“The sounds of self-governance clashing” - Interview with Sociocracy Expert John Schinnerer, The Sociocracy Consulting Group, by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com
“Sociocracy vests power in the “socius,” the companions, the people who regularly interact with one another and have a common aim. Decisions are made in consultation with each other, in consideration of the needs of each person in the context of the aims of the organization.
By contrast, democracy vests power in the “demos,” in the population, without respect to their understanding of the issues or of each other. In a democracy, the majority of the “demos” can ignore the minority of the “demos” when they make decisions. This inevitably produces factions and conflict rather than harmony. It encourages people to build alliances, trade favors, and think politically rather than achieving the aims of the organization.”
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Interview with John by Willi -
What are the foundation values in the sociocratic method?
There are three foundational values, and three foundational principles. As in permaculture design, specific applications of sociocracy are built by implementing the values (ethics) and principles within a given context.
The foundational values are equivalence, transparency, and effectiveness.
Equivalence means individuals that are part of the organization function as peers in deciding how to accomplish their collective aims (the aims of the organization - what the organization does in the world). This is based on observations of how self-organization happens in living systems.
Transparency means the parts, or elements, of the organization (organism) have access to all the information they need within the organization to fulfill their role in the organization. No secret meetings, no secret agendas, no secret budgets, and so on. An organism that has incomplete or incorrect information about its own functioning is less likely to function effectively.
Effectiveness means moving (steering) towards collective aims though action, feedback, and adaptation cycles - using design methods and processes, avoiding "analysis paralysis," being a "learning organization" that keeps taking steps towards its aims while "harvesting mistakes" resulting from steps taken.
The values are interrelated and synergistic - for example transparency supports equivalence, and vice versa.
The principles are consent, circles, and circular feedback ("double-linking"):
Consent - policy decisions are made by consent. Consent exists when there are no remaining objections to a proposed policy decision. Objections must be relevant to collective aims. That is, they must be more than personal preferences - they must relate to what the group is trying to do, as a whole. Objections provide useful feedback; an objection may contain information that helps improve the design of a policy.
Circles - organizations consist of one or more circles. A circle is a semi-autonomous and self-organizing element of an organization, with its own domain (area of work/responsibility) and aims (products and/or services it produces). "Circle" is the generic term for a group organized around specific work, and typically corresponds to other names we use such as departments, divisions, teams, committees, etc.
Circular feedback ("double-linking") - Double-links implement a circular feedback structure within an organization. A double-link between one circle and another is formed by two people who are full members of both circles. Each of the two circles chooses one of the links. Double-linking ensures that information moves in both directions between circles, increases integrity of information transfer, and enriches the overall perspective of both circles.
Again, the values are interrelated and synergistic, with each other and with the values. Or, as we would say in permaculture, each element supports multiple functions, and each function is supported by multiple elements.
For example, circular feedback supports semi-autonomous circles, and transparency. Double-linking is a design that supports transparency, and, circular feedback. Consent is a design for implementing equivalence, and, semi-autonomous circles.
How do you understand the decision-making process in permaculture as compared to the sociocratic process?
To start with I will take this question to refer to the processes used to make decisions in a permaculture design - for and about the design itself. That is distinct from what decision process - what governance system - a design team, permaculture business, etc. uses among its members.
From that perspective, both use a design approach, design methods, design processes. I describe sociocracy as a design system for organizing work and making decisions to guide that work.
Fundamentally, a design approach uses some form of a cycle that moves from observation, to evaluation, to implementation, and back around to observation. We may come into the cycle at any point, we don't always start with observation; in permaculture observation is usually identified as the "first" step in a design process.
A sociocratic organization, or a circle within that organization, looks at what it is trying to do in the world (or some part of it), looks at the world (or some part of it), and evaluates that observation to determine what to do, what to implement. The (inter-)action - the implementation - is then carried out, and the result measured and evaluated against what was wanted, what the desired outcome was. If the consequences of the implementation don't match what was wanted, some changes are determined for the next implementation, and the cycle repeats. This is essentially the same as permaculture design process, or any archetypal design process.
The answer is a bit different if I shift perspective to comparing decision processes used by permaculture design teams, businesses and organizations with decision making processes in a sociocratic organization.
The nonprofit permaculture organizations I know of use a "default culture" (board-centric, top-down, voting-based) governance system of some type. Most design teams I've seen use some combination of "default behavior" and bits and pieces of other systems such as consensus decision making, various forms of preference voting, and plain majority voting. Businesses I have enough information on appear to use one of a collection of "default culture" business management/governance systems, somewhere on a spectrum from owner/leader/founder autocratic to voting-based cooperative. The sociocratic approach is not on the spectrum as far as I know, and, I'd love to hear from organizations who are using it or think they are using it.
