Sociocracy in large groups?

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Sociocracy is a governance system that helps groups do work together and make decisions together. The essence of sociocracy is “no one ignored”, or in the positive: all voices matter. 

As a social technology optimized for voice, empowerment and human connection, it naturally attracts people who care about collaboration in groups. And since many people care about collaboration in groups, those groups can easily get big! Yes, sociocracy is clearly designed for any number of people operating and meeting in small groups. It was never intended for meetings of groups of 30 or 50 people!

I cannot talk about the small group/large group topic without saying a few words about why we don’t meet in large groups if we can avoid it. Yet, since I am asked this question a lot, let me show how one can have some of the benefits of sociocracy even in large groups.

1. Why sociocracy avoids large groups

Sociocracy is a system that is optimized for inclusion and action – balancing individuals’ and group needs, our desire to connect and our desire to move forward. So, how does one optimize for making sure all voices can be heard? 

Our intuition says: when you want to hear many voices as equals, then put them all into the same room and let them talk! It sounds so logical, and yet, it’s easy to see how that doesn’t work. If we put a group of 40 people into the room for 2 hours, then there are, on average, three minutes for each person to talk. But, we all know that if 40 people have a meeting, it is unlikely that everyone will speak the same amount of time. What’s much more likely is that 10 people will speak a lot and 10 will hardly speak at all. 

Sociocracy is engineered to allow groups to deliberate: we share our individual perspectives on an issue, hear each other and come up with a solution that builds on synergy. The back and forth that is needed to really hear each other is impossible when we bounce between 40 people.  The human brain simply can’t track that many opinions and perspectives with enough consideration, and it will simplify things into polarizations that are easier to grasp. That’s not what we want! 

Therefore, fundamental to sociocracy are the values equivalence, effectiveness, and efficiency.  Equivalence means that no one is ignored because everyone’s needs matter and everyone’s voice has equal value.  We value the ideas and opinions of everyone in the meeting.  Effectiveness and efficiency means that meetings are productive.   

That’s why sociocracy  includes the pattern of decentralized, small groups (called circles) connected by linking and feedback loops. That way, people can have homes,  have the space to really listen and be listened to, and can spend their time productively.

That was a long disclaimer to now say what I promised I’d say: how sociocracy can be useful in large groups. 

2. Sociocracy in large groups

If you have a large group of people (like all parents of a school, all members of a platform, all owners in a coop), then you have to ask yourself, what are you trying to get from a meeting? There are different scenarios:

(a) The aim is for everyone to understand information (report)

Let’s say you’re a food coop and you’re holding an annual member meeting to inform the members of next year’s budget projection. A report is one-way communication: you’re conveying information and people listen. People might have clarifying questions on whether they take in the input accurately but that’s it for interaction here. 

This can easily be scaled up to larger groups. In a group of 6, you can speak and people can ask questions in a round or “popcorn” style. In a group of 20 or so, you’d probably want for people to raise their hand before they ask a question. In a group of 1000, you’d probably have to switch over to another system but the mechanism is always the same: someone asks, someone answers. 

→ Reporting in large groups  is easy.

 

(b) The aim is for everyone to explore ideas (‘exploration’)

If the aim is for people to explore, the first step will always be to explain whatever people need to know to start exploring. What’s the idea or issue they are responding to? Once that is clear, the next step is to explore ideas. Now group size matters a lot. Exploration requires for people to listen well so they are able to build on each other’s ideas. That’s best done in groups of 2-7 people. What happens next depends, on your outcome:

  • If you need the input that is being created, then have the small groups collect their ideas (on cards, reporting out later or in whatever way).
  • If you don’t actually need the input and you just want people to hear each other then have people go into small groups without gathering the ideas that got generated.
  • Any other play on group combinations, like World Cafe, Open Space, spectrums etc. – they all belong here. 

Note: in order to support introverts and address inherent bias that often plays out in groups (like extroverts, or men, or people of higher class background talking more, or …), rounds are a good idea when generating ideas. If a group prefers “speaking at will”, then a compromise is to start and end with a round but let people “free flow” in between. 

