Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why I'm So-so About Sociocracy

A couple days I ago Ted posted this note in response to my June 20 blog, Consensus Interruptus. As an advocate of sociocracy, he objected to my critique of it, and has offered this rejoinder for why it's the best thing since sliced bread. Ted's comments are in italics.

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Some of your comments about sociocracy make me think you don't really understand it.

Fair enough. I admit that my exposure to sociocracy is limited. I've read We the People (even offering a critique of some passages while it was in draft), once had an animated dinner conversation with John Buck, watched a few committee meetings operate under sociocractic agreements, and talked with a handful of trainers who have offered socicracy workshops. Taken all together I agree that that doesn't add up to my being an expert on the process. That said, I do consider myself to be an expert about cooperative group process, an expert in the theory and use of secular consensus, and a sophisticated observer of group dynamics. So my comments are from that perspective.

A lot of sociocrats call "consent" (as defined by sociocracy) "consensus" as well. They're pretty similar. One difference is that "consent" has pretty strict rules—no "minus one" or two, etc. I've seen consensus practiced in almost as many ways as there are groups using it. Also, there can be a difference in people's limits as to what they'll "agree" to versus what they are "willing to live with." I say "can be" and consensus certainly can be the second. Consent is always encouraged to be closer to the second.

I've read this paragraph five times and I'm not sure what Ted is trying to get at here. My best guess is that he feels sociocracy does just as good a job as consensus in discerning what agreement is in the room.

Consent deals with "obstinate minority viewpoints" by airing them. It deals with "challenging personalities" by requiring a reason for an objection. Although I suppose it could happen, I've never heard of either of these things you mentioned causing any lingering problems.

Oh boy. There's a world of hurt imbedded in "airing obstinate minority viewpoints" and "dealing with challenging personalities by requiring a reason for an objection." One of my greatest concerns with sociocracy is that there is a baseline commitment to a single format (rounds) for working topics, and experience has taught me that all format slants things a certain way. Rounds protects air time for all participants, yet at the cost of time. If you speed things up to save time (as I understand is often done with sociocracy), then it favors the quick-thinking and articulate.

Further, when we enter the field of "obstinate minority viewpoints" and "challenging personalities" it is flat-out naive to claim that these are easily navigated without blowback by guaranteeing air time, or requiring a rational grounding. It just doesn't work that way. 

That said, I want to add a word of caution. I have not yet witnessed sociocracy operate in live conflicted dynamics. In the examples I've seen, there was no particular gravitas to the issues being discussed, and my deep reservations will not be addressed by theoretical conversations about how it functions in heavy traffic. I want to see it attempted when the stakes are high and people strongly disagree. That's where the money is. I'm especially interested in how sociocracy addresses emotional distress relative to group issues.

There are only as many go-rounds as needed and there is never any super-majority voting. Consent is ALWAYS unanimous.

Ted is objecting to my having earlier written with disdain about processes that rely on super-majority voting to outmaneuver obstinacy. While Ted claims that with sociocracy there is never any voting—and that may technically be true—there is nuance here that is being glossed over. I have spoken with multiple people who have found it hard with sociocracy to know whether the thing on their minds is worthy of saying (does it pass the test of being of "paramount" importance?), and it takes a strong person to voice a concern when the group is building momentum toward a conclusion and you know that what you have to say will slow things down. These two dynamics play out like super-majority voting in that they tend to quash dissent—even when there was never any actual vote.

So, let's just assume now that consent and consensus used by a group will have the same results: everyone feels heard, issues that might cause problems are brought up and used to amend proposals, and good decisions are made. As far as I know there is no more to consensus. 

I've seen consensus used to refer solely to a decision-making process, solely to refer to the attitude of inclusivity desired for group functioning, and to both. However, let's not quibble. There is an important body of work extant on cooperative group organizational structures and regardless of how much of that flies under the banner of "consensus," it is wrong to think that the structural suggestions of sociocracy exist in a vacuum, or that it is the only thing going.

Sociocracy has the structure for the rest of the organization with the goal of maintaining equivalent power between participants, which results in better functioning. Also, that structure allows for smaller meetings of the group that runs the organization. For instance, I've seen restaurants where everybody (25-30 people) meets to run the restaurant. Sociocratic structure allows for that group to have two cooks, two wait people, two admin, etc. for a total of maybe ten people running the restaurant, yet everyone feels like their voice will be heard if they so desire. This, I believe, is a huge advantage sociocracy has over consensus.