Envision a sociocratic process at the Standing Rock confrontation? How would you lead such an effort and would you need to project potential solutions to the participants before beginning your program?
An answer depends on what scope of the situation at Standing Rock we are working with. I'll assume this is about the whole context, which means the pipeline company and its supporters, the government agencies involved, and the protestors rallied against the placement of the pipeline as currently planned.
A pre-condition of possible success with sociocratic processes is consented common aims. At present this condition is not met, in the context of Standing Rock - there are divergent aims, at least in the context of the conflict on the ground. There is a fight going on. Any projection of potential solutions, other than win-lose "solutions," would need to be at a meta-level to the current activities.
As with permaculture design, we would need to back up and look at the situation from a larger perspective. Leading such an effort would mean asking if the parties involved are willing to take larger perspectives, and to use those to find common aims on which to base a design solution. Also, looking at what might motivate all involved to do this, rather than simply continue the fight.
One system that could have value is a Social Ecology approach. This article about the situation at Standing Rock is written by two experienced Social Ecology consultants and trainers and indicates how application of Social Ecology methods might have prevented or ameliorated the current situation. Such methods might also be used to improve understanding in the current situation, and would be complementary to a sociocratic approach to designing a resolution other than someone winning the fight and someone losing.
Sociocracy is itself a specific type of social ecology system, but is primarily designed to serve groups that already have consented common aims they are working towards together. The broader "Social Ecology" approach that starts with all parties increasing their understanding of each other’s social ecologies is one way to uncover common aims that could make use of sociocratic methods to generate design solutions.
Many are feeling anger and sadness concerning the Trump victory. What is your sociocratic remedy for the nation?
There's no purely sociocratic remedy, because the systemic changes needed go beyond mere "politics" or even governance systems in general. Fundamental cultural changes are needed. That said, a sociocratic approach is a design approach and so it would offer significant benefits over any win-lose approach, for the human organizational elements that need changing.
There is a necessary synergy of cultural and ecological design implicit in this question, and in our contemporary situation. The systemic problems are manifold, and include (but are not limited to):
1) Political boundaries are not aligned with ecological boundaries.
2) Political boundaries are "hard" and absolute, whereas ecological boundaries are ecotones, "soft" areas where multiple systems overlap (most "political" boundaries were more like ecotones before the adoption of contemporary nation-states).
3) Authority over ecologies is held by people or organizations who are not competent to manage those ecologies.
4) Economic systems are designed and implemented that fail to integrate and/or lack adequate feedback from ecological systems.
5) There are multiple issues of inappropriate scale, authority at a distance being a primary one.
6) Decision methods and systems are majority-based and have win-lose outcomes, rather than being design-based.
7) The primary focus of governance systems is who is winning and how to win, rather than actual governing for human and ecosystem well-being.
Any "remedy" needs to be a culturally and ecologically integrated one.
Some of my colleagues ponder how to apply sociocracy to existing systems of governance - that is, what would a sociocratic state or federal government look like? To me that's an inadequate question. It doesn't address most of the systemic problems. We need to look to the living systems we depend on for our existence, and use what we learn as a basis for re-design of our governance systems.
First off we need to correct obvious "type one errors" in our designs, such as those listed above. Some possible starting points include basing our economies on actual ecologies (the root of the words is the same, but we have separated them); basing political boundaries on ecological boundaries (and political accountability on ecological health); transitioning from "hard" political boundaries to political ecotones; using common aims and consent-based design processes to make decisions; and shifting our governance systems to appropriate scales for their human and ecological basis.
Closer at hand, what we say and how we think about our political outcomes is also problematic. This morning I heard an NPR interview with a Democratic congressman from Ohio. The interviewer prefaced a lead-in question by saying "The people of Ohio voted for Trump...." This is factually incorrect. 52.1% of the people in Ohio who voted, voted for Trump. The other 47.9% voted for someone else. Imagine what might shift in our words, and minds, if in these cases we hear the facts - we hear the interviewer leading in with "52.1% of the people who voted in Ohio voted for Trump...." The question that followed would have to be at least somewhat different than one following "The people of Ohio voted for Trump...." The whole conversation would have to be different, because it would explicitly acknowledge the near complete polarization of people who voted, in Ohio and other states as well as nationwide.
It would seem apparent that many businesses are competing for the same clients, sales and profits. How could Apple and Samsung engage your services for the betterment of society?
I'll take the key phrase to address here to be "...for the betterment of society."
The financial bottom-line value that might accrue to a business from implementing sociocracy would not necessarily guarantee consequences for the betterment of society. A business might choose to implement solely because of economic benefits (higher employee engagement, lower turnover, increased innovation, etc.). However, the cultural change that would happen within the company would have ripple effects. We can only speculate on eventual consequences of those ripples now - there are just not enough large long-term examples yet.
