Sociocracy’s Magic Number 3: A Tripartite Triad Tradition
It has been stated time and again that every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I don’t know why that is, but it seems like we find some unspoken comfort in the 3-act narrative arch. And it’s not just with storylines, we seem to get a certain satisfaction from this pattern of 3-step-cycles in a number of other contexts too; I personally like to see it applied to group processes in organizational contexts. That´s why in this three-part series, I’ll take a look at some of these patterns, which I like to call “sociocracy’s magic number 3” and see how they fit into each other.
I inhabit most of my organizational self in sociocratic contexts; sociocracy is a governance system with a set of tools for groups that want to self-organize in an egalitarian and efficient manner. These tools tend to hinge on certain patterns that repeat themselves throughout different processes and can be mutually reinforcing. One of these patterns, but very plainly, consists of segmenting processes in different parts to go step by step. Dividing our work into bite-size chunks helps us to make sense of complexity, which is crucial if an organization is to thrive in a complex world. Additionally, it seems like another common pattern is to divide those chunks into 3-step-cycles. Each one of those steps can be divided into its own 3-step-cycle, and so on until infinity. It is part of sociocracy’s fractal nature, and much like other fractal patterns, once you’ve identified it, you start seeing it everywhere!
I’ve decided to start this series with a pattern called Input-transformation-output since it seems like the broadest of the three, which is also what makes it so useful and applicable. Though it is used in sociocracy, it does not really originate from it; it is often applied to systems thinking, economics and engineering. I’ll speak to it primarily in terms of systems, as systems are an abstract enough idea that pretty much anything can be conceptualized as a system; from an atom to a cell, an organism, a person, a family, a company, a whole society, or even the planet, a system is a defined set of elements that interact with each other and can be understood as a whole.
One of the defining aspects of a system is that it is enveloped in a context or environment. And even though it is distinct from its environment, it has its own behavior and it is always interacting with its surrounding, often (if not always) altering it.
The main way a system interacts with its environment is through the pattern of input-transformation-output. The three steps of the pattern are as follows: something from the environment that is not (yet) a part of the system is put into the system (input), that, put into the system, becomes changed by the processes of the system (transformation), at least, the system expels something qualitatively different than what was ingested back into its environment (output).
The first concrete example that comes to my mind is the metabolism of living organisms. We eat (or otherwise absorb) something, we process it (transforming it), and we expel something different. Our respiratory system behaves following the same pattern. It takes air in, breaks up its components to absorb Oxygen and exhale Carbon Dioxide. If we go into smaller scales we’ll see that cells also follow the pattern, but the concept can also be applied to larger scales, like a social one including groups of several humans.
We can apply the concept to an organization, a system (a subset of people) that live within a broader context (their society). Just as living organisms have a metabolism as a way of relating to their environment (taking in matter, reorganizing it by chemical processes, and putting out differently matter back into that same environment), each organization leads this process with its broader context, the world it finds itself in. It identifies certain conditions in its surroundings and sets itself out to change them. It nurtures itself from the things around it so that it can deliver an impact, whether it’s in the form of a service, a product, or something different.
The input would be the raw capital of the organization, which often (if not always) includes some type of labor: the time and energy of its members, gathered around a shared vision, mission or aim. The transformation phase would be the operations of the organization, the work by which they organize that time and energy in a way that renders something different than what they had in the beginning, something to deliver. The output is what the organization gives to the world (often categorized as a good or service in market terms) with an intended impact to satisfy a need.
The same way that organs perform input-transformation-output processes in our bodies, so do different groups within an organization (subsystems within a broader system). In the case of a sociocratic organization more specifically, we organize in groups of equals we call circles. Circles are the basic units of decision-making in sociocracy; to decentralize power, they have full authority over a defined area of the organization, and they function on the basis of consent and rounds as a way to tap into collective intelligence. Circles may also create sub-circles to delegate authority on particular areas of decision-making. Sub-circles can always create sub-sub-circles, which is another main way in which recursivity is displayed in sociocracy.
The input for circles usually comes in the form of information, because it is through information sharing that our minds connect to each other so that the group can think as a whole. This can be a report, a complaint, a request, a proposal, a needs statement, a document, a handover, or really any other piece of information, usually coming from another circle and transported by double-linking, ie individuals who are part of the neighboring circles, whether it’s the subcircle or the parent circle. The transformation would be making a decision on what to do with that information, which happens through rounds and finally consent. The output would be whatever the circle decided to do: pass the information along, make a policy, draft a proposal for another circle to consent, etc.
