Sociocracy is a form of governance that utilizes content-based decision making in small groups. By delegating authority to the handful of people who are responsible for executing on the related work, power is distributed more broadly throughout organizations. In a consent based model, everyone takes responsibility for decisions made by the group.
This conversations covers essential thing you need to know to understand this progressive governance model:
“Ted Rau (TR): The problem about majority vote is that it doesn't quite give us enough information because we cannot learn why people are saying no. Are they saying no because something is not their preference? Are they saying no because they have an objection? So it's just such complete information. It doesn't actually give us the information that we need to make a decision. And then there's the problem of scale in larger groups. You have this whole whoever screams the loudest or speaks the most compellingly, that will be the person who gets the votes. It just turns into a popularity contest, just because of sheer numbers. It's not really fixing the job. It creates behaviors we don't want to see, and it's not giving us the information we want.”
[00:00:44] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Ted Rau, Co-Founder of Sociocracy For All, a non-profit helping organizations govern using the principles and practices of sociocracy. This is the Denizen Podcast. This week's episode is about, you guessed it, sociocracy.
Sociocracy is a method for decentralizing decision-making in organizations. You may remember Donnie Maclurcan mentioned it in our episode about the cutting-edge practices he employs at the Post Growth Institute. Sociocracy is a central one of them. Sociocracy addresses the challenges in more common forms of governance, namely democratic and autocratic decision-making.
Our guest for this episode is Ted Rau. He is a sociocracy expert, whose non-profit coaches, teaches, and networks sociocracy practitioners and purpose-driven organizations of all types. He is co-author of the handbook Many Voices One Song: Sharing Power with Sociocracy, published in 2018.
In this conversation, Ted and I discuss what sociocracy is, its key features, and how they accomplish the outcomes that we care about. Particularly interesting to understand is this distinction between consensus and consent-based decision-making and how consent addresses some of the issues that are inherent with more widespread decision-making methods such as majority voting. We talk about how to implement it in organizations and what organizations it's most suited for, its limitations, its relevance for DAOs and other decentralized efforts within Web3, and what he's seeing in the current landscape.
It's interesting once you look at fundamentally the unit of sociocracy being the circle that makes decisions, how you structure that within an organization, and how you set about information feedback loops. You look at that from a systems perspective. It's really interesting what you wind up with within the sociocratic structure.
This is an essential topic. So I've created a summary of my research on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There you can go to find show notes and the transcript for this episode, as well as sign up for our newsletter. Each Wednesday, I send out an email with the latest episode, information about online and virtual Denizen events, as well as announcements from our many partner organizations.
This conversation is a great compliment to Nonviolent Communication with Danny Cohen and Embodied Leadership with Donnie Maclurcan. I hope you find this one inspiring and consider experimenting with consent-based decision-making in your family or team. I know my kids are excited about it.
[00:03:08] JS: So we'll start out with the basics, and then we'll get into a more meaty interrogation of some of the details. But let's start with the question that you've been asked so many times. What is sociocracy?
[00:03:18] TR: So sociocracy is a governance system. It's meant for organizations and that answers several questions that need to be defined in every governance system. The first one being how do we decide. It’s easy if just one person decides. But if we think that a group should decide on something, then they need to have some method of decision-making. Typically, what people are familiar with is voting and consensus, and the decision-making that we use is consent. The other one is, it's answering the question of who decides what.
In the hierarchical situation, it's very obvious. The person at the top decides. In a sociocratic organization with decentralized decision-making, we have a way of distributing decision-making into different bodies of decision-making that we call circles and create an organization where there are many people deciding many things in many different places.
[00:04:10] JS: Okay. That's a headline.
[00:04:11] TR: So those are the basic things. Yes. I would mention as the third pillar of sociocracy that there is feedback as a principle, and continuous improvement is baked into everything. So we elevated actually to the third pillar besides decision-making and distributed decisions.
[00:04:29] JS: There were two things that I appreciated when I was doing my research. One is just the actual meaning of the word sociocracy which comes from Latin socious, which means companions or colleagues, and cratia which refers to ruling class. Ruling by companions and colleagues. Because there's something egalitarian that is baked into sociocracy versus other forms of governance.
[00:04:55] TR: Yes. Sometimes, when I try to give people a gist of what sociocracy is, it's one of those slogans that is so simplified. It's almost bordering on not true anymore anymore, but it’s just “Those who work together decide together.” That's the basic idea. Those who do the work should be the ones deciding. Again, contrasting it with top-down hierarchy where somebody decides, and I have to do it. If I'm doing it, I want to be the one deciding it.
Yes. You’re right about the egalitarian vibe of it, that is also part of the history of it that, first of all, workers are good enough to make decisions themselves and that figuring things out together has a value. So we're making decisions as peers together.
[00:05:37] JS: Right. Well, the three principles; consent, governance, decisions. Then what's interesting is consent governs decisions. Then it's like, well, how do you apply that to an organization? There's organizing in circles. We'll, of course, get to all of this. Then there's the double linking which gets to the information flows, which is really essential for this to function the way that you want it to and also to scale.
