What is sociocracy, and do you need it?

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Sociocracy is a governance system. We know, ‘governance’ doesn’t sound very appealing. It sounds dry and reminds us of governments and marble halls. What does it have to do with you? Quite a lot, actually!

Governance is the way we run groups, the operating system. Governance is not restricted to board rooms or the senate. No matter whether we care about governance systems, we are always answering the following questions:

  • who makes what decisions?
  • how do we make decisions for the group?

Let’s look at an informal ‘organization’ that we are all familiar with – a family. Families make a lot of decisions: how to spend money, what to have for lunch, how to spend Saturday mornings, who is allowed to do what. Traditionally, many families are autocratic organizations run by parents. Even if that’s what you want, there are still big governance questions – what if dad says yes and mom says no? What if the parents are elders and need care themselves and can’t rule anymore? What if there is a divorce? Can the step-parent tell the preteen that wearing sandals in the snow is not ok? These are very real questions. And dozens of decisions like that are made by everyone every day, no matter whether we use the term governance.

Governance: everybody uses it

Once you look at it, the issues, in every group, and on all levels, are always the same. Someone needs to decide somehow. The decision-making systems we use shape our lives profoundly – yet we hardly ever slow down to question how we run ourselves. We tend to think that things are the way they are. Not everything we accept as normal makes sense. For example, most western societies don’t trust autocrats anymore – but for private businesses, we find it normal that a CEO rules like a king! As another example, democracies hold up voting as the gold standard. But let’s say a family wants to plan a vacation. One child and one parent want to go to art museums in Paris. One parent and two children want to fly to Turkey to go to the beach. It comes to a vote, 3-2, and two people have to build sandcastles instead of seeing the Louvre. That’s what we consider fair. But is it? 

Some say it’s better not to have any system. Yet, that often gives rise to backroom decisions, unquestioned power and quite a bit of friction due to the lack of clarity. And after all, not making a decision is also a decision. So… are there better ways?

Governance systems don’t fall from the sky!

Before you even look at a governance system like sociocracy, it’s important to see that any governance form we choose is a choice. Governance systems are all social constructs. We are simply more used to some than to others. We weren’t born knowing about ballots or the rules of parliamentary debate!

Another consideration is that we have to ask ourselves how decision-making shapes our culture. For example, would you say an autocratic father or gymnastics coach is a good thing? How about a president who gets 50.1% of the votes and is hated by the other 49.9%? Is voting really “fair”, or does it foster polarization? We think that the divides running through many nations, the abuse of power in organizations, are all related to governance, making it one of the core issues of our time.

Now we’re ready to talk about sociocracy

After evolving to its current form in the 1980ies, the intention of sociocracy was to design a set of governance tools that would give groups a chance to self-organize in a fractal way, inspired by natural systems. It balances the desire to move forward towards the group’s mission with making sure every voice can be heard in the process. We can have both!

People are interested in sociocracy because they want to make their organizations more human. It is currently used  in for-profits, non-profits, coops, schools, communities, and unincorporated projects. They often combine it with Nonviolent Communication, Agile, and various forms of personal and organizational growth.

How it works

(a) Who decides?

Everything that needs care in an organization is divided into domains. Each domain is taken care of by a group of people (=called a ‘circle’). For example, a membership circle takes care of the membership domain, making decisions and policy about members and membership. A website circle makes all the decisions about the website domain. A marketing circle takes care of the marketing domain and makes all decisions and policy needed along the way. Makes sense, right? 

Here is an important piece you might have missed: these circles actually have all the authority (and responsibility!) in their domain. The Website Circle doesn’t need to ask anyone for permission on their decisions on the website. There is no central power making decisions while the rest just carries out as they are told. That’s why we call this system decentralized or distributed authority: many decisions are made in many different places.

(b) Why isn’t there just chaos?

There is no chaos because we know exactly which circle or individual is responsible for decisions in each domain. And we know exactly how each piece of the whole relates to the others.

To make sure all the related groups can keep each other in the loop, we have a special way of connecting two circles. Two circle members are chosen to be part of both so they can tell one circle what the other is doing and vice versa. That way, all activities can be aligned and form a whole. Even better, those two “links” are chosen by the circles themselves. 

(c) How does sociocracy make decisions?

Here is how we don’t make decisions: we don’t talk forever, we don’t vote, we don’t control people. Then, how? Thanks to the circle structure, everything fits into neat, bite-size boxes. That allows us to make decisions in small groups which makes it easier to hear each other. To ensure everyone takes time to listen, we talk in rounds: one person speaks at a time, one by one. Since you know you will get your turn, you can actually listen to everyone else.

After a proposal is well-understood and ready to make a decision on, the circle decides by consent:

  • Consent means you can work with the proposal and are willing to move forward, either because it’s your preference or something you can work with.
  • An objection (no consent) points to something in the proposal that isn’t good enough yet, for example when a new policy would have unintended negative consequences somewhere else that need to be addressed somehow. Instead of arguing, we focus on the purpose of the group and find the best solution that aligns us with our mission.

We even chose each circle’s leaders and facilitators by consent — only when there is no objection, may the person fill the role. If you want to fill a role, polarizing behavior will not get you there! Instead, collaboration and listening become the new culture. 

What’s good about sociocracy? What’s hard about sociocracy?

The best thing for me personally is the clarity. I can’t stand sitting in meetings where everyone is changing the topic all the time! I also can’t stand situations where everyone is tip-toeing around an issue because it’s not clear who decides. All of that goes away in sociocracy: it’s clear, efficient, transparent and doable.

Rounds are another personal favorite! Talking one by one is magical! It helps me listen better to my peers. And I can be sure my peers hear me out when it’s my turn to speak. As a result, we all get to know each other better and build more trust. Things don’t feel as rushed, heated or defensive. They’re calm, focused, and there is flow.

In a way, sociocracy is a very common sense way of being and working together! Yet, you have to be willing to reconsider how you do things. You have to be willing to learn. For some, it’s a learning curve. Others just say “this is exactly what I have been looking for all my life! Why didn’t anyone tell me this 20 years ago?!”