Sociocracy in Colombia:

How Sociocracy Rescued Aldeafeliz Ecovillage

The name Aldeafeliz means “happy village.” But the Colombian Ecovillage Aldeafeliz, founded in 2006, had not been very happy for quite some time. Since 2014, they are using Sociocracy as a tool to make decisions and governance. At the end of a recent meeting one of the members said, “If we continue like this, not only will we be happy but also millionaires!” By co-founder Anamaria Ariztiabal. (The article originally appeared in the Spring, 2015 issue of Communities magazine.)

Colombia is a country where, side by side, you see light and darkness. There is our bloody 60-year war where brothers and sisters kill each other. And yet Colombia is a country blossoming with social innovation movements. This is paradoxical, but it is said that pain can be a motivator to find solutions. The ways of the past clearly need to be changed, reversing the prevailing inequality, poverty of resources and spirit, lack of leadership or governance, and violence. A number of us, tired of the bad news, aspire to create solutions, inspiration, and innovative examples — we want to show that it is up to us to build a better country and a better planet.

Aldeafeliz is one of these examples. A group of 20 friends got together eight years ago around a common vision of creating an ecovillage. We are all seekers of new ways of being and doing things, in search of new models for organizing ourselves, relating to each other and to the land. We all agreed that ecovillages strive for sustainability in four dimensions: ecological, economic, social and spiritual. We wanted a place that welcomed diversity and did not subscribe to a single ideology or spiritual path, but was open to all kinds of worldviews as long as there was alignment on how to work as a community.

Our Ecovillage Vision
Our vision started to materialize in August 2006 when we purchased seven acres of land. We created a membership structure where half lived on the land (the Turtles), half off the land (Beetles), to encourage more kinds of people in different levels of engagement with the project. Over the years we have built both common and individual infrastructure through ecological building techniques. We have planted gardens, built a ceremonial space, work space, guest spaces, and (so far) eight individual houses.

We have an economic system that promotes individual and collective entrepreneurship. Collective initiatives include thematic weekends with organized activities, festivals (like an arts festival, a dance festival), workshops for organizations and schools, and workshops for individuals on holistic topics from ecology, to personal development. Individual initiatives include food products, exotic flowers, curriculum and education for kids, as well as T-shirts and memorabilia of Aldeafeliz.

In our starting phase, we adopted a form of consensus as our decision-making modality. We felt it was a revolutionary step, contrasting with the autocratic or secretive way that many organizations make decisions. We felt more spiritually enlightened to take into account the perspectives of everyone in the group, and confident of our capacity for dialogue. But this slowly turned into a sense of exhaustion with stagnation of our processes, as any proposal took what seemed like eons to get approved, with many egos standing in the way. Our meetings were excruciatingly long, and being the facilitator was a dreadful place to be, as facilitators were often criticized if they interrupted what looked like unhelpful behavior.

Our Sociocracy Workshop – March, 2014
Around those days we heard about Sociocracy. And we learned that Diana Leafe Christian, author of the popular book about ecovillages, 'Creating a Life Together', had become an advocate for Sociocracy. An ecovillager herself, she and her community had suffered from many of the same challenges we had by using a consensus process.
She started teaching ecovillages around the world about the methodology of Sociocracy, with a step-by-step, easy to follow way. She had given careful thought towards how to teach Sociocracy so that intentional communities such as ecovillages could learn and implement it easily.

We organized a Sociocracy workshop taught by Diana, who came in March, 2014. Given our desperate situation, we all agreed we needed a solution. People were willing to trust and give Sociocracy a try. Around half of the community members attended, the rest were willing to 'learn by doing' during meetings.
The Sociocracy workshop allowed for some quick wins. In a workshop exercise we had a meeting of our Elder’s Council (of which I’m a member), and approved our proposed protocol for exiting members, an issue that had been lingering for a while needing closure. We found out quickly how effective the methodology is, and felt the thrill of having made some progress we could show the other members.

We had already started revising our governance structure, which the workshop helped consolidate. A few weeks before the workshop, based on Sociocratic model, we reorganized our teams, as we needed urgent change. Before Sociocracy, whoever wanted to fill a position ended up doing so. It was all according to willingness and volunteering. This turned out to be a headache, because often not the most qualified person would volunteer and create chaos or deliver a mediocre performance. We had no accountability system, no way to avoid falling into the command and control culture of mainstream society. The result was an environment of ineffectiveness.