When you said that it's a way of governing in organizations, what do you mean by organizations? Is there a clear definition of what that is? Because there's lots of groups of people that are trying to make decisions together, right?
[00:06:13] TR: Yes, yes. But it is really the best, it works the best with shared doing. So I would say everything is an organization that has a shared doing. I guess part of the reason I already put that, I planted that in there, was because if we, for example, talk about scale and then, eventually, we might talk about could one run a country sociocratically, there are a few things to say about that.
The main use case is for people who do stuff and they need a governance system to do stuff together. That is the basic thing. So family is an organization in my definition because they do things, and they have shared resources that they make decisions about together. But it doesn't have to be incorporated. I don't care about any of that. So for me, it's just “Do we have somewhat of a shared purpose, implicit or explicit? Do we know who we are and where we're going? Do we do those things that are kind of our operations? Do we do those to a large extent together?”
[00:07:06] JS: Yes. So there's a necessary operational component of it. Where does sociocracy come from? Let's just say a quick bit about the history.
[00:07:14] TR: Sure. So it has some roots in Quaker decision-making. The person who ended up putting it together in its modern form is Endenburg from the Netherlands. He was a Dutch engineer who was in a Quaker School as a kid, and he saw consensus decision-making there. So that is one of the strands.
The other one is natural systems, like the whole idea that things are nested, that ecosystems are nested, which is a general principle. So that we find in the circle structure. The other one is cybernetics, so feedback loops, as you were saying already about double linking, which we'll talk about, and information flow, and just making sure we don't lose as much information as a system in an organization.
Those are the three big things. The term itself, sociocracy, is older. It has been used in centuries prior but really in the form that we know it as now which was called the Sociocratic Circle Method, kind of the – I want to say like a very codified version of how I would understand sociocracy. That has been around since the early 1970s. Well, yes, around that time. Yes.
Now, the word sociocracy is kind of the – it’s a little bit the way I use it, a little bit of a looser term, where you apply the general principles. That still has several flavors and iterations and all of that of sociocracy.
[00:08:31] JS: So one of these really central questions in governance is how are decisions made. So can you distinguish between consensus and consent-based decision-making? Because this is a really critical piece of sociocracy.
[00:08:48] TR: Yes, it is. So first, there's kind of a joke here, and that is that there's not really consensus of what consensus means. Consensus can mean all kinds of things. Consensus can mean everybody needs to agree. It can also almost be like consent. Sometimes, people who are really into consensus want to argue with me about it. But I – these, to me, are all just words.
How about we, just for now, say some people interpret consensus as everybody needs to agree, while consent means nobody should have an objection. That sounds like hair-splitting, but it actually makes a big, big difference. So one difference is that if everybody needs to agree, then we're going to argue, until everybody says, “Yes, this is the best thing. You're right. Let's do that.” That can take a long time, or it might never happen, which means no decision gets made.
Consent decision-making, we just have to talk till everybody says, “Fine, there's nothing wrong with this.” Then we go do something. Now, it sets us on completely different tracks. In consensus, there's often a lot of debate, and that can wear groups out. They tend to, over the years, become more conservative because it just takes so much effort to make anything happen. If you have a new idea, you need to really fight for it, and that wears people out, and then they stop doing that.
Then on the other end, in consent with this, and good enough for now is one of the slogans. Like just find something that's good enough. It says it's on a whole different track, where now we're not arguing with each other anymore. We just look like, “Is there something wrong with this? No? Great. Then let's do it.” So now, we're in rapid-prototyping mode.
If there is something wrong, now we're not arguing with each other because something wrong means we can’t fulfill our aim. We can't act on the purpose of our circle, of our group. Now, it's in our shared interest to take this obstacle out of the way. So all of a sudden, objections are not a bad thing that somebody brings because there's somehow a difficult person. But it's somebody who noticed something that should be a common shared interest to solve and integrate so that we can move forward as a group in a way that's aligned with our aim.
[00:10:58] JS: I appreciated the distinction in some of the materials between, yes, I can live with this and no, whereas consent encompasses yes and I can live with this. What I thought was really interesting is that when someone is resistant, and you're having this conversation to try to get to consent, one of the things that you can say is, “Well, let's just try it, and let's track the thing that you're worried about. And then let's revisit it.”
I love the way that that is naturally integrating something that I feel is so incredibly important, experimentation and iteration. So it's like we're not setting this in stone, into perpetuity. We can say okay. That’s a parameter that can get us to consent, which says let's just try this for a month, and let's track this thing, and then let's revisit the conversation.
[00:11:49] TR: What I find deeply, deeply humbling about that, and that's what I really love, is that it makes us all learners because none of us have figured it out. None of us can look into the future and know what's going to happen. We simply don't know. So it's kind of coming from this place of saying like, “All right, this looks like a problem. So how about we try this out for only a month? Because I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I'm a little worried about it.”
