Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

Back on Aug 18 I posted an entry, Critique of Sociocracy, and it elicited an unusual amount of response. After taking time to digest it, here is my riposte, relying on the same format I used two months ago.


Over the last 10 years, I’ve had personal conversations with or read materials from a number of sociocracy advocates, including John Buck, Sharon Villines, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, John Schinnerer, Sheella Mierson, Nathaniel Whitestone, Barbara Strauch, and Diana Christian. Cooperative group dynamics is a field I’ve been living in for 40 years and working with professionally for the last 27 years.

All of that said, I have had limited experience with sociocracy in action (attending workshops that outline the theory and demonstrate the techniques are not the same as dealing with real issues in live groups) and it’s important to acknowledge that if the practice of sociocracy turns out to have solid answers for my concerns then that deserves to be honored. The fact that I haven’t yet heard answers to my reservations that satisfy me, or seen sociocratic groups perform as claimed, does not mean that there aren’t groups doing well with it.

With that prelude, here's a continuation of the conversation (I realize that I've repeated a number of paragraphs from the Aug 18 post to establish context—bear with me):

1. Does not address emotional input

One of my main concerns with this system is that there is no mention in its articulation of how to understand or work with emotions. As I see this as an essential component of group dynamics, this is a serious flaw.

Nathaniel Whitestone responded:

While the framework of sociocracy does not refer to emotions specifically, I find that I can effectively use the framework to include emotional content. Emotional content is a valid input, along with any other information, during every phase of the policy development & decision-making process. Most of the trainers (and all of the certified trainers) I have worked with have training in emotional processing of some kind and bring that into the process. I see that as essential.

That’s good to hear, yet I still worry that the literature says nothing about this. I believe strongly that we need an integrated model of working with the whole person (rational, emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, spiritual) and it bothers me when this is not addressed. I’ve worked with some groups that have embraced sociocracy, and have not noticed among them any better-than-average understanding of how to work emotionally, which makes me wonder how much this is incorporated in sociocratic training.

To be fair, I rarely find groups have done much work on this. It’s hard and tends to be scary. It’s heartening to hear Nathaniel’s confidence that skill in working emotionally is a standard feature among Sociocratic trainers. I just wish I saw more of it in the field.

Sharon Villines takes a different tack:

Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?

Yes, it's a different animal, and one that our culture is particularly poor at.

Sociocracy has developed a handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. My understanding is that some sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.

This may work fine, yet I want to make the case for a system that includes emotional input from the start, rather than an occurrence that triggers a different approach. My life work has been aimed at integrating energy and content—not placing them in separate boxes.

People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.

The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they just no longer impede productivity.

Hackman found that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish.
Hackman’s claim contradicts my experience in the field. In looking at his work it appears that his research was focused on the business world, where maintaining healthy relationships may not be as central as it is in cooperative groups in general, and in intentional communities especially.

I’ve found that once distress reaches a certain level it’s not possible to do good problem solving because of all the distortion that’s associated with high distress. You have to first attend to the distress. Most groups—sociocratic or otherwise—don’t handle this well. Lacking an agreement about how to engage with this dynamic, most groups are either paralyzed by distress, or seek ways to contain or marginalize those in distress, who tend to be labeled disruptive.

2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in Sociocratic parlance)

When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12) it makes sense to create a committee structure to delegate tasks. While people can serve on more than one committee, it’s naturally important to have a clear understanding of how each committee relates to each other, and to the whole.

While the above paragraph is Organizational Structure 101, in sociocracy there is the added wrinkle that committees regularly working together (as when one oversees the other, or when two committees are expected to collaborate regularly) are asked to place a representative in each related committee. These reps (one each way) serve as liaisons and communications links from one committee to the other, helping to ensure that messages and their nuances are more accurately transmitted.

Barbara Strauch (from Austria) wrote:

The most important motive for double linking is to protect leaders from being torn apart. With double linking there is a representative from each lower circle sitting with the leaders, participating in the decision-making, making sure that the needs of lower circles are fully represented.

Further, groups only need double linking when they get large enough to need a leadership circle that oversees smaller circles. When all organizing is accomplished in a single circle, double linking is superfluous.

Barbara did not say at what size double linking makes sense, and maybe her view is that intentional communities rarely get that big (perhaps because organizing can be accomplished in plenary and thus additional circles are not needed). However, the sense I’ve had from other sociocracy advocates is that double linking is appropriate for intentional communities—at least the larger ones (30+?)—so I want to respond to that.

