Diana Leafe Christian explains how what the benefits of using Sociocracy in communities are, especially when compared with using consensus. This article appeared in Communities magazine’s Fall 2013 issue, Sept, 2013; and is serialized in blogs and other Internet sources, including Ecovillages newsletter www.EcovillageNews.org
At first the question stumped me.
I was giving an informal presentation on Sociocracy one morning in a grass-roof-covered building at Findhorn in Scotland. Sociocracy (which means “governance by peers,” also called “Dynamic Governance” in the US) is a whole-system self-governance process and a decision- making method.
The presentation was for the New Findhorn Association (NFA), a network of local friends, neighbors, businesses, nonprofits, and projects influenced by and/or affiliated one way or another with the Findhorn Foundation.
Begun in 1962 in a caravan (trailer) park on the coast of northern Scotland, Findhorn was famous originally for its founders’ spiritual guidance about working with Nature in its gardens. The Findhorn Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1972 to offer spiritual and ecological education for residents and guests, was the first member of the New Findhorn Association, and integral to the Association’s creation in 1999. Together, the Foundation, the New Findhorn Association, and the wider network of Findhorn- affiliated neighbors and friends who live and work nearby are often referred to locally “the Findhorn Foundation Community,” but usually known internationally as simply “Findhorn.”
I was asked by the Association to lead a morning workshop introducing Sociocracy to a small group of Council (board) Members. John Buck, the man who introduced Sociocracy to the English-speaking world, had given two Association-sponsored Sociocracy workshops at Findhorn in the last two years, and the group had recently begun using two Sociocracy methods in their meetings. I was invited to give a presentation because, while some Council Members wanted Sociocracy, others felt uncertain about it and newer Council Members hadn’t been exposed to it.
The question I wasn’t sure how to respond to came from a Council Member who asked if the Association’s use of Sociocracy might not diminish the group’s spiritual function and impact. Sociocracy, she said, doesn’t seem to acknowledge or support the spiritual principles upon which Findhorn was based.
To better understand, I asked if she was concerned that the Association using simply a secular governance and decision-making method like Sociocracy might pull them away from the deeply important spiritual reasons they were there in the first place? Yes, she said, that was her concern.
Suddenly inspired, I said that when people do gardening at Findhorn, besides tuning in to the spirits of the plants, they also use trowels and spade forks—secular tools that nevertheless help them accomplish their spiritual purpose while gardening. And that Sociocracy is similar: it’s a tool that can help a group, no matter its purpose, to more easily and harmoniously achieve that purpose. And for any times when a group might be less attuned to each other for awhile, their ongoing use of Sociocracy as a governance method could serve as a safety net to help them work effectively until they returned to a more attuned state again. Smiling again, the staff member said that’s what she wanted.
Another Council Member was skeptical, he said, as he favored the way Findhorn traditionally decides things: taking time to silently attune with each other first and then using consensus. He wanted to preserve democracy and not adopt a method that might reduce fairness or equality. But by the end of the morning he was smiling too, as hearing about the basics of Sociocracy had alleviated his concerns. In fact all the participants were smiling, and me too.
Three Aspects of a Healthy, Thriving Community
I recommend Sociocracy for communities and similar organizations because I think that, when practiced correctly, it tends to result in more harmony and good will than using consensus decision-making often does. I see a group’s governance process, including its decision-making method, as powerfully influencing and helping manifest what I believe are three crucial and mutually reinforcing aspects of a healthy, thriving community.
One aspect I call Community Glue — taking time to do shared enjoyable activities that tend to generate feelings of gratitude and trust, and which also tend create the “pleasure hormone” oxytocin. Research shows that oxytocin in the bloodstream generates feelings of trust and gratitude towards the people one is with, although it may be experienced simply as “feeling good.” And these feelings cause a person to secrete oxytocin into the bloodstream, keeping the “feeling good” going throughout the enjoyable shared activity.
Thus, community meals, shared work tasks, singing, dancing, drumming, playing music, playing games or sports, group meditation, storytelling evenings, describing emotionally
meaningful aspects of one’s life to friends and colleagues, making decisions together smoothly and effectively, accomplishing community goals — all tend to produce these feelings in the group. And this — the good will, the sense of “us” or “community spirit” — is like having good credit or a “community immune system” of trust and good will.