But, ultimately, reality is going to be our teacher and not a hypothesis. But it's reality that is our check. So it's a commitment to effectiveness that I really admire. Most people, I would say, are even underutilizing that in sociocracy. It has a strict focus on just getting the show on the road, and then you will know. Not getting caught up in “maybe this and what is that” and all of that.
[00:12:36] JS: The human-centered designer in me just eats this up. But there was another thing that you mentioned that I think is really important to tease out when we talk about how consent works and how consent can be successful. So there is the, “Okay, we can experiment and get information back so that the cost of getting this decision wrong is not so high because we'll naturally revisit it with real information, with better information.”
The key piece is not just on the backend having those feedback loops. But also, on the front end, the importance of clarifying aims so that everyone who's making this decision understands why they're there. So can you say more about that piece?
[00:13:15] TR: Oh, yes. That's a huge piece, yes. So every circle will have an agreed upon aim. That's what the circle is doing. So this is not a high-in-the-sky thing. This is really like the nuts and bolts. What is it that we're coming together to do? When I work with clients, I often have to really insist on, “No, don't tell me the big high-in-the-sky thing. I want to know what you're doing. What are you doing every day?”
It’s to that level of publishing a website and not like changing society or improving the world. Those are not actionable things. That might be why you do it, but it's not the what. Anyway, so once we know that, everybody who is in that circle should be somebody who's operationally involved in making that thing happen.
That is an important piece that makes everything work. Because now, we don't have talking heads that just come because they're opinionated. But we have people whose everyday work or every month work, if it's a volunteer organization, depends on the decisions, right? So they have to live with the implications and the impact of the decisions that are being made by the circle. That means they will have a strong interest in finding something that works because it informs their everyday work.
There's a unifier in just who's in the room and how are they related to the aim. Then we use the aim as a backdrop that helps us evaluate any proposal, right? Because an objection in consent decision-making would mean, no, actually I don't think we can carry out our aim or achieve our aim with this proposal because of this and this and that. Then you can see.
The way I look at it now actually is that our aim is like it's kind of the identity on the collective level, on the circle level. So why my own reactions and feelings and preferences, that's all my personal individual level stuff. But what we do is we basically create a strong identity of that collective purpose so that then we can align our collective action with our collective purpose. So we need to have that. It's kind of that alignment on the group level that the aim provides.
[00:15:14] JS: Yes. I mean, that part is so important. The strategy consultant part of me loves this piece because sometimes it's just everyone has their own answer to what it is, and that's where they're coming from in trying to have these sorts of conversation and make these sorts of decisions. That's what sets up the mess. The first-order question about why we're here, what are we all lining around isn't answered first.
But there's also a really important piece of this, which is how many people are coming to consent optimally in a group.
[00:15:47] TR: Five, six, or seven.
[00:15:49] JS: So this is really key.
[00:15:50] TR: Yes. This is really key because only then can we have the quality of listening that it takes to really understand an objection. If I have a group of 50 people, and somebody says, “Oh, no. That's not going to work because this and this and this and this and that,” how many people in the room will understand this?
First of all, in order to have a meaningful conversation with each other, we need to have a smaller group. Then there's also this egalitarian aspect and just how many people can be heard in a group of 50 or even a group of 15. Honestly, like if you have a board with 15 people, can everybody even get a meaningful word in one and a half hours? I doubt it, and that's not what I see.
The bigger the stage, the more we play into those behaviors of people just wanting to give their big statements and like all of those negative that I find negative, my judgment is this. The negative behaviors on a big stage kick in when you have a larger group. A group of six people tend to not give speeches. They just tend to listen to each other and work.
[00:16:47] JS: Okay. So we've got the basics. We have a group of people, optimal size, four to eight, who have the capacity to listen, who have a clear aim, who have a ex-post process of experimentation and feedback and iteration. So how do we determine who is in the circle?
[00:17:05] TR: Depends a little bit on what our starting point is. If you already have an existing organization, then I would just align it with the operations and kind of cluster it in a way that works. It's a little different if we have a startup. When you start with five people and then you start to make those sub-circles, I think of it as almost like a primordial soup, that first circle. Then things bud out. Then you specify and all of that.
I mean, there's many answers to it. But one answer is whatever the parent circle decides how they're going to populate the circle. Then once you have a circle, they will decide new members by consent. So if they decide that somebody should now join the circle, if nobody has an objection, then that person gets added. The aim and domain, this should be the backdrop for that, right? Because everybody who's involved in making that aim happen should also be in that circle or respect the sub-circles.
[00:18:02] JS: Yes. I mean, this is getting into scaling consent-based decision-making. We keep talking about circles. It's principle number two. So consent governs decisions. We've talked about that. Principle number, two organizing in circles. We've talked a little bit about it, we are referring to these groups that make decisions as circles. But let's talk about what that looks like when we map that to an organization effectively, scaling this core building block unit of sociocracy, which is the circle that makes decisions by consent.
