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What could possibly go wrong when implementing sociocracy?!
A change in governance or an organization can be compared to open-heart surgery; the heart needs to start beating and yet, its very core is undergoing some work. Just like heart surgery is invasive for a human organism, so is a change in governance. Recognizing that is key to understanding pitfalls in implementing sociocracy.
Governance is at the core of an organization; it affects how well people can work together, how well they can connect with each other and how they perceive their ability to contribute. In the long run, it makes and breaks any organization. While hierarchical organizations are efficient in the short run, decentralized and collaborative organizations are more sustainable in the long run.
Here are the three reasons why I see implementations stumble or fail.
1. Underestimating the power shift
1.1 What I mean with that
Let’s face it: sociocracy changes the power structure in an organization. That’s not a small thing. Interestingly, we find that every organization has to adjust: horizontal organizations have to adjust to slightly more structure and autonomy of individuals. Hierarchical organizations have to adjust because now more people have power. In short:
- Those traditionally in power have to share power.
- Those traditionally without power have to step up.
Neither of this is easy. It questions how we see ourselves, how we see others, what options we consider possible and desirable. It affects how much we talk, when we talk and what we say.
1.2 Implications for your implementation
- Be real about the power shift. Don’t gloss over the fact that it’s hard for everyone and that how we relate to power dynamics runs deep. The more we sweep that under the carpet, the more power the old structures will have. The more openly we talk about our observations and reflections, the more intentional we can be about creating the systems we want to be a part of.
- Also, be realistic about your formal and your informal power dynamics. A “stealth” implementation where you don’t acknowledge it formally but just sort of patch together an informal system only goes so far. All your efforts can be un-done easily if you don’t make it formal. For example, the board/supervisor/top management needs to know what you’re doing. (And given how the overall perspective has changed just in the last 5 years, they might be more open to this than you think!)
Sociocracy is not feel-good self-management. Be honest if you don’t have confidence that an individual or a group that traditionally held the power in your organization would really give it up.
- Don’t override bis stakeholder groups: don’t override concerns among employees, funders, investors, members or management – and don’t misinform them.
- In a new implementation, one very common mistake I see is for the General Circle to hold on to power. And this goes both ways:
- Department circles are sometimes very willing to resort to their parent circle when they are not sure what to do. In a decentralized system like sociocracy, they can ask for feedback from all around them including their parent circle, but really, they have to step up and try something out. It might be scary but that’s how things work.
- The General Circle might be hesitant to give power to Department Circles. Yet, again, authority needs to be decentralized. I know of an young implementation where some of the more experienced sociocrats in the General Circle came up with a standard response to “what should I do?” requests from circles: “Is this decision in your domain? Yes? Then go make a decision.”
I like the concept of a parent circle, because it resembles parenting a teenager. We have to find the right balance between being helpful and letting go. It’s not clear cut, and yet, for teenagers, our tendency is to be over-involved. Let them do it themselves. Help when they ask for help. Don’t criticize when they mess it up. Celebrate them when they do good work.
2. Underestimating the culture shift
2.1 What I mean with that
Alongside with a structural shift, there is a shift in mindset and in how we relate to each other.
None of them is more or less important than the other. All need to be understood and reframed in a system like sociocracy. As mentioned in the first section, the structure changes power structure for real. Mindsets are changing because we need to shift from a competitive, fragmented attitude to a collaborative and interdependent mindset. We are leaving behind right and wrong and we are embracing a world where we acknowledge that we don’t really know anything for sure. We run experiments and learn from them, and we become co-learners and creators.
With sociocracy, we also change the interpersonal dynamics. We are on eye-level so we need to listen. In consent, we can’t push for a solution that harms others. Quoting Brené Brown, we need a firm back and a soft front, making sure we make forward progress and remain open to what wants to emerge in the moment.
2.1 Implications for your implementation
A healthy human needs to be healthy on different levels: physiological health (structural), habits (mindsets and practices), relationships (social, resilience in case of conflict). In the same way, a healthy organization will be doing well enough for each of those areas. If a doctor is deciding whether a patient should get a procedure that is life-saving (= without it, the patient will die) but invasive (= it will be draining energy from the patient), one would only approve of that if there is a good chance that the patient will survive overall. In the same way, an organization needs to be strong enough overall. Undergoing a governance change does not make sense without also looking at relationships and mindsets. And implementing a new governance system in the hope of resolving a deep relational rift in the organization is likely going to make things even worse.
The one thing that really helps here is more training and more spaces for reflection. Training is essential and we find that most organizations struggle when they aren’t taking training seriously enough.
Sometimes we have clients that say “Great, I want this in my organization. How do I do that without having to train everyone?” That reminds me of the definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results. People have to be trained to do things differently. Governance is too big of a change and too deeply connected to beliefs and habits to just change them on good intentions. Put effort into training, put effort into reflection. Some questions and reflections might come up after a few months of use – make sure to schedule a brush-up training session.
Yet, when things are going well enough, a better governance system will create an upward spiral. More listening, more voice, more psychological safety will improve relationships. Better relationships will affect how structure is perceived and filled. Being heard and stepping into leadership will have some impact on people’s mindsets.
What is important to assess and improve is reflection. How are we doing? What do we see? How does it feel? I encourage students and clients to set their bar high: don’t settle for anything but a wonderful organization. It has to feel light, like playing ping pong! It has to feel firm and clear yet flexible and warm and caring. If it not how you want to work, change it. More training and fresh outside eyes can help with that. Yet the first step comes from you.