The more trust and good will a community has, the more effectively its members can respond to and resolve conflict when it comes up. When a community draws on abundant community glue, it may be easier to just talk to each other simply and figure out how to resolve things.
A second aspect of a healthy, thriving community, in my opinion, is Good Process and Communication Skills. While this is obvious to most experienced communitarians, the need for these skills becomes obvious sooner or later in newer communities too. By “communication skills,” I mean the ways people talk with each other, both in groups and meetings and one on one. By “process skills,” I mean the ways members gather together specifically to get to know each other better, consider ideas, understand each others’ emotions or upsets, or discuss and resolve conflicts.
Nowadays I recommend what I believe are the two most effective communication and process methods for communities: Nonviolent Communication, a way in which people speak with others that tends to create a sense of connection between people and reduce conflict, and Restorative Circles, a conflict-resolution method similar in some ways to Nonviolent Communication.
The third aspect, Effective Project Management, is obvious to founders of successful communities and cohousing professionals but often less obvious (or even invisible) to more idealistic or countercultural folks. It’s comprised of the ways a community creates and maintains its legal entity(s); the ways it finances, purchases, and physically develops its property (including, for example, hiring any outside professional for design or construction work, bookkeeping, website design, or other work); organizes and tracks its internal community finances and member labor requirements; attracts, processes, and orients new members; and maintains the community’s documents, policies, and decisions.
These are all actions that well- organized businesses or nonprofits use too. Sooner or later members of new communities learn that clear, thorough, well-organized management is necessary not only to found their new community but also to successfully maintain it.
I believe these three aspects of community mutually reinforce each other. If a group has abundant community glue, for example, people will tend to feel connected enough and harmonious enough so that most of the time they’ll get along well and not need to speak so carefully, and will probably need less conflict resolution as well. But if a group’s reserve of community glue is low—perhaps because they don’t yet realize how important it is or don’t have enough time to schedule enjoyable group activities often enough — they may have to choose their words more carefully, and may need to resolve conflicts more formally and more frequently.
Similarly, if a group has effective project management, the sense of accomplishment they’ll feel when people experience the community moving towards its goals can create more community glue — increasing their feelings of trust and gratitude and thus reducing their need for super-careful ways of speaking and more frequent conflict resolution sessions. But if a community is managed poorly — for example, if they miss important opportunities; experience unexpected or un-prepared-for legal problems, bookkeeping snafus, or financial shortfalls; lose documents or records of meeting decisions — this can create anger, resentment, blame, shame, and demoralization, which of course erodes the group’s sense of trust and connection. A group in this situation will, once again, need to speak to one another more carefully and will probably need to resolve conflicts more often too. (I advise groups to go for all three, of course.)
How Effective Governance Helps a Community Thrive
Community governance, in my opinion, is at the center of all three aspects of healthy community — and effective governance benefits and enhances all three.
By “governance” I mean how the group organizes its time and work tasks, manages its money, and shares its information — along with its decision-making method for deciding these things.
When I ask groups what their method of governance is and they reply “consensus,” I assume they’re confusing “how” they make decisions with “what” they make them about. Solely decision-making methods such as consensus-with-unanimity, the N Street Consensus Method, majority-rule voting, supermajority voting, etc. don’t specify how the group might organize and manage itself or which decisions they might make about this.
A community accomplishes its project management through its governance process. Its governance is the way it effectively organizes its legalities, finances, building and construction, membership process, work-contribution policy, how it collects and manages its documents, policies, and decisions, and so on. In my opinion, effective governance is at the heart of a healthy community.
This is why I believe using a governance method like Sociocracy absolutely contributes to the three aspects of a healthy, successful community. Using Sociocracy for community can, in my opinion, not only eliminate some of the unintended consequences of using consensus (as it’s practiced in most intentional communities), but also can help a community thrive.
(I recommend Holacracy as a governance method also, but it tends to be more expensive than Sociocracy to learn. It was designed for businesses and is marketed to them and priced accordingly.)
