This is part 2 of an interview with Ted Rau, co-founder of Sociocracy For All. Part 1 (‘What is sociocracy’) is here. Now we’re talking about whether sociocracy might be a good idea for your organisation / business.
Let’s go on now to talk about the benefits of sociocracy. In what ways is sociocracy better than other ways of coming to decisions?
It depends where you’re coming from. If you’re coming from a very horizontal / everybody decides everything together place, decisions can take a long time. I lived in a community of 70-80 people with whole group consensus.
70-80 people! With consensus?
I know. I’m amazed when I think of it now. The ‘doers’ who bring proposals to the meeting, were often closed down (even when they volunteered to do the work) – which would make them think twice about bringing future proposals. Groups that use consensus can become conservative, because it’s so much effort to change something.
What sociocracy brings is the power of small groups to move things forward.
And I guess that some people are less outgoing than others, so in a smaller group it’s much easier for them to speak and have their voice heard.
Absolutely. I don’t find trying to make decisions with large groups very inclusive. Some people will dominate. It’s a tricky conversation to have with some organisations, but large group meetings are not so inclusive.
And top-down, non-hierarchical organisations?
If there’s one boss at the top, with a hierarchy underneath, people get endlessly frustrated because they might have great ideas, or know what’s going wrong, but nobody listens to them. This is different in sociocracy, because the people who do the work, make the decisions about that work. So their expertise is taken seriously.
Sometimes though, people aren’t so happy to suddenly be co-responsible.
Yes, some people like to be given a job, and just do it.
I have sympathy for that, to some extent. It’s hard to have to think all the time. But you can’t run an organisation if everyone has that attitude. What’s more worrying is when people want to defer, and then blame. This is why, in sociocracy, standing aside isn’t a thing. You can’t say ‘I don’t think this is a good idea, but go ahead and do it’.
Yes, you don’t want ‘I told you so’, and you don’t want people to split into factions.
Yes, this can happen in all kinds of organisations – when people want to avoid responsibility. But it’s easy to fall into this if you’re used to a system where fault / blame is attached to an individual. In sociocracy you have to step out of that pattern, take responsibility and cut each other some slack. That requires a bit of a mindset change.
Can we touch on a few downsides? I can think of a few. Is there a danger, for example, that it might be used too rigidly, and cause decision-making processes to seize up? Or might it involve a lot of training, and be difficult to implement?
Yes. And I’ll add another one. New learners, in my experience, are the most rigid. People can be dogmatic about anything – sociocracy included. I’m often asked what’s the ‘right way’ of doing things – but I’m not in a position to do that – people have to figure it out. My colleague says ‘if it’s rigid, it’s not sociocracy’. A guiding principle is ‘no-one ignored’. Dogmatism and rigidity is a problem with new learners, but typically they ease up after a while. But a big problem is when sociocracy is used as window-dressing, and the power structures don’t actually change. One business owner approached me, wanting to introduce sociocracy, and I asked what they wanted to learn from it. He didn’t want to learn anything – just to get people more involved so that they could get more done. I wasn’t interested in that job, because it sounded very top-down – in that other people had to learn, but not him.
Might sociocracy clash with the legal governance documents of a company – including co-ops, where ultimate decision-making powers are vested in a board of directors? The decisions could maybe be made via sociocracy, then ratified in ways that conform to the legal set-up? But might there be ‘mission-drift’?
Yes. Of course legal systems are heavily biased towards centralised organisations. We have to work out ways to introduce sociocracy, and the board will ratify the decisions made. We’re a non-profit, and we have a board, and we’re compliant with the law. We know that there’s always some decentralisation, even when the board is tasked with making all decisions. They can’t be involved in everything. There is also sometimes a legal requirement for decisions in, for example, some co-ops or intentional communities, to be taken by all members. So, for example, the budget has to be approved by everybody – it can’t be decided in a small group. But it can be prepared in a small circle, then it can go to the general circle, and then it can go to the whole group, where it’s ratified.
A way can always be found to make it work.
Sociocracy can be used just as easily by a big corporation as it can by a co-operative / commons group. But I guess if people get used to the idea of collective rather than top-down decision-making, they might also start to question the ownership of an organisation, and which way the money moves within it.
Yes, I’m with you on that. I was working with a for-profit that was introducing sociocracy. I was in the mood to poke them a bit, so I asked what was going to happen with decisions about salaries. They said that that wasn’t included – at least at first. But there’s no way they’d get away with that forever. I call these little ideas planted about making collective decisions about salaries, and many other little changes – ‘Trojan mice’ – little ways of introducing change by stealth, until undemocratic, extractive practices can’t be maintained any more. There’s work being done on what kind of ownership structures might be introduced, so that they’re ready when the system implodes.
If a group is thinking of introducing sociocracy, how can they learn how to do it?
There’s a lot of information online now, as well as books. Some people are great at learning from books, but it’s not everybody’s learning style. We offer online training, where people learn by experiencing. And typically, groups need a little bit of hand-holding at the beginning.
Your organisation can do that, of course. Are there other organisations out there too?
Yes. There are lots of groups and individual freelancers offering training and consultancy now. It’s all findable.
Where to start, when it comes to applying it in an organisation?
There are some things to look out for. Some people don’t like new ‘things’ or systems. There’s immediate suspicion – that it will be some sort of a burden, rather than making life easier. It’s often easier to introduce the concepts (‘rounds’ for example) one at a time. You can introduce elements from sociocracy, without making it a big deal. You’re not changing the power structure that way, but it’s a start. Then people might ask where you’re getting these new ideas from, and you can introduce sociocracy if people are interested.
