Sociocracy, or dynamic governance, is a social technology which seeks to optimise organisational effectiveness and hold everyone’s voice as equal or equivalent. It is distinguished by three main features:
- It uses consent, rather than consensus or majority voting, in decision-making processes.
- Organisational units and teams are organised in circles. Separate circles are interlinked and organised in a fractal-like, nested way.
- Continuous feedback and learning are the communication principles that underpin the organisation.
Like any method, sociocracy has its jargon and definitions that can seem daunting at the start. We encourage you to look beyond the language to see the powerful principles behind it. Start small, experiment, review often and adapt to your context as necessary. Come up with your own culture-specific definitions.
While sociocracy can be adopted as an organisation-wide structure and governance system, for the purpose of this article we will home in on consent decision making. This method provides a highly structured, effective and inclusive way to coordinate action and works well as a starting point for introducing self-organisation methods.
What is distinctive about consent decision making?
Classic agreement systems range from autocratic to majority vote and consensus. They all have their uses, e.g. not everyone needs to be involved in deciding which website host to choose. The challenge lies in our habit nature; we tend to stick with one decision-making system even if it is not adequate or too slow for the decision in question.
Consent decision making is participative and focused on action. One of the biggest shifts required when starting off is a shift in mindset. The consensus-driven “Is everyone ok with this?” is replaced with “Is there anyone who can’t live with this? (and) What would you improve?” Proposals are accepted unless someone can articulate an objective reason why the proposal might cause harm. There is a radical focus on collective purpose and action, on the task at hand, rather than individual preferences.
The biggest merits of this sociocratic method are faster and more balanced decisions, conscious and equal sharing in meetings, improved agency and accountability. It constitutes a path towards self-organising. The following basic principles are a useful starting point:
- Clarify motive for action. Ensure everyone is clear and aligned on why there is a need to respond to a certain situation. In sociocracy, this is called a “driver”. This is an essential step to guarantee you are spending time on something that is relevant and purposeful.
- Work with proposals. Proposals are a series of suggestions for a particular course of action, e.g. new programmes, processes, activities, policies. Depending on the task/project/decision, prepare a rudimentary proposal at the beginning of the meeting (or before the meeting), then improve it through collective intelligence.
- Use clarifying questions. After the proposal is presented, use a round of clarifying questions. This minimises erroneous assumptions and crystallises the proposal. “When you say …, do you mean …?” “Where, When, Who?” The objective is to remove any doubt or possible misinterpretation of the proposal, however the presenter of the proposal does not answer “why?” At this stage we are not expressing how we feel about the proposal.
- Check for objections and concerns. Rather than discussing and dissecting proposals at length (which inevitably ends up going around in circles), keep it to the point, focusing on how to make the proposal work. Two distinctions are important here:
- A concern is a subjective statement, based on past experience, feeling or intuition. It can reveal improvements, but does not block decisions.
- An objection is an objective argument that reveals how the proposed activity harms the group, project or organisation. Objections provide information about unintended consequences, or viable ways to make improvements. When you object, you are essentially saying, “I want to work effectively and this proposal will negatively affect my work. We need to figure out how to make it work.”
- Use simple indicators. Agree on how you are going to signal your agreement. For example, everyone indicates either by saying “ok/objection/concern” or with previously agreed gestures, e.g. objection = raised open hand or hand stretched out palms facing up; concern = move/turn hand. The following table shows an example of an agreement system, as used by the decision-making software tool Loomio.
- Navigate by “Is this good enough for now, safe enough to try?” Schedule review points in the future to check if decisions/agreements are still adequate. In complex fast-changing environments, you might need to re-evaluate often and improve continuously. A streamlined decision-making tool will help you stay nimble.
An ill-defined proposal can cause unnecessary rework, miscommunication and time waste, so it is worth dedicating effort here – and “ripen” your proposals – before you make a decision. Sociocracy for All (SoFA) and Sociocracy 3.0 suggest the following steps:
- Consent to Driver: agree on why something is necessary (the “driver” or motive for action). Highlight briefly the current situation (don’t jump to possible solutions yet).