While this sounds good in theory (and may work well in practice in the corporate environment for which sociocracy was originally created), it runs smack into a chronic problem in cooperative groups that are highly dependent on committee slots filled by volunteers: too many slots and too few people to fill them well. In all my years as a process consultant for cooperative groups, I don’t recall ever having encountered a group that reported being able to easily fill all of its committee and manager positions. Sociocracy asks groups to add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. I don’t understand how that’s practicable.

In the responses I received to the above, there was emphasis placed on the distinction between “circle meetings” (at which policy is discussed) and “operational meetings” (at which work is organized and accomplished). The point being that double linking only need come into play at circle meetings, and that these need not happen that often. While I can certainly understand the claim that if there are fewer meetings at which double linking is expected than there is less of an additional burden on personnel, there is still some additional burden and I wonder where the energy to fill those slots will come from.

3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot

One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is handling critical feedback well. That includes several non-trivial challenges:

Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.

● Helping people find the courage to say hard things.

● Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.

● Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.

Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is easy to do, and my experience has taught me the value of giving people choices in how to give and receive critical feedback. (For some it’s absolutely excruciating to be criticized in public.)

In the case of Sociocracy, the model calls for selecting people to fill positions (such as a managership or committee seat) in an up-tempo process where you call for nominations, discuss candidate suitability, and make a decision all in one go.

While that is admirable for its efficiency, I seriously question whether that promotes full disclosure of reservations, complete digestion of critical statements (without dyspepsia), or thoughtful consideration of flawed candidates. While I can imagine this approach working fine in a group comprised wholly of mature, self-aware individuals, how many groups like that do you know? Me neither.

A number of sociocracy advocates tried to assure me that these selection processes invariably work well and bring out the best in people, but I've worked with too many groups (over 100) that contain too many frail egos to swallow that whole.

4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”

Sociocracy makes a large deal out of participants only expressing: a) preferences about what should be taken into account; or b) reservations about proposals if they constitute “paramount” concerns. While “paramount” is not easy to pin down (what is paramount to me may not be paramount to you), I believe that the concept maps well onto the basic consensus principle that you should be voicing what you believe is best for the group—as distinct from personal preferences—and that you should only speak if your concern is non-trivial.

In addition, sociocracy is about seeking “consent” rather than “consensus.” I believe that the aim in this attempt it to encourage an atmosphere of “is it good enough,” in contrast with “is it perfect” or “is everyone happy with it.”

To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by a minority that may be unwilling to let a proposal go forward because they see how bad results are possible and are afraid of being stuck with them. This leads to paralysis. While it shouldn’t be hard to change an ineffective agreement (once experience with its application has exposed its weaknesses), I believe a better way to manage tyranny-of-the-minority dynamics is by educating participants (read consensus training) and developing a high-trust culture characterized by good listening, and proposal development that takes into account all views.

If “consent” is basically the same as “consensus” than we needn’t worry the terminology so much. If, however, they are meant to be substantively different, then I can only make sense of this if “consent” is a weaker standard than “consensus” that allows the group to move forward (it’s good enough) when it would still be laboring to find consensus.

Let’s see where that leads. The interesting case is when there are reservations among the group that would not stop consent, yet would stop consensus. I expect the spirit in which sociocratic advocates favor consent is an attempt to address the dynamic when individuals are stubborn about allowing a proposal to go forward because of personal reservations. While this undoubtedly happens, the question becomes whether the dissenter is acting out of a what’s-best-for-the-group perspective (that others are missing or failing to weigh appropriately) or out of a personal preference, which no groups want to be burdened with.

What environment will best lead to an open (non-entrenched) exploration of what’s happening? In my experience the key to accessing whatever flexibility is possible with a dissenter is first making sure you’ve heard they’re viewpoint and why it’s important. While this can be delicate work regardless of the group’s decision-making process, I’m worried that if sociocracy is about getting across the finish line faster, that engagement with a dissenter may come across more as “Is your concern really paramount?” with a view toward asking them to let go, rather than “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying and why it matters,” with a view toward finding a bridge between that person and others.

Now let’s take this a further step. Sociocratic advocates often make the point that consent (it’s good enough) shouldn’t be such a big deal because you can always change agreements later if they’re not working. Maybe. If an agreement flat out doesn’t work then I agree that changing it probably won’t be hard. But what about an agreement that’s working well in the view of some and not so hot for others? Or more vexing still, an agreement that’s working well for most members of the group, but not well for the dissenter—the person persuaded to let go because their concerns weren’t paramount enough? Uh oh.