[00:18:33] TR: Now, let's just imagine. We have this started up with five people because it's easiest, I think, for people's brains to get wrapped around this if we do it that way. So we have a circle of five or six people. They are starting something. Now, they realize, “Oh, we should really have a whole marketing department.” They would notice that because the marketing conversations don't affect all the original founders anymore because one of them is clearly on this and clearly on that and whatever.
You notice that you don't have a good fit between who's in the room and what the topics are that you talk about anymore. That's typically a sign that it's time to form circles. So now, you form a sub-circle by consent. So that original group of people, of founders, they define an aim and domain, which means they now hand, like handing the baton in a way. They had some of the decision-making power, for example, everything on marketing into a marketing circle.
Now, that's a super key piece. The marketing circle is the final decision-maker on anything marketing that you've given them in the domain. So we give them an area of responsibility, of authority. Now, they're it. The aim describes, well, here's what we want you to do, which will, obviously, be something around marketing. But it's good to state them separately. I find that adds a clarity that is really helpful. Now –
[00:19:49] JS: The aim versus the domain.
[00:19:52] TR: Yes, the aim and domain. Yes. So the domain being the area of responsibility. This is authority, what you can decide. The aim is what we want you to do. But obviously, they should heavily relate, right? I mean, you don't want to give random domains and names. Anyway, so now we have a marketing circle. Now, the marketing circle might realize, “Oh, we should do,” whatever, social media marketing, and the other ones I'm doing, whatever else.
So now, again, they can take a kind of – I describe it sometimes as almost like a pizza, the pizza of marketing. Now, you take a slice, and you give it to the social media people. Now, they get to decide whether they still want to be on Twitter or not. That needs to be something that they get to decide. So in this way, as I said in the beginning, we want to create an organization where everybody is in the place where their voice is most useful because that's where they are operationally involved, and we have a situation where everybody is a decision-maker somewhere because if I'm the Twitter person, I'm going to have a say in social media circle and so on.
Now, in order to hold the connection of the alignment between everything, what we need to do is we need to make sure that marketing circle doesn't go rogue, right? Because we still want organization, so we need to hold that collective organizational level aim still in alignment of that. How we do that is that if we as the original founder circle form the marketing circle, we now want two people to be both in that marketing circle and in its parents, so to speak.
That's the double link that you refer to. That one of them will be the leader and one of them will be the delegate so that we can be sure that information flows really freely in both directions. Because if you only have one person, then that person is in this weird sandwich position and in this weird kind of bottleneck position. We might trust what they say, but there might also be information that gets lost.
[00:21:46] JS: Can you distinguish between the leader versus a delegate?
[00:21:49] TR: Yes, yes. I can in a moment. Just to be quick, why is it two? Because it's a little bit of a compromise, right? Perfect information flow would be if everybody in the sub-circle were also in the parent cycle. But that would be then a group of a lot of people. So it's kind of this trade-off between how we can make small groups and still connect them well. So that's why it's two. Also, because we went two directions and that goes to the roles that you just asked about.
Ideally, the leader is the person who is basically bringing information from the parent circle and the whole wider organization into the circle. So if you think of it in a traditional org chart, it's the top-down link.
[00:22:28] JS: Yes. That makes sense.
[00:22:29] TR: Okay. Then the other one, the delegate, comes the other way. From a circle brings the voice of the circle into the parent circle. So from there, we can learn about what's happening in that circle in the wider organization, so those two directions.
[00:22:43] JS: That makes sense. That makes a lot of sense. Well, and this gets to this really critical component. I love this because it makes me think of Donella Meadows and ways to intervene in a system, which is about information flows. So there’s the criticality of the information flows that happen through that double linking between circles. You get sort of the hierarchy of circles that maps to what an org chart would look like. But it's effectively pushing decision-making down as much as possible or as much as makes sense within the organization.
There's the critical information flows and the information flows because this is so important for just the health of a system. I love the living systems analogy. So you have the information flows that are happening between the double linkages. Then as we talked about earlier, you have the information flows that are happening with the feedback loops from the action when it's taken.
Then there's another really important information flow that we haven't touched on yet, which happens before we make decisions, which is just getting feedback and reaction or important information from constituents who are not represented in the circle. What we would call voice in like governance parlay, right? So how is that done? Or, I mean, I guess that can be done in lots of different ways, depending on the circumstance.
[00:24:10] TR: Yes. First, actually, let me say because there are so many ways of doing it, there's not this one standardized way that you can just stay held accountable to. It's the general principle that you better get feedback before you make the big decisions. You better ask people who might be impacted by this decision. Why would we do that? Well, because only a decision that is considerate and works in the wider system will be a sustainable decision. So it has to be in the interest of the people making the decision to kind of vet that decision by asking other people for feedback.
As you're saying, other people in the organization, but it could also be clients. It could be one of our stakeholders. It could be whatever makes sense. Just make sure you bring the information from other people who might have other perspectives into the circle, so you can make it part of your consideration for decision-making. That’s the general principle.
