A blueprint of the self-organizing essentials

What is required to start a group? What are the bare-bones essentials to start an organization or a project, from the viewpoint of sociocracy?

Here is my personal take on it. It’s my personal list of expectations that I consider when I am evaluating whether a project is worth contributing my time and energy.

Of course, if I am very passionate about the cause or the people, I might compromise. Yet, to be honest, I typically regret doing that. Because, after all, if I care about the people or the cause, wouldn’t that be a reason to be even more diligent in our choices?

1. The first meeting

Ideally, the invitation to the first meeting includes the aim. I never join a group or attend a meeting if I don’t understand what the aim is.

(An aim can simply be mutual exchange — that’s fine. Yet, what sucks away time is when half of the group thinks it’s a “talking only” group and half of the group thinks it’s a “doing things” group.)

What needs to happen at the first meeting:

1.1 Define or approve the aim

This can be as simple as “I would like to form this group around sharing experiences of sociocracy and holacracy and comparing notes” or it can be “forming a Council of Commons in the Valley”.

“Approval” can be as simple as a quick round saying whether people are interested in that. I really think there should be a semi-formal approval of the aim, otherwise you’ll forever have people who say “why don’t we do this completely other thing instead” that will slow you down or paralyze the group. If you care about the cause, make it clear. (There is no problem if someone doesn’t want to put in their time — they might like your cause and be aligned in the mission and yet still not join. Many roads lead to Rome and we don’t have to walk every step together; they can simply stay friendly without joining, or join later.)

1.2 Get an idea of who is in & appoint a convener

Based on people’s responses of the aim, consider those to be in who said they were in. Better to make the group smaller than bigger.

(Have you experienced this phase early in a starting group when you have 12 people or more on your email list but only 3 of them ever respond and you don’t know who is even still with you? It’s draining. For starting a project, start small. You can always include people on the fence later.)

Find the person who will steward the process until you’ve formalized things a bit. This is just for a very short term, maybe until you meet a second time.

  • If you’re the convener, ask for consent for being the convener until you have chosen others. (“Hey, I think it would be best if someone stewards this group until next time, prepare next meeting and send updates by email. Since I have already invited today, I’d be willing to do that until we do formal selections next time. Are there any objections to that?”)
  • Or propose someone else (with reasons) and ask for consent.
  • If you have a group that’s either familiar or willing to try something new, you can use the selection process.

Note: the convener is somewhere between a leader and a facilitator. Later, I’d strive to separate the two roles but a pragmatic beginning can be useful.

1.3 Get to know each other!

After securing the aim, membership and convener, I’d spend the rest of the time telling each other life stories (related to the aim, maybe?). Connection is the basis for everything else!

2. Second meeting

Chances are, by now you have a few new members and lost a few. That’s ok. Just make sure you check in with people and are clear about who is in and who dropped out. By checking in, you are setting a culture of accountability for this group.

2.1 Reactions to the aim and grounding yourself in the work

Harvest whatever came up for people between meeting #1 and now. There might be great new ideas.

2.2 Form sub-circles?

Depending on the complexity of your project, identify whether there are obvious sub-groups that would need to be formed. In my experience, groups often sub-circles them too late (and drag along a whole group for a long agendas several meetings in a row instead of splitting up), or too early (when they are too ambitious and want to spread into 5 teams that never get off the ground.)
A good and pragmatic measure of whether forming a sub-group makes sense is to plan separate meetings. If people are willing to show up for an extra meeting on a sub-topic, chances are the sub-circle makes sense.

Forming that sub-group absolutely requires a clear understanding of that sub-circle’s aim!

2.3 Decision making method

I try to establish consent as a decision making method as early as possible. The point is (as described here) that it just gets harder and harder to make that decision.
The proposal sounds like this: “can we agree to make decisions by consent as our default?” Work through objections.

I, personally, don’t join groups anymore that are not consent-based. To me, it’s a litmus test. If a group is not willing to talk about governance, then the group is probably not worth my time. I offer my expertise but if I’d have to fight for it, I put my energy elsewhere.

3. The four or five coming meetings

In the coming meetings, you’ll wrap your head around the operations that you are planning together. You will encounter problems — they are part of the game — and even more so, you’ll identify topics that require more clarity.

Overall, create just enough clarity to operate. Not more, but also not less. Only solve those items that are actively holding you back. If you are in doubt, ask yourself: do we need to figure this out to keep working until next meeting? If yes, then address it, if not, postpone it.

3.1 Organize your documents:

  • Keep a backlog (to do list) of your circle. Keep urgent topics that require decisions and “for later”-topics separately.
  • Have one central place for your minutes.
  • Have one central place for all members’ email addresses.
  • If you form sub-circles, make a list of all the aims/domains.

3.2 Select circle roles

It’s time to be more intentional about how you run your circle. Select a facilitator, leader, and secretary. (You are the General Circle so you probably don’t have a Mission Circle yet which is why you don’t need a delegate yet.)

Be careful not to over-bureaucratize but make sure you package recurring operations into operational roles so the circle(s) don’t micromanage. Write them down.

3.3 Tackle the issues

Start working through the issues on your backlog. Remember not to cast decisions in stone but operate by the principle of “good enough” to keep you moving. For example, if you’re spending money, clarity will have to be created fast but you don’t have to plan what it will be like with 30 employees. Plan for now and a little bit into the future, just enough so you don’t have to talk about it for a while. Think lean. If you try to solve all the future issues now, chances are high your organization won’t exist anymore in that future!

4. Formalize and consolidate

(Note: Short-term projects will probably only need phases 1–3.)

Your organization will develop from a storming organization to a norming organization. It’s easy to start something and not so easy to maintain it so that requires its own level of attention.

4.1 Organize your documents more and define workflows/basic policy

  • Organize how minutes and documents are kept so they are accessible
  • Organize how you will remember to review policies and re-evaluate and re-select roles
  • How does one become a member?
  • How do we allocate resources between the circles?
  • If you hire, you’ll have to deal with the legal dimension.
  • This is a good time to incorporate — if desired — and deal with funding.

4.2 Governance

  • A “real” General Circle: If you have formed sub-circles, make sure they select delegates. What was formerly the “everyone” circle now forms into a proper General Circle of only leaders and delegates. If you are small and the General Circle is still everyone involved, at least be clear who has what role. Remember, the structure is supposed to support you, not to get in the way so create as much structure as makes sense plus a little more in case communication breaks down.
  • Governance agreement. Adopt a governance agreement implementing sociocracy, on the highest and most formal level possible. (You can work off our sample governance agreements.)
  • Make sure you know what your plan is on re-training current members and on on-boarding new members.

4.3 Build for the long run: Mission Circle

Your General Circle will be busy supporting the operations of the organization and the department circles. Create a Mission Circle with some people from within and some people from without the organization — it’s really healthy to get some outside ideas on an ongoing basis. The Mission Circle will focus on long-term strategy.

5. Improve everything, forever

From now on, “all” you have to do is to improve everything bit by bit and solve all the issues that arise.