Reading this makes me wonder about Ted's understanding of consensus. As far as I'm concerned, learning the art of delegating is a crucial aspect of effective consensus (if a group is larger than 6-8), yet Ted has written as if sociocracy invented the concept.

It's frustrating to see virtually all worker/owners using consensus, but maintaining a structure that is authoritarian. 

I'm not clear what Ted means here. My guess is that he's making the case that groups that don't delegate meaningful authority to committees, work teams, or managers maintain a top down authoritarian style. If so, the problem is not with consensus, but with how it's practiced. And I'm certainly not claiming that all groups using consensus know what they're doing.

Sociocracy presents the minimum amount of rules for an organization to maintain that equivalence. It presents a process that allows for the participants to mold it to their liking.

So, consensus and sociocracy's decision-making process of consent are virtually the same.

I don't agree. Sociocracy's reliance on rounds to accomplish everything in plenary seems deeply flawed to me. Further, I have yet to see what sociocracy's response is to working constructively with distress. (My concerns in this regard are heightened by the fact that We the People does not address distress at all—which is itself distressing.)

As for the rest of the structure of an organization consensus leaves the participants out to the wolves, whereas sociocracy provides the minimum structure for maintaining the egalitarian qualities that make life more enjoyable and provides better functioning.

As I understand it, sociocracy relies on the concept of double linked responsibility between rings (such as the relationship between the plenary and a standing committee), whereby a representative member of the plenary will attend committee meetings primarily as a communication conduit, and a representative member of the committee will similarly attend planeries for the same reason in the other direction. While that sounds good, it is neither elegant nor effective.

It happens that FIC experimented seriously with this concept in the late '90s (before the term "sociocracy" had been coined) and it just didn't work. It depended too heavily on a high level of motivation and availability among the liaisons—and this was with a high functioning consensus group. While it's certainly dangerous to generalize from a single failure, and I can imagine the double link concept working in some circumstances, I am highly skeptical that this is an excellent generic solution. There are just too many ways for it to break down.


The Big Sky Tech Guy said...

Not that I'm so credible relating to this discussion, but I have been studying Sociocracy.

Is Laird really making the statement "so-so about sociocracy" based on "Ted's" comments? It doesn't seem to me either one of them are very credible and unfortunately give the whole discussion a negative slant.

I can only hope there are credible people versed in Sociocracy willing to contribute to this conversation.

Anutosh said...

I too find this discussion a bit negative, a pity:
1: In my community we SOLLICIT objections. In my experience, objections tend to improve our decisions, I am not scared of objections, in the contrary, I get nervous when there are no objections.
* Most of our more difficult decisions can be made on a time basis, "Let's try it for 1 month".
* I agree that the words "paramount" and "argued" could be ambiguous. It is my experience that a decision can be made based on the best information available at that time; that most of the time, it is recognized that their are many ways to Rome, that we accept some 'space to wiggle ".
* The fact that no decision can be made even with even a single objection means that everybody will feel responsible for the decision being made knowing full well that your own preference was being heard and possibly discarded for reasons that were on the table.
* The circle structure which are connected in the next higher circle, with elected leader and representative(s) that are represented in the next higher circle, the equivalence of every person, and the special process of electing each function, for me make sociocracy a very strong system of governance.

John Schinnerer said...

My comments on the orignial post cover most of the ongoing misunderstandings I see here. Two more items:

1) my experience of rounds as a basic meta-process is that on average they do far more good than harm compared to dominator/dominated modes of meeting structure. I agree there is no unbiased process.
They are also an ancient human tradition that I suspect appeared and persisted in human cultures over millenia for good reasons.
In addition, as previously commented, a circle can consent to use any other mode of interaction they choose if rounds are not meeting their needs in a given situation. They can use multiple different modes in the same meeting or even for the same agenda item.

2) There is one factual error to address in this re the 'links' between circles:
"...whereby a representative member of the plenary will attend committee meetings primarily as a communication conduit, and a representative member of the committee will similarly attend planeries for the same reason in the other direction."

The links are not merely "communication conduits" or mail-carriers. Links are full members of both circles, with power of consent in both circles. This is fundamentally different to being only message-carriers.
Links are selected by consent in one circle or the other, so their role is not an imposed 'extra' duty but an intrinsic part of their participation in the organization. They are fully engaged members of both circles - again, fundamentally different from being only message-runners.

For me this is a both-and situation, not an either-or. Consensus and Socoicracy complement each other, inform each other, can help develop each other.

So let's get on with collaboration...