[00:25:03] JS: It's interesting how sociocracy is combining representation with consensus. Because we can't effectively get to consensus unless N is a certain size. So if we're making decisions that are relevant for larger groups, which is very often the case, there is some element of representation, which then gets to the question that we started to address. that we touched on earlier, which is who is in the circle. The example that you gave starts with one circle and then starts to build out the sub-circle as it scales.
In that model, the – who's in the sub-circles is by consent of who is in the higher order circles, right? But I'm just – and maybe this is just getting to implementation of sociocracy when it's not this clean operational mode, right? But, for example, I'm currently evolving the governance of Denizen away from me, the benevolent dictator, towards having a community council. Or let's call it a circle, that is adjudicating over community-related decisions. One of the questions that I'm holding right now is how do we set that up. Whoever is going to be on there is going to be representing everyone else, so there's this question of how do you point people into those roles.
Then, again, there's this notion of voice. As we're talking about information flows and voice in the context of a complex structure of circles, I am curious about that accountability mechanism. So feedback gives you accountability. But the people who are in that seat of decentralized power within the circle, that just continues to beg the question of, okay, well, how are they placed there, and how is the accountability monitored. So I don't know if you have any thoughts about other processes for determining who sits in that circle when decisions are made with meaningful implications for others.
[00:26:56] TR: Yes. I think this is in the realm of just design. I don't think there's one solution, but I can name some of the ingredients and considerations here. One is, yes, as you're asking, let's say one person is representing some subset of a community. How would that subset of the community choose that person, especially if they don't know each other?
A very straightforward example would be if you have a big school, how would the parents of the school who typically don't know each other choose their representative? It's really a little bit at odds, and that is really unclean, where the use case isn't so close anymore to the original intent because, ideally, people are chosen based on your working relationships so that you know who you're choosing. My example is always the credit union. They sent me a voting slip for the board of the credit union.
[00:27:45] JS: Yes, yes.
[00:27:46] TR: Like I have no idea. These are just names. So it's like, okay. Now, I figure it's like, “Whoa, democratically elected.” I can't really take it seriously because I know that I'm just making things up. I'm just like, “Oh, whatever. The name sounds good.” That’s, of course, not what we want, right? That's why the sociocratic selection process is actually quite the opposite. It's super transparent and open and based on relationships.
How do you build a sociocratic system in the absence of relationships? That's really tricky. Then you have to use workarounds. There's no particular one there, but there are workarounds that would maybe feed into it. But it's a little bit of an unclean interface.
[00:28:21] JS: I want to make sure we make the point about what is superior to consent-based decision-making versus other forms, particularly – well, obviously, autocratic decision-making is one but, particularly, majority or supermajority voting, what people are most familiar with in democratic contexts.
[00:28:40] TR: Yes. The problem with majority vote is that it doesn't quite give us enough information because we cannot learn why people are saying no. Are they saying no because something is not their preference? Are they saying no because they have an objection? So it's just such incomplete information. It doesn't actually give us the information that we need to make a decision.
Plus, then there's the problem of scale in larger groups. You have this whole whoever screams the loudest or speaks the most, that will be the person who gets the votes. It just turns into a popularity contest, just because of sheer numbers. Then another thing that I pay attention to is that in a majority vote, you basically ask for your preference, again. Unless you do this whole strategic voting thing, that is always a little tricky.
It creates behaviors we don't want to see, and it's not giving us the information we want. So it's just a super pragmatic way to get information from a lot of people. In those situations, 20 million people, fine. But it's not great if we can avoid it.
[00:29:45] JS: Well, I really appreciate the point that you just made about how much information is lost in traditional democratic modes of voting. Number one is that we don't understand the granularity of preferences. That's, of course, so many of us have heard about ranked voting and how much better that can allow us to select based on the preferences of the constituents. But also this piece about when there is an objection, we don't know what that subjection is about. So there's no ability to evolve.
This is the meta decision-making for sociocracy of things that are confined to the circle. How do we decide who's in the circle? Then what are the feedback loops that allow us to revisit that? I mean, this is fundamentally – when we talk about representation, the question is how do I delegate my decisions to someone else. Then how do I hold them accountable and re-delegate to someone else if there is an issue?
One of the really important points that we haven't made yet, is about best practices in sociocratic organizations with respect to enabling those feedback loops. So we talked about voice for decision-making. We talked about feedback. If there’s questioning about a decision, then we'll just put in place metrics that will track and get feedback. But there's also something around policies, for example, and just knowing that information might change and ensuring that there are points that that's revisited. Can you say a little bit about that?
[00:31:04] TR: Yes. Generally, any decision is made for a certain term, unless the group forgets it. There should be a term in everything they decide because as you're saying, things go stale. We forget that we even have a policy. It creates a certain debt. If you don't visit your policies, things might actually get out of alignment, and you don't even notice it. That's why we revisit things.
As you're saying, at the moment of the decision, typically, it's part of the proposal to propose a certain term. That could be two days, or it could be five years, anything in between. That's also true for people in roles, like leadership positions, facilitator, that second link, the delegates. Those are all on a certain term.