Input-transformation-output can also be applied to any meeting. The input is the topics on the agenda (which often serves as the invite to a meeting). Then people meet and transform agenda items by discussing them together, turning them into outputs. Whether it’s decisions, plans, tasks or any other type of action steps, something comes out of the meeting, and it is usually captured in the minutes.
The “ITO” framework can also be particularly useful to describe the workflow of an operational role. For example, the workflow of a website’s content manager role may be described as taking in an article submission (input), uploading it to the web and correcting it (transformation), and publishing it on the web for people to read there (output).
When applied specifically to group decision-making processes in circles, the 3-part pattern of Input-Transformation-Output takes the name of Understand-Explore-Decide. This one is particularly useful for facilitators to have a good grasp of in a meeting context.
Much like the other patterns, it can be used at different scales. Let’s take a look at them starting from the broadest scope and then zooming in gradually to the more specific.
The most generic way of framing it is that for every decision we make, first, we need to understand the issue at hand, only then we can begin to explore ideas for possible solutions, after sufficient exploration, we can come to a decision. The important caveat of this particular pattern is that every phase of the process builds upon the previous one, or rather presupposes it. It would be hard to come up with ideas to solve a problem we do not yet understand, and it is unlikely that someone will whip out a comprehensive proposal without previously exploring the possibilities at hand. So, every decision process presupposes or implies an exploration of the issue, which in turn implies or supposes a sufficient understanding of it. Think of Matryoshkas, the Russian dolls that are nested within each other.
Sociocracy has a specific process for generating proposals in groups, and it follows the pattern of Understand, Explore, Decide. The understanding phase is where we ensure that we have clarity on the issue at hand. We may do this with a brief statement that clarifies the needs behind the proposal. The exploration phase is where we really look for a solution and try to come up with a comprehensive proposal. And the decision phase would be the group actually consenting to the proposal.
Depending on the complexity of the issue, each of these phases could have its own understand-explore-decide phase. For understanding, in some cases, particularly ones that may be emotionally charged, it is well worth, to take a step back and make sure we understand the context well. Asking things like “How did this get to our agenda? What are the needs at hand?” can be useful. Listing the needs or dimensions would be the exploring step of this phase, and consenting to its completeness implies the decision to move us to the next phase.
For the exploration phase, we can also have an understanding phase, which we call “picture forming”. In this step, we list the “dimensions” that a good proposal for this would need to cover. Once the list of dimensions is complete, we can get into what we call proposal-shaping, which is a free brainstorm of ideas to address each dimension on the list. In this phase, since we are not yet making a final decision, ideas can contradict each other without it representing conflict; we’re not trying to reach the perfect solution just yet, we’re merely putting the cards on the table. The intent of this step is to get into a generative flow, so there’s no need to address disagreements here. We trust that in the next step (the decide part of this section) someone (often the facilitator) will synthesize the ideas into a concrete and coherent proposal and bring it to the group to decide on it by consent.
The consent phase is also divided into understand, explore, decide. The first step is the questions round. In order to keep the group focused on the comprehension part (and not mask reactions as questions), the facilitator can use a prompt like “what do you need to understand about the proposal?” The exploration would be the reactions round. Like in other phases, this is the most free-format step, where people can just share freely what comes up for them in reaction to the proposal. Depending on the complexity of the issue, it may take more than one reaction round. We know we’re done with this phase when no one has any further reactions. And last but definitely not least, the consent round, where every member can choose to either consent or object.
In the case of an objection, this too can be segmented using the same pattern. Understanding the objection, exploring possible solutions for it, and deciding on an amendment to the proposal so that it can be consented to.
The level of recursivity that a group wants to zoom in to can vary greatly depending on the context. A group could use the entire picture forming, proposal-shaping and consent process just to come up with a needs statement to use as input for another proposal, if they see a fit.
Lead-do-measure is a pattern used to describe feedback loops in sociocratic organizations, a core value we aim to put into practice in a number of different ways for constant evaluation and continuous improvement. It refers to reiterative cycles in which we make a plan, we carry out the plan, and we evaluate the success of the endeavor. The evaluation can serve as input to inform the next plan, and thus the cyclical nature of the pattern allows for constant improvement and advancement through adaptation.
Much like the other tripartite patterns from this series (which together make a triad in and of themselves 😲 ), lead-do-measure can be seen and implemented at various scales in a sociocratic organization, like fractals.
An organization can use it to evaluate something as broad as its overall operations over the course of a year: lead with a budget or strategic plan, implement it over the course of a year, then look back and assess how the operations compare to the plan as it was originally conceived.