Transparency, Equivalence, and Effectiveness . . . and the “Three Parents of Sociocracy”
Sociocracy in its modern-day version was created by Dutch electrical engineer, inventor, and cybernetics expert Gerard Endenburg in The Netherlands in the 1970s. As a boy he attended the famous Quaker Community School in The Netherlands, led by the renowned Dutch pacifist Kees Boeke, in which school decisions were made by teachers and students using Quaker-style consensus. After graduating from college Endenburg worked for the Netherlands branch of Phillips Electronics, where he invented the flat speaker used in car doors and cell phones.
As mentioned, Endenburg focused on cybernetics, the science of communications and control. Communications and control happens naturally when you ride a bicycle — constantly adjusting to the requirements of whatever’s happening, moment by moment. You continuously adjust your body weight over the bicycle frame, adjust the direction of the handlebars, pedal faster or slower, shift gears or apply brakes as you continuously get information about the bike’s position in space through your proprioceptive sense and by what you see and hear. Your “feedback loops” are the continuous adjustments you make to keep the bike upright and going towards your destination.
Endenburg also read widely in science, mathematics, and philosophy. He was especially influenced by learning about self-organizing systems, and how everything in nature tends to self-organize…including people. He designed Sociocracy for his company, Endenburg Elektrotechniek, to be a more harmonious organization, based on the values of transparency, equivalence of voice, and effectiveness.
So I like to say Sociocracy has three “parents”: Quaker-style consensus (which shows up especially in Sociocracy’s “Consent Decision-Making” method; engineering, cybernetics, and feedback loops (used in proposals); and Nature, especially self-organizing systems (reflected in its circles and double-links” governance method). (Part II of this article, Winter, 2013 issue, will cover governance, Circles and Double-Links. and the Consent Decision-Making method.)
“Plan-Implement-Evaluate” Feedback Loops
Just as we constantly use feedback loops when riding a bike, any engineer will tell us that measuring, evaluating, and learning how a product actually performs in real life, by field- testing it many times, helps ensure it does what it’s designed to do and works well. An engineer first plans (designs) the product, implements the design, measures and evaluates the product once it’s made, and modifies it as needed. Thus the developing product responds and adjusts to conditions in reality — which may be quite different than what was anticipated in the planning stage. So, too, for an intentional community. A plan begins as a proposal in a meeting. After approving the proposal or a modified version of it, the group implements the proposal, putting it into effect.
Measuring and Evaluating Proposals
However, when using Sociocracy, there’s a third step — measuring and evaluating the implemented proposal, and modifying it if needed. Thus a proposal, when possible, includes the criteria with which it will later be evaluated (including numeric measurement if possible and desirable) and the upcoming dates when the group will do this. The criteria and future measurement/evaluation dates are included in the text of the proposal itself. When possible, implemented proposals are considered as modifiable or temporary — an experiment, if you will — as the group can later decide to change it or even dismantle it and go back to what they had before or try something else. (Changing an implemented proposal later is much easier with Sociocracy’s “Consent Decision-Making” method than when using consensus, as described in Part II, in the Winter 2013 issue.)
Let’s say, for example, a committee wanted to create a library in the community building. So they present a proposal for a set of shelves in a particular location in the community building, and note who will build the shelves, what it will cost and where the money will come from, and who will organize and maintain the library. The proposal might have the following criteria for later evaluating and measuring the project: Do people donate books to the library? Do they check out books? Can they find the kinds of books they want? Do they return books on time and in good condition? Are library volunteers keeping the shelves clean and orderly every week?
At each of the pre-scheduled future meeting dates for evaluating the implemented proposal, the new library project would be evaluated and measured by the members according to these criteria, as well as to any other criteria the group may think of at the time. New criteria can be added to the list for future evaluations. If some aspects of the library aren’t working well, such as, say, people aren’t returning books on time, the meeting participants doing the evaluation can revise the library policy, perhaps by creating a new way to remind people to return books.
When using Sociocracy, people already know they might modify any future implemented proposal to adjust how it operates in day-to-day reality. Like creative engineers with a project on a drawing board, they know they have to try it under real-life conditions to see how it actually functions before they know it will work.
People can also change the dates of future evaluation times, moving them up, increasing the number of evaluations, decreasing them, stopping them altogether, or adding new evaluation times later, depending on what they find out as they respond to how real circumstances impact their implemented proposal.