→ Exploration in a large group is easy (if you accept that not everyone will hear everybody). 

(c) The aim is for everyone to decide together (decisions)

Decisions in large groups are the toughest. While selection processes – where we pick one option from among already existing options – can be tweaked quite well for groups of up to ~50 people*, it’s much harder for policy decisions.

In sociocracy, we want to encourage to consent or to object to make sure proposals are of good quality and take into consideration the needs of the people involved. Can we do that in a group of 200? It depends – if the group is homogenous and the needs of the people are very similar (for example because they work closely together on a very specific task), it’s possible. If it’s a complex issue and people hardly know each other, or the level of familiarity with the topic varies, it will be impossible to hear and understand all objections in the room in a timely manner. 

That’s why for mass governance – democracy- , voting still is the only viable option . But objections aren’t heard and integrated, just outnumbered and often ignored. Once again, trying to involve many people at once only means to compromise on how well individuals and their needs will be heard. 

Another numbers game: if the task is to hear all nuances on a topic from 50 people, it’s more likely to achieve that if 5 people take it on,  get feedback from the other 45 and synthesize what they’ve learned in the small group. That way, 50 people can be involved without being decision makers. 

How can we get there? The next section shows how!

3. How to get there: transition into small groups

Let’s say you are, like so many groups I encounter, stuck in the large-group stage. For whatever reason, the group grew larger and larger without putting a system in place that would allow for small groups to listen well to each other. So what can we do? 

One strategy of taking the edge off is to use small groups as often as possible – for exploration to break up the large group or in small subsets that prepare proposals for the large group. 

A next step is to deliberately transition power into small groups. The large group would still make most decisions but at least some could be mandated into small groups. Those small groups, ideally, would transition into standing groups and build expertise. If they are given limited authority more than once, they can earn trust and can take some of the load off the large group having to make all the decisions. This works even better when that small group has a clear process and good flow of information between the whole group and small group. The  more clearly the small group mandate (or mandate for an individual) is defined, the higher are the chances that the large group can seamlessly benefit from the small group work. 

Once a significant amount of authority and responsibility is transitioned into small groups, that is, the better the groups are well connected and feedback  is flowing between teams and individuals – that’s the structure sociocracy was intending to provide in the first place!

*How to do sociocratic selections in a large group

(From the sociocracy handbook, Many Voices One Song)
Imagine we want to select 4 people among a group of 40 people. If we go around using the usual process of nomination rounds and change round, every round is going to take too long and the contributions people make will likely be repetitive. But we want to hear everyone’s input. What can we do? Here is one fairly easy tweak: everyone in the large group nominates a set number of people (for example 4) and writes their nomination of a sheet of paper. Then we ask the first person (let’s call them circle member 1) in the round who they nominated. They say the name of their first nomination. We ask everyone else in the room who nominated that person as well to stand up (raise their hand). Then we ask circle member 1 to share why they nominated that person. Circle member 1 shares their reason, and we ask everyone who feels represented completely in what they heard to sit down/take their hand down. They ask a circle member who is still standing to share their additional reasons for nominating the same person. Again, everyone who now feels represented completely by what has been shared can sit down. We do that until everyone sits. Then we ask circle member 2 to share who they nominated (can’t be the first nominee again someone else on their list), and the whole process starts again until we have heard all the reasons and nominations, without repetitions. We can do the same for the change round, encouraging each member to only speak if there is new information. The rest is the same as the regular process: the facilitator makes a proposal and we can hear objections.
We like getting this visual image of how many people nominated a nominee, and we get to hear all the reasons and at least some sense of how many people agree with those reasons as they sit down but we do not get any repetitions. Maybe not everyone will speak but everyone is represented and can speak if they do not feel completely represented either in who they nominated or in why they nominated that person. This is time-efficient without redundant information.
A variation: after the change round, we can put the 5 people with the most nominations in a “fishbowl” and let them do another change round and the consent round. Other variations are possible as long as the approach and the person filling the role is accepted by consent.