[00:31:48] JS: I appreciate the meta application of the processes here, which is the decision for who makes the decision and the ways in which feedback loops are put in place there to revisit those decisions. What are some of the limitations that you're seeing, that you have seen?
[00:32:05] TR: Oh, I love that question because I hardly ever get to talk about that. I mean, I don't have to.
[00:32:08] JS: Really?
[00:32:10] TR: No. Well, I mean, yes. I guess not maybe with enough time. I'm more like, “Okay, what's wrong about the system?” But the way you're asking, I think it means something else. There are a few things that I am worried about, and there are two ways I want to take this, three ways actually. One is it requires a level of self-responsibility that is not common, I want to say.
[00:32:31] JS: This is self-responsibility.
[00:32:32] TR: Because it's a very simple thing. It's self-responsibility, yes. What I mean is and let's say there is a decision and it's a tricky decision, okay? It's just not a clean, clear-cut decision, not an easy yes or no. Now, we ask people to either consent or object, and there's nothing in between. How many times people are like, “Oh, can I just abstain? Can you just make this decision without me?” But that's not a thing. No. If we're making a decision as a group, then you need to tell me whether you consent or object. If you don't have an objection, that means you consent. But that means co-responsibility for the thing that happens.
That, for people, is so hard because, especially those that were conditioned in hierarchical contexts where they were not the decision-maker have gotten used to being able to defer and blame later. So that's uncomfortable. That's very uncomfortable for people. Yes, as I said, not everybody is used to that.
For example, I know I see my own organization. Some people complain and say, “Oh, the organization should this or should that.” We're like, “That's who? That’s us. Make a proposal please. If you want something, please ask for it. But don't complain that it's not happening.” That's just not a behavior that's useful in this context because they have the power to propose something. You have the power to go to the circle to make it happen in your own circle. That's what I mean by self-responsibility and that people are not necessarily ready for that.
That I think is – we actually – well, my colleague and I were in a webinar a while ago, and we were asked something like that, like what's the weakest spot of sociocracy. We both said - and we had not talked about it – we both said in unison, “The people.” This thing is brilliant. It’s about the people. The people try to get out of responsibility, to get out – like, oh, that's hard. Okay. So that's number one.
There's a big deal around personal growth that needs to happen, so people are ready to use the system. Another way of saying it is that – something our client did many years ago. She said, “Wow, sociocracy is so powerful. So, so powerful and transformative. It's like giving a toddler fire to play with.” I don't think she said you should even do that. That's really too much for people to handle. So that's interesting.
[00:34:44] JS: Okay. So what's number two?
[00:34:45] TR: Starting with a certain scale, it can be hard to optimize our information flow because, yes, of course, there were links and all of that. But sometimes, it's just a sheer amount of information and people not being so used to having to filter it all with incoming and outgoing information, just when there's so many cross connections and less silos. Then in a typical organization, that just creates all information overload for people. That worries me quite a bit, actually.
[00:35:16] JS: Have you seen any best practices to address that?
[00:35:19] TR: Everybody's fumbling a little bit still. Ultimately, I think what we need is some sort of more rigor around people being more clear or more considerate about discerning, I guess, what information do other people need to hear.
There's this nice phrase or the slogan that I like in sociocracy that I learned here is filter and amplify. What needs to be filtered out? Because it only is relevant in our circle, and nobody outside needs to even hear it. Please leave them alone. Just take care of it. The other one is amplify. What are little data points or little things that you see that might be contributing to a bigger picture, if only we compared notes on it. But how would I know which one is which? So that's hard for people to even think about that and the responsibility of having to filter and amplify. But, ultimately, each person in the mix either contributes to better information flow, or they overload it, or they hold back information. That’s hard to discern for people.
Third one is fitting sociocracy into the current legal structures and all of that; economic systems, legal structures. That sometimes requires a little bit of work around and figuring things out –
[00:36:36] JS: Can you say more about that?
[00:36:39] TR: One piece about that is – let's see. Do I take the economic route or the legal route? Legal systems, for example, people's perception of legal systems I should say because it's actually more nuanced than that. But people are worried and say, “Oh, no. A board of directors has to be this and this and that and has to vote by majority vote and this and that.” It’s like, no, but that's simply not true. You can define your own decision-making method and all of that. But people’s worry about that is pretty strong.
But just overall, the whole concept of having decentralized decision-making, that's a little bit at odds with our system, so that's tricky. Yes. Then economic systems, it's just hard. For example, deciding salaries. Like should they be decided organization-wide? Should every circle decide? Should peers decide each other's salaries? So all tricky things. Should we make role-based salaries or person-based salaries? So a bunch of questions that open up that are not so easy to answer.
[00:37:35] JS: Yes. I mean, that does beg the question that I have been holding and I meant to ask, which is just who determines what decisions are in the circles, versus the higher order circles because that has a lot to do with decentralization. One of my favorite quotes from all of the conversations that I have done was the one about co-ops. It was “When you've seen one co-op, you've seen one co-op”, which is that every case is unique. I imagine that this is very much the case with sociocracy. We can talk about the architecture of it. But the rubber hits the road when it really comes to what set of things does a circle adjudicate over.
