we going to learn more about the content of what we do? How are we going to learn more about the governance of our organization? How are we going to learn more about our communication skills so that we have fun doing this work? All these elements, that’s what I am looking for.

Learn more about sociocracy in detail in this video.


Crossposted from Interview recorded in Northampton MA (USA), in 2015.

What is the difference between operations and policy

We get this question quite a lot and this is one way of answering it.

In the beginning of the evolution of a circle, there is only the circle’s aim, which is policy, and operations that support the aim. For instance, a garden circle grows food in a garden. The garden is the domain, a set of garden-workers (or otherwise involved) are the circle members, and the aim is growing food. Buying seeds, planting, watering, harvesting, these are all operations. So where does policy come in? In the beginning, everyone works enthusiastically, and everyone is doing what (in their minds) supports the aim. Without policy, everyone can do anything within the circle’s domain. (Domain means: garden circle cannot make decisions about the basketball court right next to the garden.) But everyone doing their own thing typically won’t go for long. For instance, members of that garden circle could be planting whatever they want in a garden. Then this leads to issues and the circle decides (by consent) that in wintertime they will make a plan and decide which row will have what kind of plants in that year. Now circle members can put those plants in according to policy but they still decide how far spread out they put in plants in carrying out the policy (i.e. in the concrete act of planting). Policy reduced the options the individuals had. Policy specifies and therefore constrainst the options. Not everything and anything can be done anymore. 

Now the circle members are happily planting tomatos in the tomato row, and carrots in the carrot plot. In the herb garden, there is still free choice and everyone is fine with that. Let’s imagine the spacing of individual tomato plants leads to issues because planting tomato plants to close makes it easier for diseases to spread. Even though this is known, not everyone pays attention, so now the circle might decide to make policy around that. From now on, tomato plants need at least 2.5 feet spacing, and every circle member planting tomatoes will follow that. (Again, remember that the circle members constrainted themselves/each other by choice and by consent because they assume that the policy will make their work more effective. After all, they want their tomato plants to do well.) Are we going to make policy about everything? No. We have to hit the sweet spot where everything that will likely lead to issues or has led to issues in the past is framed by policy, without micromanaging the work. For instance, the circle member will still decide how much water to use after planting, and which individual tomato plant goes where.

How much policy the circle members want to give themselves is highly context-dependent. That is why it makes sense for circles to each decide for themselves. For instance, how much water to give a newly planted tomato plant might not need policy in a garden circle of a community (to me, personally, that would be micromanaging me to tell me that every tomato plant needs 2 gallons of water and I’d have to measure it out!). In a plant nursery, there might be policy around that, and that would be appropriate for that circle/aim because their context is different. 

Policy decisions are only made where there is a reason to do so. We don’t start out defining every possibility, we start from a place of trust wherever possible and safe and start from there. Working together is the focus, and making policy that supports our working together. It is important to see that operational decisions are made by (sets of) individuals but they have to be made within the frame of the circle: any operational decision has to be compatible with the circle’s policy, supportive of the circle’s aim, and within the circle’s domain. Any policy decision in sociocracy has to be made by consent in the circle that has this decision in its domain. Sociocracy aims to balance the individual’s freedom with the supervision of and equality within the circle. 

Another example: deciding that a circle meets every Tuesday and has a secretary who sends meeting reminders are both policy decisions. The act of “now I will send out a meeting reminder” and the act of sending it, that’s operations and the impulse to do so at a certain time is an operational decision. If for some reason it is important that reminders be sent out at a particular time and that did not happen and has led to issues, there might be some need for policy. Every circle has policy and operational parts to it. This generic statement is true because just deciding to have a facilitator is policy, and even just sending out minutes is operation – from the shop floor to the board level, there is policy and there are operations.