Sociocracy Elections — Our First Success
In contrast, within Sociocracy, positions are filled according to the nominations of community members. Roles are filled based on transparent criteria: How convincing is the grounding for nominations, based on the tasks of the role and the requirements to fulfill those tasks, and to a lesser extent, the people who get the most number of nominations from the community, provided there are no objections that can’t be resolved,(people don’t volunteer, but they can nominate themselves)?

This Sociocratic election process was a success at Aldeafeliz. We started by decreasing the number of teams in order to streamline the organization. Instead of many dysfunctional teams, we wanted fewer, more effective teams so we could provide more follow-up. Although Sociocracy uses the term “circle,” we called each team a “cell” (except for our Elders’ Council, a typical team in ecovillages, which we called a “seed group”). For each cell we defined the core purpose, the tasks to be carried out, and the profile of people needed in it. We decided that each cell would be led by no more than three people. They would have the freedom to invite others into their decisions, if need be. The smaller size would allow for more agile decision-making and faster meetings.

Since we carried out Sociocratic elections, we’ve experienced a number of positive results. First, there is much more ownership of the roles assigned. There is a sense of accountability to the community because community members nominated you for your position, there is much more at stake — your reputation. Second, it has provided an opportunity for our members to experience personal growth. At first, many of us were worried about the people who did not get elected for any roles. We thought that this might cause a lot of chaos in the beginning, and it did. But we pointed out the level of maturity that it takes to use Sociocracy, as it brings to the forefront issues that would otherwise remain hidden. I suggested in a meeting: “If you are not elected, this is an opportunity to reflect on your contribution to the teams and projects of the ecovillage. Seek out lots of feedback and use it to generate new ways of being and doing things.”

Consent Decision-Making
Next, came another gem from Sociocracy — the “consent decision making” process and its feedback loops. As I write this I am feeling relief and gratitude for what this process has brought about. As I said before, our meetings were long, with constant obstacles and sabotage to any given initiative brought forth by the group.
As Diana colorfully pointed out, when using consensus, the facilitator practically needed to be a shaman to know how to manage the unmanageable egos that kept defending their turfs. And once a decision was finally, excruciatingly reached, it felt seemed “carved in stone,” given the amount of energy it took to agree on the decision in the first place. Burned out from the back and forth arguments on any given topic, no one wanted to ever discuss the matter again.

Sociocracy’s consent decision-making process turned all of this around. It provides very clear guidelines of how to bring in a proposal and use a sequence of rounds, when the facilitator checks in with each person around the circle in turn rather than calling on people who raise their hands. Here is a snapshot of the process: a round to ask clarifying questions, a round of quick reactions, a “consent round” to either consent to the proposal or bring up objections, a round to either resolve objections by modifying the proposal (or by postponing the decision until further work or research can resolve the objections), and going back and forth between further consent rounds and resolving objections until all group members can consent to the now-modified proposal. The facilitator can be just a regular human being (not a shaman!), who makes sure we are on track with the different rounds, gently reminding us when we’re off track.

A key word here is consent. This means that we each give our consent to this proposal because it is “good enough for now,” so we can start learning whether it will work out well. (Because of our feedback-loop process, we know we can always change it later if needed). People don’t necessarily have to be “for” the decision, but simply have no objection to trying it. Each proposal has a date to be evaluated, with a set of evaluating criteria. So consent does not mean that people have no objections indefinitely, but until the project is evaluated.

The objective or aim of the organization and each circle is central to the functioning of Sociocracy. Objections need to be aligned with the group’s aim, as well as with the specific aim of the team which is considering the proposal. Objections need to follow certain guidelines to be acceptable. In this light, objections become contributions to the aim of the group, as well as to the proposals themselves. They are gifts to the group, not blocks like in consensus. The spirit of “good enough for now” is profound and fundamental. It creates a culture of exactly what we are after — innovation and experimentation — instead of making some kind of perfect “final” decision that can’t be revised.

Modifications and Blessings
We have made the methodology our own, not always following the Sociocratic method to the letter. In Sociocracy’s governance structure, each circle has representatives to the “General Circle,” with two representatives from each circle creating what is called “double links.” Because of our small size, we named only one person as both representative and “operational leader” of each cell (“circle”), and are starting to have General Circle meetings of cell representatives.