Another thing to watch out for is when a few people get very excited by sociocracy and move way ahead of everyone else when it comes to how much they know. The excited people may make the others a bit suspicious about their intentions, and they can also get frustrated at others’ lack of excitement. It’s better for people to bring others along with them on the journey, and to try to keep everyone at the same level.
You talked a bit earlier about ‘rounds’ – what’s that?
It’s a simple practice of talking one by one. If someone has an idea, and we want to hear what people think about it, we’ll just go round the circle to get everybody’s reactions; and then maybe a second round, where we can get reactions to the reactions.
Can people pass?
Yes, in some rounds – for example, if it’s just about reactions, or if it’s asking if people have a question – they can pass if they don’t. They can’t pass if it’s a consent round though – because if you don’t have an objection, that means you consent. But there can also be a check-in round at the beginning, and a check-out round at the end.
And each circle elects a delegate to sit in the next level circle?
Yes. So for example, if there’s a marketing circle, say, and below that, a social media circle, one member of the marketing circle would be selected to also be in the social media circle, and one member of the social media circle would be selected to also be in the marketing circle. There would then be a good connection between those circles, and information could travel between them really well.
There’s more information about the details of sociocracy on your site, isn’t there?
Yes. Many Voices, One Song is a reference manual. I always say that if people read it from cover to cover, they’ll know more than me. But there’s lots of other info on our site too.
What happens if it all goes wrong? If it all goes completely pear-shaped, or just doesn’t work as you’d hoped?
Ideally, a sociocratic organisation will be a self-repairing organisation, because if something goes wrong in one circle, they’ll first try to solve it themselves. If that doesn’t work – if there’s a falling out between people, then the ‘parent’ circle will try to solve it. Typically, that’s all it takes. But even if it doesn’t, it can go to the next circle. There’s a support system built in with the nested circles. It’s also a good idea for people to get trained in conflict resolution, so that they can have good go at solving any conflicts themselves, in the circles in which they arise.
What advice would you give to a group thinking of introducing sociocracy?
Two things. First, see if you can find an organisation using sociocracy, and ask if it might be possible for you to attend a meeting, so that you can get a flavour of it. This is what we do a lot of – networking of organisations that are using or thinking of using sociocracy. We can connect organisations that are similar in what they do, or are close geographically or culturally. So we can connect co-ops involved in the same economic sector, in the same country, for example. It’s easier to get sociocracy adopted in your organisation if you can point to a similar organisation that’s doing it.
You said that Sociocracy For All’s meetings are open for interested parties to attend. Tell me more.
Our meetings are online, and they’re open to visitors. If people contact me and ask if they can attend a meeting, I can arrange it.
We offer some scholarships for training, and we recently received a grant to offer free training to climate activists.
Any other sources of information?
https://www.sociocracyforall.org/content/ has lots of useful articles and videos, and people can sign up for webinars.
Any other insider tips or advice – anything to inspire people?
Some elements of sociocracy you can start to do in your organisation straight away. For example, rounds. In your next meeting, just suggest that you do a round. You don’t have to learn much, and you don’t have to subscribe to sociocracy – you can just do it. See how people like it, and if they do, do it again another time. The next step might be to suggest consent as a decision-making method, rather than voting. It’s still not too ‘out there’. The sociocratic meeting template isn’t too weird for most people either. First a check-in round – and a lot of groups do this now. Then a bit of admin, and then everyone checks and agrees the agenda together; then go through the points on the agenda, and finish with a closing round. That’s a simple, beginners version of the meeting template, and it’s very effective. You can just give it a try if you’re facilitating a meeting. It’s not a big, daunting step.
What kind of feedback do you get? Is it mainly positive, or do you get critical feedback?
We don’t get much direct critical feedback – only second-hand – we sometimes hear that groups hated it, and we think that this is probably mainly from groups who probably tried it superficially.
What sort of reasons do they give for not liking it?
They often don’t give specific reasons – just that they didn’t like it. Or perhaps that it took a long time – which is strange, because it really shouldn’t. But as it’s usually hearsay – for example, it’s just thrown out there on social media – I don’t have the information. When I do, I sometimes hear that groups try to make consent decisions with a group of 30 people, and of course that’s not going to work. It’s not designed that way. This is where I’d like a deeper conversation with people who say it doesn’t work for them.
Thanks very much for talking with me Ted.
Thank you for having me on Dave.
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1Nick CK September 4th, 2022
Sociocracy for all requires that people are trained in mediation; for example! requires a facilitator – does this mean the NHS would have to employ a large number of consultants to hand hold for a while? It was good to hear that decisions have to be considered in relation to funding and legal aspects, in particular the governance but ultimately NHS decisions (E.g. how the pie is divided up are made in cabinet meetings) so can the NHS move to sociocracy without our MPs having to hand over power to a collective consent for decision making process?
2Ted Rau September 6th, 2022
Hey Nick. Hm, not sure what you mean. We don’t require facilitators to be trained in mediation – though it certainly doesn’t hurt!!
If the NHS were interested, they certainly would need some hand-holding; not because sociocracy is so hard but because unlearning takes a while, and so does re-learning. For example, healthy body posture – that doesn’t give you backpain – is natural but we sometimes need help in “remembering” how to do it.
I’m not fully understanding your second NHS question; it’s hard to track when we think about changing the big systems like NHS or parliament, how much would still be the same and how much would be different.