5. Rounds are not always the best format

Sociocracy is in love with Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to offer comments on the matter at hand. While it’s laudable to protect everyone’s opportunity for input, this is only one of many choices available for how to solicit input on topics (others include open discussion, sharing circles, individual writing, small group breakout, silence, guided visualization, fishbowls, etc.). Each has their purpose, as well as their advantages and liabilities.

While Rounds are great at protecting talking time for those more timid about pushing their way into an open discussion, and serve as an effective muzzle for those inclined to take up more than their share of air time, they tend to be slow and repetitive. If you speed them up (Lightning Rounds) this addresses time use, yet at the expense of bamboozling those who find speaking in group daunting, or are naturally slower to know their mind and be ready to speak.

While I’ve been told that it’s OK for Sociocratic groups to use formats other than Rounds—which relaxes my anxiety—what I’ve seen among Sociocratic groups to date is a heavy reliance on Rounds, and I’m concerned.

6. Starting with proposals

In sociocracy (as well as in many groups using consensus) there is a tendency to expect that items come to plenary in the form of a proposal (“here is the issue and here is a suggested solution”). In fact, in some groups you won’t get time on the plenary agenda unless you have a proposal.

While this forces the shepherd to be ready for plenary (a good thing) and can sometimes save time (when the proposal is excellent and does a good job of anticipating what needs to be taken into account and balancing the factors well), it can also be a train wreck. Far better, in my experience, is that if something is worthy of plenary attention, that you not begin proposal development until after the plenary has agreed on what factors the proposal needs to address, and with what relative weight. If the manager or committee guesses at these (in order to get time on the agenda) they may invest considerably in a solution that just gets trashed.

Not only is this demoralizing for the proposal generators, but it skews the conversation about how to respond to the issue. (“What needs to be taken into account in addressing this issue?” is a different question than “Does this proposal adequately address this concern?”) In essence, leading with the proposal is placing the cart (the solution) before the horse (what the solution needs to balance).

In response to the above, I was told that sociocratic groups don’t always start with proposals. While I’m glad to hear that, it doesn’t match what I’ve encountered so far when working with sociocratic groups. If it turns out that I’ve just been unlucky and only found groups that have been confused about the model, I’ll be happy to be wrong.

7. Governance System or Decision-Making Structure?

Some advocates have taken the position that sociocracy is a governance structure while consensus is a decision-making process. Other advocates have stated that sociocracy is both.
As a cooperative process consultant my body of work covers both topics and I see them as inextricably linked. At the very least, consensus implies a certain approach to governance and I'm not inspired to try to parse out what belongs in one category and what belongs in another. I prefer to teach them as complementary aspects of well-functioning cooperative culture.

I think governance questions are things like:
o  Committees and managerships in relation to plenary
o  How committees and managers relate to each other
o  Defining the difference between standing committees and ad hoc committees
o  How authority is delegated
o  How subgroups are populated and their work evaluated
o  Standards for how committee work is made available to the whole group 

I think decision-making questions are things like:
o  How decisions are made
o  How topics are addressed
o  Standards for how meetings are run (including the role of facilitator)
o  Standards for what's plenary worthy
o  Standards for meeting notification
o  Conditions under which meetings can be closed
o  Standards for how plenary proposals get developed
o  Conditions under which a dissenting minority can get overridden
o  Standards for when an agreement might be reviewed
o  Standards for minutes

As sociocracy definitely has things to say about how meetings are run, it’s clear to me that it delves into decision-making. More accurate, I think, is to describe sociocracy as a governance system and decision-making process that offers a particular, highly structured approach to consensus. It’s about doing consensus a certain way. 

While I’m not sold on that model, I’m fine with its being put forward for consideration as a model. At the end of the day, the proof is in the doing, and if groups like what they’re getting with sociocracy then that trumps everything.

8. A Structural Response to an Energetic Challenge

My final uneasiness is on the macro level. My sense is that a lot of the motivation for coming up with an alternative to consensus is that groups are frustrated with it. They struggle with obstinate minorities, working constructively with dissent, effective delegation, engaging productively with distress, and a sense of overwhelm and slog. These are real issues.

