Re: Consider Sociocracy
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2006 06:15:12 -0700 (PDT)

On Jun 29, 2006, at 2:03 PM, Tree Bressen wrote:

I am excited at the emergence of sociocracy. I have read and talked with people using it a bunch, and last weekend someone who facilitated for my community included it in their approach with reasonable success. I haven't yet had opportunity to take a training in it, but i'm on the lookout to do so.

This is so nice to hear, especially from someone so involved in facilitating in communities. Who was using it? John is doing lots of training now with NVC chapters, including a telecourse by telephone. The US Green Building Council as well. They have 65 chapters across the US so I never know where it is going to pop up next.

That said, i see a consistent pattern in how sociocracy proponents describe the process that i find problematic. That pattern is to contrast a well
done sociocratic process with a poorly done consensus process, and then
find the consensus process lacking. I think that pattern creates
misunderstanding for readers (as well as irking me personally).

This is a major problem and one I argue with John all the time. It's really bad form.

Whether there actually is a difference between consent and consensus, is still open to question in my mind. One distinction is that in consent, you only ask for objections -- you do not ask for agreement. In consensus, people do ask for agreement, however they define agreement.

Consent emphasizes the importance of individual critical evaluation of proposals. Consensus emphasizes "what is in the best interests of the group" as a standard -- which too often ends up being too much like majority rule rather than a critical examination of the facts.

Consent allows the group to move forward if in its judgment the reasons given for an objection are not "paramount". An objection has to be based on one's ability to work toward the aim of the group. It has to have "because". "I object because I won't be able to ..... " That can include things like "be happy" if happiness of the members if part of the aim (which at least one cohousing group wants to include in their aim). But it doesn't normally include preferences or ideologies -- unless those are a part of the aim.

The concern about asking for agreement is that it short circuits the cognitive processes. People start trying to agree when there may be something fundamentally wrong with a proposal. Sociocratic consent invites objections -- reasoned and paramount objections -- because it wants a good solution. It wants a solution that will allow the group to move forward with power. To move forward to accomplish their aim. There is always room to revisit a decision because there is a built in process for measuring results and reevaluating decisions.

Groups using consensus are often asking here what are the rules for revisiting consensus decisions. They want an answer in years. In sociocratic organizations, the answer is as soon as there is new information. As soon as there is an indication that one member of the circle is having "paramount" difficulty with a decision, it needs to be revisited.

As far as i can tell, sociocracy is one version among many of consensus
rather than a different creature . . . i think it's probably more accurate
to speak of "sociocratic consensus" and "traditional secular consensus"
(and Formal Consensus, and so on) than to see sociocracy as a separate

One distinction that Gerard Endenburg makes is between consent and solidarity. I think this is a better distinction than between consent and consensus. One problem with consensus is that there are so many definitions of what it means that discussing what it is takes up a lot of time when you are trying to teach sociocratic consent.

Consent is not solidarity (and usually consensus is not either). But there is a place in decision-making for solidarity. If you are all going out to demonstrate and it may be dangerous, you need solidarity. Sociocracy allows all forms of decision-making, even consensus, as long as the group agrees by consent to use another threshold for a specific decision. Sometimes decisions will be left to a specific person, to an expert, or to a majority vote. But the decision to use majority vote must be made by consent.

1. Heavy reliance on go-rounds as a format;

The one value in sociocracy is the equivalence of all people. Rounds maintain equivalence in meetings. Sociocracy also emphasizes the ongoing development if each member of a group. Rounds ensure that each person has an individual voice and is expected to use it. No hiding and no avoiding.

2. Strong emphasis on rationality;

Definitely. I have learned more about scientific thought since I started writing this book that I had ever known existed before. The thinking in sociocracy is comes from thinking by analogy. What do we know is true of other living organisms and in the physical sciences that can be used to design an organization.