- Picture Forming: explore the issue through rounds and open discussions. Use open questions “What do we have to consider to propose a solution? What? How? Where? Who?” and make a list of the brainstormed considerations. Questions can relate to constraints (timing, budget etc.) or future possibilities. At the end, prioritise considerations according to their importance or impact.
- Proposal Shaping: gather ideas/possible solutions that address the considerations from point 2. Refrain from discussingthe ideas. Afterwards all ideas and information need to be finetuned and organised into a proposal. This is best done by a group of 2 or 3 people who have relevant expertise and motivation.
- Decision Making: once the proposal is formed, it gets submitted in a meeting. Please refer to the next section.
Consent Decision Making Process
The structured and efficient alternative to consensus is Consent Decision Making, which comprises the following stages:
1. Choose the topic
- Listen to the group: everyone expresses important views regarding the subject.
- Driver/Reason for action: all need to understand and agree why a decision/course of action is necessary.
2. Formulate a proposal
- The facilitator asks one OR more people to formulate a proposal together (see section on Proposal Forming under the section above “Basic Principles”)
- It is recommended to come up with a simple proposal first, which then will be improved through the group’s collective input as you progress through the stages.
- Depending on how long it takes to prepare a proposal, this can be done outside the meeting. In this case, the group decides when the proposal shall be presented.
3. Present the proposal
- One person from the proposal-forming unit presents the proposal to the rest of the group.
4. Clarifying questions
- Everyone asks questions to fully understand the proposal.
- The presenter responds to each question.
- The objective here is to remove any doubt or possible misinterpretation of the proposal, however the presenter does not answer “why?” At this stage we are not expressing how we feel about the proposal.
5. Reaction round
- Everyone briefly (one minute each) expresses whether the proposal meets their needs and/or the needs of the project/organisation. By listening deeply (without answering), the proposer tries to grasp the quality of his or her proposal.
6. Express objections and concerns
- The facilitator does a round to harvest concerns and objections – the distinction is important (see section Basic Principles above).
- If there are objections, they are listened to and dealt with one by one. The facilitator notes objections on the board or sticky notes. This way objections become rich material for the group to improve the proposal.
- Concerns are also noted (you can use a different colour). They can shed light on different aspects of the proposal but do not hold up the process.
7. Integrate objections and develop the proposal further
- The group has an open discussion, using everyone’s contributions to modify and improve the proposal.
- Everyone can provide solutions, with the aim of resolving the objection being dealt with.
- The facilitator should check whether the objections are really objections. If in doubt, you can ask the group:
- “Do you think this argument is an objection? Or is it a preference? If we adopt the proposal, will it harm the group, the project? Can you live with this proposal?”
- The facilitator can ask “How would you solve this problem?”
- The facilitator can divide the group in subgroups of 2 or 3 people to encourage a brief dialogue, followed by coming back to the plenary with new ideas.
- If a solution removes a person’s objection, that person shall inform the group.
- If it turns out that the proposal is not relevant, it can be withdrawn (by the facilitator or proposer) > process starts again at 2.
- If objections cannot be resolved during the meeting (for example, if information is missing, the hypothesis needs to be checked further), the facilitator asks the team/person who created the proposal to rework it. It is a good idea to include the person who raised the objection. > The process starts again at 2.
8. Celebrate agreement
- When all objections have been resolved, the proposal is accepted.
- Aim for decisions that are good enough for now, safe enough to try, until the next review.
- Congratulations! You have an agreement – celebrate together as a group (applause, meal, party…)
Running your meetings more effectively can seem like a big challenge, especially when your organisation relies on them to share information, co-ordinate action and make decisions. Start small, experiment, review often and adapt as necessary – this way you can use this valuable time together as a conduit for change.