An interview with Permacultura and Transizione, Italy.
Hello Ted and Jerry, good to meet you and to have a little chat with you. The first question is of course: who are you?
We are the founding members of the non-profit Sociocracy For All. We teach sociocracy and make resources available so more people can use sociocracy.
What do you respond when people ask you “what do you do?”
I have a go-to sentence that I say now for a party-setting when I am being asked, “so, what do you do for work?”. I say “I help organizations make decisions and be organized together without overpowering anyone and without driving each other crazy”. Most people think that one is more effective when only a few decide what is being done and that it takes forever if you really make decisions together. But that is not true, in sociocracy you can have it all.
In the transition and permaculture movement some people use phrases that sound great and impressive but only few know what they mean. One of them is “resilience”. What does resilience mean to you, and do you have a specific example from your area of interest?
Resilience is the ability to respond to changes. For instance, if a blade of grass were stiff, it could break easily. An organization has to respond to changes all the time. As soon as an organization becomes stiff, it cannot respond as easily anymore. We want organizations that are learning and self-repairing, like living organisms are self-repairing.
What we teach our students and clients is how to pay attention to feedback. Feedback is all the data that helps us understand how the organization is doing and whether what we are doing works as intended. For instance, if more and more employees of an organization are staying home sick per year, we can think about why that might be and what we can do to change that. Feedback also comes up in how we work. For instance, we might have a habit in our group of going way over time for every meeting. A 1.5 meeting might take 3 hours. That’s way too long! But many groups just keep going instead of pausing for a minute. We teach groups to do a meeting evaluation at the end of every meeting. How did this go? What could we improve? The fact that the meeting went overtime would come up, and we could address it. That is resilience for me: an organization that senses proactively how things are going, which puts it into a better position to responds dynamically, so we don’t break in the wind.
Another big word: sociocracy! That’s your area of expertise. What does it mean? And why it is important to know about sociocracy?
Sociocracy is a governance system that is a combination of tools and best practices. All of those support the most fundamental principle of “no one ignored”. It is neither healthy nor sustainable to ignore voices in our organizations. He has to hear everyone. However, that’s hard sometimes because it seems to be slow to listen to everyone. Sociocracy has very smart solutions that fit together well. The first one is consent decision-making. Instead of going for everyone’s preference –which would take so long it would wear us out over time– we try to find a proposal that no one objects to. That way, we can focus on what is really important, for instance, if someone has concerns that carrying out a proposal might actually interfere with their work. We want to make sure people can contribute!
The second principle is that we make groups smaller. A group of 4-6 people can make a good decision. They might ask for input from a larger group, but a small group has the advantage that people can actually listen to each other and take in what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective. Those groups (we call them circles) are interlinked. That way, everyone has a place where they can do their work without anyone telling them what to do. Through the linking, we get a sense of the whole, and every piece works well together.
The third big area where organizations can benefit from sociocracy is in the use of feedback but I have already talked about that. The resilience that comes with sociocracy is a huge part of what makes it so attractive. Also, the benefits from those three areas mutually reinforce each other. Good decision-making is easier in a group that is small. Sociocracy is very concrete and specific. For instance, we also link two circles by having two people serve on both circles that are being connected. That way, the two people might differ in their opinions but they can represent the voices in a group much better than just one person.
You have recently decided to grow Sociocracy For All. People from all over the world are involved. Do you want to let us know how that happened and why?
We started Sociocracy For All because we saw the need for sociocracy on the grassroots level. Let’s imagine that sociocracy might make an organization 15% more effective (that’s an invented number). That means we have the key to making all non-profits, all activist groups, all transition groups 10% more effective. Sociocracy can boost social change and climate action in a big way when people are just a bit more effective in what they do and spend less time in pointless discussions or in power struggles. Up to this point, sociocracy was only for organizations that could pay a consultant. We felt the responsibility to bring it to everyone. I personally do it because I feel so much respect for the people doing good work, and I want to support them in wasting less time, less money, fewer resources and having more fun and feeling more connected to their peers in doing that work. I sometimes compare it to curing a disease: imagine you had the cure for a disease that is sucking up people’s time and makes them less happy at work and in their volunteer work – would you keep the cure to yourself? No. Good self-governance has to be a common good like education about healthy food. Healthy organizations are just as important to make positive changes.
Is there a song that’s on your mind recently?
That’s a little embarrassing and narcissistic but I listen to my own music, especially when I work. Music that I wrote myself speaks to me on a deeper level, and it is incredibly soothing to listen to it. It is like medicine — an instant way to center myself. I write songs about my community, the space around me, my kids, my partner. My partner calls it “making beauty out of life’s confusions”. On a more intellectual level, maybe I could say that I am self-repairing myself like any healthy organization would!