3. Extra support for keeping the topic to be addressed small enough that
it's easier for the facilitator to rein in someone who strays;

This probably also depends on the skill of the facilitator but would also be the result of scientific method in that you don't want to mix apples and oranges.

4. Given the range of heights of the "bar" in groups practicing consensus (that is, the threshold of how much agreement is enough agreement to move
forward with a decision), sociocratic consensus makes a clear choice to
keep the bar in the lower end of the spectrum.

This worried me at first, a lot. But it has to be viewed in context. In every sociocratically structured process or decision, there is measurement and evaluation built in. Quality of decisions comes from following a process of leading-doing-measuring. Leading includes deciding, planning and evaluating, So you decide, plan, do, measure, evaluate, re-decide, re-plan, re-do, re-evaluate. It's a cycle. The emphasis is on doing this cycle well, not on immobility until a perfect decision can be made -- which is too often the case with groups using consensus. The decision gets bogged down in fears or lack of information. In sociocracy, you move on as best you can and then reevaluate as soon as you have enough information to make a good decision.

Groups using what i call traditional secular consensus usually practice
direct democracy if they are small enough to make that viable, and
representative democracy (via a spokescouncil structure) if they are really big (such as at the WTO protests in '99). The spokescouncil structure of
concentric circles looks very similar to the governance structure of
sociocratic consensus, with the distinction that a standard spokescouncil has one rep into the next circle while sociocratic structure has two reps.

Endenburg's sociocratic circle method was developed in a corporation of 100 people. The intention was to design a method of organizing that could be applied to all organizations, large or small. The methods can actually be used to organize one's self. I use them often just to think about my own life. Some people actually use the 9-block-chart to lay out their own activities. I'm not quite so literal.

The importance of the double-link is that it is part of the feedback process. Using the WTO protests as an example, the national coordinating circle would select the leader of the local circle and the local circle would select one or more representatives to the national coordinating circle. The coordinating circle would be composed of all the local leaders and representatives. The reason for both a nationally chosen leader (who must also have the consent of the local circle) and a locally chosen representative(s) is so information flows both ways. The leader is responsible to the national organization and the reps are responsible the local organization. An absolute is that these cannot be the same person. This creates a very tight organization. A local may chose more than one rep if they have several factions that they want represented in the coordinating circle. Since they sit with consent, one is just as good but often more points of view need to be expressed.

Sociocracy has only 4 organizing principles but a whole wealth of information and practices that make it a complete organizing system, not just a decision-making method as consensus is. Even Formal Consensus, which many people swear by, is only a method for structuring debate, similar to but certainly not as extensive as Robert's Rules of Order. Sociocracy is a complete governance system and can be (and is) used by huge corporations as well as nursing homes, cohousing groups, etc.

An aspect not mentioned so far that i really like of the sociocratic
structure is the election component, where candidates' strengths for a
position are openly discussed in the group. Of course that could just as
well happen in traditional secular consensus, but it hasn't been the
culture of these groups so far and i think it would probably be an improvement.

This process has been used at Eastern Village Cohousing to choose their board for the last two years without using any of the rest of sociocracy. John facilitates the selection in two hours -- and they are a very large group.

For our community this is a very large sticking point. They are so afraid of criticism. And it is so hard to convince people that this is a wonderful, affirming process. It works so much better than secret nominating committees or elections. I could live a long time without ever seeing a nominating committee again.

\Let's have one! I think the interest is clearly there, and conferences like this are a great opportunity to learn together. Sharon or Maggie or
others, will you be in attendance?  Anyone wanna contact the conference
organizers to set something up?

If someone set one up, I would be happy to be there and present. I just didn't (and don't) have the time to write a proposal, figure out who to send it to, or deal with all the details. After 25 years in academia, I frankly don't engage with conferences, but I would show up and give a presentation if someone else handled all the details and I didn't have to pay to get in the door to give it -- or eat any rubber chicken.

Sharon Villines

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