Do you have any answers to that? That's another meta, right? Who's in the circle but also – yes. What's the scope?
[00:38:17] TR: Yes. Honestly, if the aim and domain are set and if that’s clear, I've hardly ever seen that be a problem. Typically, when people ask that question, they come from a position of wanting to prevent power grabs. What if a circle just takes a decision? Honestly, I've seen so few power grabs because people – that's an old, old paradigm thinking. What's the other paradigm?
In this paradigm, typically, what I see is actually the opposite that people are like, “Do we have to decide this? Is there not another circle that could take us on? We actually just want to do our own thing right now, and this is it.”
[00:38:52] JS: Got it. So I think it's more of setting clarity around aim and domain. Once the domain is clear, then the set of decisions that fall within that scope are clear. Okay. That I appreciate. I think that's really important. Of course, I'm super interested in the proliferation of DAOs and the interest in DAOs and what Web3 technology might enable in terms of governance that had not been the case before. There's so much interest in decentralization. So I'm curious what you're seeing or what your thoughts are at the intersection of sociocracy or sociocratic principles, and what's happening in the Web3 space?
[00:39:27] TR: Yes. I mean, of course, there's a lot of similarity around decentralized decision-making. So that's all fun to see. Then the other thing that we've already talked about is just how sociocrats are not so super enthusiastic about voting in any shape or form really. So we have, again, the situation where people vote on stuff that they might not know enough about. It's very, very parallel to me voting for the part of my credit union based on a name.
That's not a new issue, right? We've seen it in other spaces. It's not a unique to DAO kind of situation. Yes. So that worries me. It worries me that there’s a lot of thinking that just because their on chain decisions are just going to save everything, and I just always want to ask “What about the off chain? Wait. Who decides that kind of stuff, and how is that decided?”
Just overall the culture, I guess. Yes. The culture of voting and the balance of issues because how many things can you possibly believe and understand that have an informed decision. It’s really a deeply concerning thing for me. I know it's unexpected that I would say that, given that my work is in decentralized decision-making and in self-governance. I think the expectation that everybody can be involved in everything that affects them, we have to let go of that because I don't think we have the capacity to do that.
Because here’s my standard line that I actually – I don't even read the emails from my kids’ schools. How many thing do you want me to be involved in? Like are you kidding me? That I should be interested in that? I don't read them. I don't open them. It's like, there's just no way. So should I also be part of a self-organized gym and a self-organized this and a self-organized that? There's no way.
[00:41:11] JS: Yes, yes. So is this – yes.
[00:41:12] TR: What do we do about representation? How do we discern what I have to be involved in? How do we figure out how to have a voice in places where I don't have a say in a meaningful way?
[00:41:22] JS: Well, that's it. This distinction between voice and decision-making I think is really important. This is why I just continue to ask this question about scale. Any future optimal, better governance structure has to acknowledge fundamental limitations with respect to scale and decision-making and execution at scale and balance that with voice. I appreciate that sociocracy embeds an understanding of optimal scale for decision-making in a way that actually has everyone feeling good about the outcome. But it also is inherently fractal.
I'm very interested in liquid democracy because it balances some of the benefits of direct democracy with the issues of representation. But we're all inundated with information. I find that the biases towards decentralization for decentralization’s sake sometimes also in a way that just stalls nascent organizations before they can even get off the ground.
There is something really important here too that we haven't touched on that I want to ask about, which is about trust. There's an interesting thing about trust with respect to sociocracy because it is, one, very important, and it is also a system which just better engenders it. So can you speak to trust, how you think about trust with respect to sociocracy?
[00:42:43] TR: Yes. I think there are two things here. But I think from a sociocratic point of view that makes this interesting, one that we have already touched on a bunch, and that is just the whole concept that you make decisions on things that you understand and people that you understand. Just a smaller – yes. Just a human size of a circle and all of that, like what can a human understand?
That, of course, induces trust because you know these people. They have a face. They have a name. They have a shared history and all of that. That is a big thing I think. It also, of course, increases the sense of belonging and all of that, the psychological safety around that. Those are all factors that are big. I mean, do you want to have a voice in everything? Or do you want to be thoroughly understood in fewer places? I think that's an open question for me, for example.
But the other piece is, I guess, trust and accountability really are close together for me because so many times, people think of trust as the interpersonal and the accountability or the systems level of everything, almost like a zero-sum game. A you can either be nice or you can be effective kind of a thing. But it's going to be a zero-sum game, right? It can be both, right? They're like, “Wait. But that plays the two against each other.”
I think in trust and accountability, we can see how they're so closely together. For example, if you drop things left and right, if I send a circle an email, and they don't respond within two days or within two months, it will deteriorate my trust. So higher effectiveness and better efficiency can also increase our trust with each other, right? That's a big deal, and that's often not clear to people that I work with. They’re just like, “No, don't give me this effectiveness is going to make us less approachable kind of thing.” I just genuinely completely don't buy into that trend. so trust.