A song I wrote recently was about where I live, an intentional community of 32 houses. As people get older here, we think a lot about our vision of our community. A neighbor of mine said something very wise: we should shape our community as if it were not for us but for the people who will live here in 60 years. I loved that thought. I always imagine how our community building is full of all the joy, laughter, pain, loss, connection and love that the house has witnessed over the years. As if we could somehow imprint our love into the air and it would stay there for generations to come. I wrote that song and performed it at one of our community events last fall, and I also played it recently when a neighbor had passed away a few weeks ago. Since I turn every major insight of mine into a song, I have a lot of good reminders to listen to while I work! (By the way, my recordings are not public.)
We love having fun. Many people we interview we meet in an enjoyable location like over dinner. But sometimes we get caught asking a serious question. What hopes do you have for the future?
We hope that we do good enough work so that people who get together for a cause ask in their first meeting, “so, shall we use sociocracy, or what else?”. We want people to be in choice. Right now, people just do what has always been done without questioning whether that’s even working. For instance, voting might have its place in large groups if it cannot be avoided, but majority vote in a group of 5 just does not make sense. We have gotten accustomed to find it “fair” to ignore the needs of 2 people if 3 out of 5 want to go for a different option. If you think about that, that’s just crazy! We cannot afford to lose the expertise, experience and full support from almost half of our members.
So what we’re hoping for is for people to be intentional: how do we want to organize ourselves? What is the decision-making method that would suit our group and our circumstances best? In order to be intentional and in choice, we have to know what the options are and what works well and when. That is why we put so much information out there.
In some areas this has already been achieved. For instance, many intentional communities in the US now start out being sociocratic when they form. We expect that sociocracy or similar methodologies will be the new normal in more and more countries and sectors within the next 10 years.
Sustainability is a term that has gotten some criticism. In small steps, where can we start?
One small step is to acknowledge what our impact is. That goes back to feedback and transparency. For instance, imagine a world that is completely sociocratic. Everyone would be part of circles and all those circles were nested and interlinked in some way. We can easily engage in extractive practices if we do not see what the impact of our actions is. However, if the place where rare metals used for cell phones are mined has a way of communicating with the places where cell phones are being demanded, then we can see the impact. The root of many practices that harm society and the plant are based on inequality and the separation from the impact of our actions. If organizations — and that means people!– start asking what the impact is of anything we do, and we take that feedback into account, then we can make a more informed decision. Especially when we are used to respect towards any other human being from early on and re-train ourselves to appreciate cooperation instead of competition.
A tiny way to start that is at the same time very big is to listen to the impact of our actions in our immediate environment. An easy way that everyone can do in their very next meeting is to use rounds: in a round, we each say what we have to say, one by one. This seems like a small thing but it changes the energy in the room. Instead of competing for air time, we sit back and listen while the others are talking. That’s all that it takes to shift from competition to cooperation, in every little interaction.
Sociocracy and co-ops. In the States, it seems like co-ops have started to embrace sociocracy. What is there to know?
Cooperatives have a strong emphasis on individuals coming together as equals and to be self-governed. The typical decision-making method has been consensus, and many cooperatives operate on “we all decide everything together”. Everyone who has ever tried to make a consensus decision with 15 people knows how hard that is. It wears people out. Meetings take forever. People start dreading meetings.
Self-governance cannot work if people dread meetings and spend their time arguing. We do not have to make it that hard. In the past year or so, a lot has happened in the cooperative sector in the US, however. People are more aware of the options and look into alternatives because they realize how consensus and staying in a large group is counterproductive to what they want: a connecting and relaxed experience where everyone can contribute and be appreciated for what they bring.
At the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy in NYC where I was just a few weeks ago, almost everyone I talked to had heard of sociocracy. Some had already implemented parts of it. That was very different just 2 years ago.
Just like social enterprises, cooperatives really want to have the cake and eat it: build a economically sound business while being inclusive and respectful and having a positive impact on the community. Sociocracy and cooperatives are a natural fit. More and more people even outside cooperatives are not willing to work without being able to make decisions. People’s expectations are higher now, and I think that’s very positive.
We from Permacultura & Transizione dream that after every article, after every interview, there is a little change or a small revolution somewhere in Italy. Would you like to dream with us? What will happen after this interview gets published?
People all over Italy will leave the prejudice behind that the only way to be get done is to have a boss that tells you what to do. They will start reading and learning and practicing sociocracy. As they get used to egalitarian self-governance in one place, they stop accepting acts of oppression at their workplace, in their school or in their club. They will build organizations that offer a wonderful alternative: people working together who are able to listen and to sit with the fact that we are all different but equal. Children will experience in schools what it is like to be treated as capable, competent and self-responsible and will claim their values as grown-ups. We’re not going for small revolutions, we’re going big!