Over the years I’ve come to the view that the key issue is that most groups commit to using consensus without a clear idea that it requires a commitment to culture change to make it work well. The vast majority of us were raised in a competitive, adversarial culture and we bring that conditioning with us into our experiments in cooperative culture. When the stakes are high and people disagree, people tend to respond from their deep conditioning—rather than from their cooperative ideals. That is, they fight for their viewpoint and feel threatened by those who see things differently.

In broad strokes, sociocracy appears to offer a structural response: Rounds even out access to air time; the standard of voicing only paramount concerns protects the group from getting bogged down in personal agendas; double linking and open selection of managers and committee slots ensure transparency and information flow; starting with proposals streamlines plenary consideration.

All of these objectives are worthy. Yet I’m questioning whether that package is the best way to get there. To the extent that I’m right about cooperative groups not having connected the dots between cooperative processes and cooperative culture (where people learn to respond with curiosity when presented with different viewpoints, rather than combativeness), the main issue is energetics, not structure.

Naturally enough, high structure folks are going to like structural solutions. Unfortunately, cooperative groups also include low structure people. They also include people who are not quick thinkers, or comfortable voicing their views in front of the whole group. I’m wondering how well sociocracy will work for them.


75seconds Smm said...

Very nice thought..We support it.

Tree Bressen said...

Had challenges posting comment, am attempting here in 2 parts to break length. Part 1:


I am delighted to see you delving into this and appreciate your analytical approach.

Similar to what you describe, my exposure so far to the sociocratic model has been via reading, conversation, and correspondence rather than direct experience. Because the model is newly imported, most advocates within the US intentional communities movement have very little real experience, and that lack of track record creates a lot of confusion. Among my contacts, i have found John Schinnerer particularly helpful, because he has a bunch of experience to draw on from non-community org's. Having moved well beyond the naive cure-all enthusiasm of the newly converted, he can discuss things like how gaps in sociocracy can be addressed by blending with other methods.

Responses here to a few of your points:

Re #1 Emotional input: On the one hand, many consensus groups are unskilled at this, and it's probably not fair to hold sociocratic consensus groups to a higher standard. On the other hand, i recently read the constitution for practitioners of Holacracy (a spinoff from sociocracy) and replied to the person who'd pointed me at it that it was apparently written by engineers and technocrats whose lack of skill and comfort with emotional expression leads them to pretend feelings don't exist, let alone form the heart of decision-making. The writing on sociocracy comes across as more rationalistic than other forms, in contrast to the authors of the community tradition of consensus who recognize there are a variety of factors going into decisions.

Re #3 Elections: I think a key point you may be missing is that (so far as i know) sociocratic nominations and conversations are based overwhelmingly on positive reviews rather than critical feedback. Members say, "I think this person would be great at this role because ___." Which creates a much happier atmosphere than publicly chastising someone!

I agree with what you wrote re #5 Rounds & #6 Starting from Proposals, i have voiced similar concerns.

Tree Bressen said...

Part 2:

I want to talk as well about some positives of the sociocratic approach you have not addressed in the post. This summer a lightbulb went off for me during a conversation with Marc Tobin. I realized that the most important distinction between sociocratic consensus and more familiar forms of consensus is cultural, not structural. There is a way in which the consensus tradition that you & i share has a negative default. There tends to be a presumption in these groups that the answer to a new idea is "no," unless the whole group can be convinced to say, "yes." In sociocratic consensus, the default is switched. "Yes" is likely, unless there are good, strong reasons for a "no." It doesn't have to be that way, and i'm sure one can find traditional consensus groups with a strong affirmative culture and sociocratic groups stuck in the mud with naysayers. But the tendencies line up a certain way, and that matters. Intentional communities often lose valuable members because people get frustrated with the pace of change. As honest teachers we occasionally speak of the inherent conservatism of consensus. There are pros & cons on both sides, but either way the choice has consequences, and i'm convinced it's at the core of sociocracy advocates' enthusiasm for a new model.

The second piece i want to mention is closely linked to the first. Sociocracy, like agile/lean approaches to software development, adopts a heavily experimental stance. Try it out, witness results, and adapt based on experience. If you have confidence in the nimbleness of your response regardless of outcome, it's easier to have a more open-minded attitude going in. I think this is partly cultural in sociocracy and partly structural, with built-in reevaluation dates expected on every policy decision. (Of course that raises the question of what's the default if reevaluation or consent is not accomplished in a timely manner, so presumably that needs to be addressed when decisions are made.)