“Good enough for now,” “Safe enough to try”
Thus, because most proposals can later be modified or removed, community members don’t need to “support” or feel they must “approve” the proposal — but simply be willing to try it. A proposal need not be perfect, but merely “good enough for now,” “safe enough to try.” (While true of most proposals, it’s not true of one-time yes/no issues, such as fixing the sudden roof leak or not fixing it. In cases like these the group tries to do the best that can be done to address the immediate need, with the knowledge and resources available. And future evaluations, in this case, of the new roof, can inform future similar decisions.)
The plan-implement-evaluate model and proposals needing to only be “good enough for now” confers three benefits. First, the group can adjust and modify an implemented proposal to stay current with real-life circumstances, like a bicyclist adjusting his or her body over the frame and adjusting the handlebars and pedaling speed to meet existing conditions. Thus an implemented proposal can improve over time, so the various projects and processes of a community can become ever-more effective.
Second, this freedom and flexibility allows a community to try things that they might not normally risk for most proposals, because they can always change it or discard it later.
Third, knowing they can easily change a decision in the future has a beneficial effect on the mood and energy of a meeting, especially when a proposal is complex or controversial, as the group can relax and feel confident as they consider it. This is in sharp contrast to the consensus decision-making process, especially when there is a controversial or complex proposal.
“Evaluate and Respond” vs. “Predict and Control”
Any consensus trainer will confirm that consensus is an inherently conservative process because by the very nature of how consensus works it favors whatever agreements the group has already made. While there’s no reason that criteria for evaluating/measuring a proposal later and the dates for doing so couldn’t be included in a consensus proposal, it’s not likely the proposal could be changed easily. Let’s say a group using consensus has a complex or controversial proposal to do something new or change something. They may modify the proposal — perhaps multiple times over several meetings — to suit various concerns before everyone (except stand asides) agrees to approve it. However, it may have been so time- consuming and arduous and taken so much negotiation and compromise to finally approve it, that it’s difficult for the group to imagine going through all that again in order to change it a few weeks or a few months later. This is why, when considering a proposal in consensus, there’s a lot of pressure in the group to “get it right.” The pressure is so much worse when a proposal is complex or controversial because it feels like so much is at stake — they’d better get it damn- near perfect right now.
This creates the energy and vibes of “predict and control” — meaning the group has to try to predict how the implemented proposal will play out in real life, and control all the anticipated factors that could come into play ahead of time. When using Sociocracy, however, unlike in consensus, the group need not clairvoyantly predict the future of the implemented proposal and the range of factors that will affect it then. Rather, they only need wait and see what happens and then adjust the decision if need be. Rather than put themselves through the stressful mode of “predict and control” they can relax into the considerably simpler and easier mode of simply waiting to see what happens, evaluate and measure what they find, and then respond appropriately. Thus they need only “evaluate and respond” instead of “predict and control.” “Evaluate and respond” rather than “predict and control” removes pressure on the group to make the proposal damn-near perfect.
This, the ability to relax, feel confident, and feel free to try new things and experiment is one of the best reasons for a community to use Sociocracy, in my opinion.
All this is why I advocate Sociocracy as an effective governance method to help a community thrive.
As noted earlier, Part II will focus on how Sociocracy works: how communities using Sociocracy organize themselves in circles and double-links, the “consent decision-making” method, how objections are not blocks but gifts to a circle, and why “tyranny of the minority” can’t really happen in Sociocracy. It will touch on five meeting processes, from forming new proposals to selecting people for roles, that all use consent decision-making. It will consider the challenges of using Sociocracy incorrectly, what works well and doesn’t work for communities in learning and implementing Sociocracy, how consent decision-making is similar to and different from consensus, the facilitation skills and methods common to both, and the similarities and differences between Sociocracy and Holacracy.
Meanwhile, I hear that the New Findhorn Association is continuing to implement Sociocracy in their meetings, and John Buck taught another Sociocracy workshop there in October. I’m so glad!
Diana Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together and Finding Community and publisher of Ecovillages (EcovillageNews.org), speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and leads workshops internationally. A former consensus trainer and now Sociocracy trainer, Diana specializes in teaching Sociocracy to communities, and has taught in the US, UK, Sweden, France, and Quebec.