In sociocracy, it’s used virtually for any policy decision. That’s why every sound policy has a review date. Shorter review dates allow for more constant and safer evaluations, whereas longer review dates free up a meeting time to talk about other things! It’s up to every decision-making group to find that balance.
The use of LDM is very explicit in sociocratic role selection: we select the role, someone holds it, then we evaluate, and we re-elect based on that evaluation, refining with every term the role description itself, as well as helping the person selected to perform better.
It can also be used at a much smaller scale, like a meeting. A meeting agenda follows a similar principle: we consent to the agenda (the plan for what we will do for the meeting), we work on the topics we chose to prioritize and at the end, we evaluate: how far did we get? A central part of the “measure” phase in this case is updating the “backlog” or list pending agenda items, which in turn serves as input for drafting the next meeting’s agenda.
Additionally, starting and ending every meeting with check-ins and check-outs is a way of constantly collecting feedback and assessing how we’re doing, both as individuals and as an organization. If someone always starts their meeting check-ins saying they’re completely overwhelmed by the organizational work, that reveals to the system something about itself. Asking questions as simple as “how was this meeting for you?” or “how are you leaving this meeting?” can go a long way for gathering feedback while it’s fresh, which is healthier than bottling those things until they blow up in the form of conflict.
For a large organization-wide policy the pattern can be subdivided fractally: “Let’s come up with a list of needs behind this issue (lead). It includes this and this and that (do). Is the list complete? (measure)” There goes one cycle, which can be followed by another one: “Let’s ask the rest of the organization for feedback on this list in case we’re missing something (lead). Does this list look complete to you? (do) Have we asked all relevant stakeholder groups? (measure)” and so on. The cycle can repeat itself infinitely; as much or as little as groups find necessary and useful.
A crucial part to make the cycle effective is to match the “lead” or “planning” phase with the “measure” or “evaluation” one. The key question to ask when evaluating is not only something as simple as “how’d it go?”, but rather “How did the execution compare to what we planned out?”. This is where we get the key information about our operational work and our decision-making. Is there a gap between our plans and our actual work? Are we making any false assumptions? Is the map we use to guide our policy decisions radically different from the territory where our operations factually take place? Thus we assess not just what we do, but how we do it, which is where the major learning lies.
Another crucial element of the leading or planning phase is setting up mechanisms to evaluate how effective a plan was in achieving a specific outcome. During consent decision-making, this can often be the piece to clear an objection to the proposal: when we are frightened by uncertainty of what the outcome will be (eg. if a policy will be effective or not), the only way to find out is to try it in a manner that is safe enough, and re-assess based on empiricism. If we are frightened we’ll lose audience engagement, let’s track relevant metrics like click rates, subscribers, views, etc. and use them Establishing clear metrics for measuring the success is the only way we will get the information we are missing in order to improve the decision we can make about the issue.
Of course, these different frameworks can be combined with each other. One could combine Lead-Do-Measure with Input-Transformation-Output to create a monster workflow like this 27-block chart. Or one could see group decisions as outputs to be passed as input from one circle to the next. These output-inputs (which aren’t always policy decisions) are usually passed along as information from circle to circle through double-linking. It’s fascinating for me to think that in each circle, that information is resignified (transformed) through rounds, and passed on to the next circle to be given a different meaning in a different context. Thus information-sharing becomes the metabolism of circles in an organization; these processes start to resemble a living organism breathing in and out, and it starts to think as a whole.
The tripartite pattern could also be used for much simpler processes, even if they’re not organizational, for example, using dimensions, exploration, and synthesizing for drafting an article. The outline serves as the dimensions of the paper, points you want to make sure you cover. Then a first write up of paragraphs could be the exploration phase, writing anything and everything that comes to mind about each particular point in the outline. It’s the generative phase, so it’s okay to just open the faucet and let ideas flow without paying mind to grammar, spelling, word repetition, or any of that detailed stuff. Lastly, in the synthesis phase, one could take the time to read each paragraph carefully and condense the ideas into the most eloquent and concise sentences, paying attention to word choice, style, prose flow, etc.
If any of this feels redundant, it’s because it is! Repetition is the name of the game with these mental models, and that’s why it’s conceptualized as a pattern. I think that’s where its usefulness truly lies: its level of abstraction lends itself to be applied, appropriated and modified to all sorts of different things. Applications can be as simple as dividing things into steps to narrow down the workload, naming the phases we’re in to ensure clarity on group process, thinking in terms of cycles instead of linearly, and so on. You can start using some of these tools without having to be in a sociocractic (or even organizational) context. You can even start now, on your own, even if it’s just for fun! Try it out!