Here are some of the blessings we identified from using Sociocracy these first six months:
* All the energy used before to create noise and sabotage projects is now channeled into making useful changes to proposals to make them more effective.
* Some key issues that had lingered for years have finally been decided, like setting a common annual fee for both Turtles and Beetles.
* There is much more experimentation at many levels. New protocols have been proposed to manage our houses, our members, and our legal structures.
* We’re experiencing more effective management. There is more follow-up to the decisions we make, they don’t fall into a black hole. There is a clearer sense of responsibility for who does what. Information has started to flow more. We have more structures to share data and updates, creating greater transparency.
* There is a stronger cohesion overall. Our meetings are faster and feel lighter, there is a kind of rhythm to them that is satisfying. At the end of our last meeting we started dancing for joy!

During the workshop with Diana, I commented that Sociocracy requires that people in the organization be proactive leaders. She responded by turning it around: Sociocracy actually contributes to people developing more proactivity and leadership. I have seen this at Aldeafeliz. Here is one example: one of our members complained that our economic system was not acknowledging his work. I responded that the spirit of Sociocracy is to be proactive instead of complaining, and that the floor was open to bring a proposal on how to change things. In the next meeting he proposed a new way to make his contributions be recognized economically. The community consented to this proposal, and I could tell he was excited by the outcome.

Our Six-Month Sociocracy Evaluation
In our most recent meeting we evaluated Sociocracy. We all agreed just how far we have come in our first six months after implementing it. For the first time, we evaluated the performance of cells according to the tasks that the community assigned each of them.
In an organization where there are no bosses, or anybody to order you around and tell you what to do, this is a huge accomplishment. People are performing out of pure intrinsic motivation, and from a sense of responsibility to the whole group. These feelings were there before, but the actual structure of Sociocracy helped us to manifest them. I have come to believe that the type of governance structure we use has a huge influence over our behavior. If it encourages finding flaws, discussing endlessly, and having no accountability, the results are poor. But if our governance encourages peer accountability, proactivity, leadership, clear evaluation criteria, the same group of people will exhibit a completely new set of behaviors.

We still have much to learn. One key area is feedback. In our last meeting we had some rounds of feedback that were meant to be different from the emotional processing we have traditionally done, focusing more on roles and tasks. However, we are not yet accustomed to this, so the feedback rounds were painful for some people. This is delicate, because people can lose trust in the process.

“Green” Meme, “Teal” Meme
I consider this is part of the growing pains of changing, in the terms of spiral dynamics, from a “green meme” culture to a “teal meme “culture. The “green” culture in which Aldeafeliz was founded, is all about feelings and organizational culture, disregarding structures. All perspectives are given equal value, regardless of how helpful they are to manifest the purpose of the organization. The “teal “ culture, however, is a combination of culture and structures. Organizations develop all kinds of structures to accomplish the purpose of the organization more effectively. This means creating some boundaries and making sure that good ideas flourish and are favored over interminable discussions.

Our community’s direction and growth are getting clear as we evaluate these first six months. Can we set aside our feeling orientation sometimes and focus on the business at hand? Generating results is not necessarily counterproductive to a thriving and value-based organizational culture. This will require our using an effective feedback methodology like Sociocracy’s “feedback loops” provide.

The name Aldeafeliz means “happy village.” At the end of a recent meeting one of our members said, “If we continue like this, not only will we be happy but also millionaires!” While we’re not motived by money, his metaphor indicates that we welcome more abundance as a sign of our individual and collective bountifulness. We all laughed when he said this, realizing that if we combine our inner abundance and joy with outer abundance and prosperity, we contribute greatly to helping our country lift itself out of poverty of resources and of spirit.

This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2015 issue of Communities magazine.

Anamaria Ariztizabal, based in Bogotá Colombia, is an integral coach who works with New Ventures West as faculty in coach training. She is also currently facilitating, mentoring, and coaching in organizations that train young leaders in leadership for sustainability and social innovation. She co-founded Aldeafeliz Ecovillage in 2006 near Bogotá, Colombia, where they are experimenting with various social and ecological technologies, including Sociocracy. She is chair of the Colombian chapter of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), and a member of the SoL Global board. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anamariaaristizabal

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14.09.2015