A mature sociocratic organization would have some qualities that could affect everyday culture, including but not limited to:
1) Equivalence and transparency as implicit cultural norms, with specific implementations in structures and processes.
2) Consent, via design processes, as the basis for policy decisions.
3) Feedback, evaluation, and adaptation built into all decisions.
4) Clear delegation of authority, with clear limits, to clearly defined roles, by consent of those affected, and accountable to those affected.
5) Members who can clearly distinguish between their various roles and their "self" as a whole.
6) Members who can clearly distinguish their personal preferences from their input or feedback relevant to the organization as a whole.
If everyone who works for Apple and Samsung is living these and other qualities, is living sociocratic values and principles at work, it will likely affect how they live, or at least how they want to live, outside of work. It may also affect how a corporate entity "lives" in the world as well - how it interacts with employees, allies, competitors, communities, and so on.
If sociocratic values and principles can lead to betterment of society, then large companies becoming sociocratic can both directly and indirectly lead to betterment of society.
Do you always use the sociocratic method for internal decision making at The Sociocracy Consulting Group and Governance by Design? When isn’t this method useful?
Yes, The Sociocracy Consulting Group operates using the Sociocratic Circle Method (SCM). The SCM is a specific implementation of the general values and principles, the social and political philosophy and theory of sociocracy. This is similar to permaculture as a specific implementation of the broader philosophy and theory of ecological design.
As to when the SCM is not useful, for us or any organization, that distinction is largely built into the SCM. That is, the SCM can be, and is, used to determine when to not use sociocratic structures and processes, but to use some other structure/process. In general, the reason to use some other structure/process is that it will be more effective for that piece of work. This will be what we call "operational" work.
Sociocracy makes a clear distinction between "policy" work and "operational" work. Broadly speaking, "policy" is the guiding or steering of the organization, and "operations" is the day to day work of the organization. Operational work implements policies. Policies guide operational work. Where the boundary between policy and operations lies will be different for different organizations, depending on what they do and how they do it.
We use sociocracy (the SCM) to determine what ought to be delegated as operational work. Operational work is carried out using whatever structures/processes are most effective for the work at hand. Operational work is directed (managed, guided) by operational authority. Delegating operational authority is a policy decision, so it is made sociocratically, with transparency and equivalence, and by consent.
Operational authority simply means authority to do whatever work is delegated, without further need of consent from others. The delegated group or person is consented as qualified and trusted to get the job done, and they are authorized to go do it, and there is feedback in place to measure if it is getting done.
Is biomimicry useful in your work?
I would say that biomimicry is one of several conceptual frameworks that are congruent with how sociocracy is designed and used. Biomimicry, like permaculture, is about observing living systems and their elements, functions, and interactions, and applying what is observed to human designing.
Sociocracy, as implemented by the SCM, is essentially similar, but with a focus on human systems, human interactions and behavior. The structures and processes of the SCM and its derivatives are informed by cybernetics, systems theory, and research on self-organizing systems, as well as by aboriginal practices such as Council and more recent cultural influences such as Quaker meeting practices.
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John Schinnerer (john.schinnerer at sociocracyconsulting.com) is a whole systems design consultant, teacher, and facilitator who develops cultural and ecological systems for a variety of public, private, and nonprofit clients. Since 1996, he has studied, worked, taught and published in the realms of human relations, governance and decision-making systems, appropriate technology, and ecological design. He applies his wide-ranging observations of and experience with cultural and ecological systems to all aspects of his practice.
As a founding member of The Sociocracy Consulting Group and principal of Governance by Design, John brings to bear awareness and integration of existing and potential cultural patterns in his inclusive approach to organizational design, governance, and facilitation. John has a Master's degree in Whole Systems Design, with a focus on cultural and ecological systems. The methods, tools and techniques that he offers invite clients to maximize clarity, honesty, and integrity while also enhancing individual and group effectiveness - in other words, to get things done and have more fun!
Sociocracy means self-governance by associates, colleagues, companions those who work together. It provides both an organizational structure and a method of decision-making, and scales well even to large organizations. Sociocracy can transform traditional frameworks of ownership, compensation and leadership selection, and can be implemented in all types of organizations: traditional businesses, nonprofits, cooperatives, employee ownership organizations, and community and grassroots organizations. Sociocracy supports organizations to be more effective & transparent. Those doing the work are in charge of their work, and also responsible to the organization as a whole.
Willi Paul (willipaul1 at gmail.com) lives uncomfortably in the grey spaces between the present and the future, integrating Permaculture, Transition, New Mythology and SpiritNature. Please see his iBook for a summary of his vision work at Planetshifter.com.
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Enjoy an upcoming workshop with John.