I guess one thing that sociocracy offers is prevention of conflict and maintenance of trust and increase of better connection via data systems. So that's really what it offers.
[00:44:36] JS: Yes. Well, again, I appreciate not just the consent piece of it but also, again, there's just such a culture of feedback so that things that will create conflict aren't held in or inefficiencies for that matter. At the end of meetings, you always check in about that meeting and do we want to do it in a more effective way next time.
I also want to ask a question before we wrap because this is actually something that we have talked about in the conversation here and actually organized a class on nonviolent communication for the community. Again, when you talk about what are the limitations, limitation number one that you mentioned was the people. Can you talk about NVC and how you see NVC relating to and complementing sociocracy?
[00:45:20] TR: Yes. Big, big, big ways. So it's kind of the other tool that we’re closely related to. Actually, myself on the border scene, I see right now because, actually, it’s so important. Here's what it looks like. In my mind, people need to be able to be self-responsible. That means they need to understand themselves, including their own needs and behaviors and all of that.
Basically, they need to better be able to take care of themselves and then of each other in an interpersonal way so that then they can show up for a circle because if everybody is involved in their own drama, we don't even have to talk about a collective aim. We don't have time for that then because we're so busy with our own drama.
For me, in a way, NVC and all of the social technologies that help people just be more self-responsible are like a precondition to even talk about something like sociocracy. So that's why we know that, okay, sociocracy is great. But the people aren't ready, so we – not only because of that. We've already been into NVC before. But then my focus shifted a little bit to like, right, so lots of people need to be ready because they're not. NVC is one of the tools. It’s huge. It's like one of the basic building blocks for everything.
[00:46:26] JS: Yes. No, it was totally transformational for me in my life, and it's one of my favorite conversations because it's taking a lot of these very lofty concepts that we're talking about and landing them in our behaviors. And shining a light onto the ways in which we relate without even thinking about it, because that's the way that we've always related. Or reflecting the very things that we want to change. If you really want to build these new systems, you have to change yourself.
Is there anything that you're seeing now in the landscape? Tell us a little bit more about your work at Sociocracy For All and just what you're seeing in the current moment.
[00:46:59] TR: Good question. Well, one is figuring out those points of limitations. That's really what's on my map right now because we saw the personal things. Then the information flow was something that I spend a bunch of time thinking about, just like what would an information system look like, technology use look like, that would help us. Ultimately, I think it's still fighting windmills. But we could at least do that a little better.
Then the other one is fitting into the economic systems and the legal systems. So those all three points where I see friction – because sociocracy in itself, I think, is just absolutely brilliant. Then it creates this friction with the people, with the information flow, I haven't fully wrapped my head around. But then with the external system, like legal and economic and education, for example. So those are the points of tension that I look at myself.
What's interesting right now is that self-governance or self-management in general have just become so much more mainstream compared to when I started. I remember years ago, I would go to conferences, and nobody had ever heard about such a thing and just looked at me with big eyes like, “What?” Now, if you go to conferences that are close to that, anything related in the field, and people go like, “Ah, yes. Cool. Sociocracy. What kind?” Just like, “This is cool. This has changed.”
But that also means that now the number of clients are not going to go and go like, “Help, we need conflict resolution. Help, we need this. Help, we need them to see. How are we going to do salaries?” That increases. It’s like a second wave of we're not necessarily even pushing sociocracy anymore as much. But now, we're pushing all the follow-up things that come. So that's where we’re busy.
[00:48:31] JS: I mean, that must be something that's very valuable about just… I think the increase in conversation about decentralization that Web3 is fostering.
[00:48:40] TR: Yes. Then for me, personally, what I'm interested in is actually something that I just want to mention that really quick because I want to move the conversation along, and it sounded like you were doing the same thing. That is decentralization for decentralization sake. It’s just really, I think, a limitating factor. What I appreciate about sociocracy, and I used to talk about sociocracy as a way to decentralize decision-making, which isn't wrong. but it's also just part of the picture because now, I'm thinking more about, okay, but what are the things that we want to centralize. What makes sense to centralize? So what are those conversations? What are the unifiers? I'm actually in the process of writing a book that looks at kind of multi-level selection. What are the unifiers on a team level, unifiers on an organization level? So that we get that more clear and have a more balanced overview of the dynamics so that we don't just do this whole decentralization thing and think that it will solve everything because it's just half of it.
[00:49:33] JS: Yes. I think it's really interesting to think about the distinction between decentralization and democratization. Just because we're decentralizing doesn't mean that everyone is deciding everything, right? This has been great. Again, I think that this is one of these topics that everyone needs to understand. Having these foundational conversations has been a backdrop for really thinking about what does Web3 enable? I think it will really make those conversations so much richer. So I just really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with me and talk about all this today.
[00:50:08] TR: Well, thank you for having me. This was quick. Thank you, Jenny.
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