Supporting networks with sociocracy

Combining the strength of sociocracy and the beauty of networks

My interest lies in advocacy and skill-building around self-management. The more people know and the more clarity and common ground we have in how we understand our forms of collaboration, the more we can be in choice.

I have no interest in telling groups — networks or organizations — in how they ‘should’ work. This article is showing ways in which networks can benefit from sociocracy, a governance system intended for organizational self-governance.

Sociocracy — core principles

Decentralize authority into nested circles

Authority in sociocracy is decentralized, i.e. we try to push authority into circles. Each circle has its own defined aim and domain, i.e. the circle knows exactly what they are tasked and allowed to do.

Circles are connected by (double) linking, i.e. two people are part of both the parent circle and a child circle, to ensure flow of information and to make sure no circle can over-power the other.

Consent decision-making

The decision-making in each circle for policy is consent, i.e. a decision can be made when no circle member has an objection to the proposal. Objections are defined as negative interferences with the circle’s achievement of the circle’s aim. They are owned by the circle and are resolved together.

Roles are created and filled by consent, i.e. a person can only fill a role in a circle if there is no objection to that person filling a role, for example of the facilitator or a more operational role.

Continuous improvement

The principle of planning-doing-evaluating (aka lead-do-measure) is baked into every step, from the micro to the macro level. For example, meetings begin with an opening round and a collectively owned agenda, and they end with a meeting evaluation so meetings improve over time.

In the same way, policy is made with intentionality and requires a review process after a time interval set by the circle.

Sociocracy’s strengths for networks

From the perspective of networks, sociocracy offers strengths:

  • High level of clarity which supports transparency, agency and alignment. Often, conflicts arise from lack of clarity; also, inequality thrives on lack of transparency, so creating communicated clarity also supports at least the opportunity for more equality.
  • Local decisions allow for organic and localized growth wherever it is needed and desired. Decisions to adapt the structure in an area of the circle structure are easy to make, leading to a highly dynamic structure over time, also allowing for temporary groups.
  • With its decision-making, meeting format and conversation format (rounds), sociocracy is inclusive and oriented towards humans interacting as peers.

Networks are traditionally peer-oriented, non-hierarchical and purpose-oriented. Both networks and sociocracy embrace emergence and self-organization, leading to a high level of alignment in their values. In a way, sociocratic organizations represent a ‘networkized’ version of organizations already.

Tools and concepts in particular useful to networks

More specifically, there are several tools and concepts that can make collaboration and exchange of ideas easier.

1. Tools for co-creation of proposals

Proposals (for policy, for role descriptions, for any summary statements) can be co-created. Sociocracy uses the process of what we call picture forming and proposal shaping (see video) — the main characteristic being that ideas are gathered in rounds, one by one, with no interruptions, no talking over one another, no shooting down each other’s ideas. Instead, the process supports the building and integration of ideas in a co-creative way.

→ Any informal group can use these tools, including networks.

2. The inclusive meeting format and consent

The agenda for any meeting can be co-created as well. Oftentimes, someone in the group will prepare and propose an agenda, but the ultimately, the responsibility lies in the circle that has to accept the agenda by consent before the meeting begins. Rounds ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard. (Article on meeting format)

Consent decision-making ensures that everyone’s needs can be considered when decisions are made. Yet, with the standard set to “good enough”, only reasoned objections will stop a decision from being made; therefore, there is a clear bias towards action. (Video on consent process)

→ Any meeting can follow the sociocratic meeting format, and any informal group can make a consent decision in the moment about how/when they meet, where they put their attention and how they approach their time together etc.

3. Linking

The principle of linking is a way to connect decision-making groups. In a traditional sociocratic implementation, linking always goes both ways:

However, also single (one-directional) linking can support flow of information between groups for cross-pollination and more transparency.

→ This will occur naturally in networks but can be added intentionally if group see value in strengthening a particular connection, for example communities of practice that are all connected to one support circle.

[Sidenote: a link in traditional sociocracy is formal in that a person who is a link to another circle has consent rights in that other circle. This can be useful but does not seem necessary in communities of practice since they don’t make decisions for the whole anyway. (See below.)]

4. Circles with domains vs. communities of practice

The concept of a domain is foundational in order to understand the nature and brilliance of sociocracy. Any circle has an aim and a domain. The aim is a description of what they are asked (or self-mandated) to do from their peers. The domain is the area of authority they are given by the collective to do their work. For example, a group tasked to re-design a website has to have authority to access and change the website — otherwise, they won’t be able to do much. I think the term “domain” should become a household term for organizations! It is the term that creates the clarity needed to ask for permission and be granted permission, therefore unleashing any kind of action.

Domains have to be clearly assigned. For example, if two groups have full access over an entire website, tensions are just a matter of time. Of course, any group can request temporary or limited access, but someone needs to “hold” the website as a domain, commit to taking care it and to building institutional memory and expertise in that domain.

Domains (and consent) come with the requirement of defined membership: in order to know whether each circle member consents to a proposal, we need to know who the members are of that circle. For example, someone who is not part of the website circle can’t just walk into a meeting and object to a decision. In the same way, no one can just call a meeting to change the website without coordinating with the website circle.
Membership is open but defined, i.e. circles can — by consent — welcome new members. That way, the well-being and progress of decision-making groups are protected while keeping the structure dynamic and welcoming.

→ Any group in a network that has authority over shared resources will have to operate with clarity over who can do what. Examples for shared resources in networks are website, logo, name, funding, email lists.

All that said, if you’re a network person, this might seem too “structured” and limiting to you. And that’s correct because there are groups outside of what I have described here: there can be groups that meet that don’t hold domains. Their purpose is merely for exchange of information and learning. They don’t steward a piece of the network’s resources.

In sociocracy (following the jargon established by the sociocracy handbook Many Voices One Song), we call these groups communities of practice. There is no limit to who can gather, either as an established group or in ever-changing constellations. Anyone can call a group on any topic, and anyone can participate in those groups, even from “outside” the network. Since there is no domain (i.e. shared resource) attached to these groups, there are no constraints for communities or practice or gatherings. For example, anyone who wants to invite people to a gathering on “exploration of the manifestation of white supremacy in stock photos” can just do that. There could be 3 or even 300 groups talking about the same topic which does not lead to doubled or competing effort but instead just to more learning and mutual understanding in the network.

Therefore, circles and communities of practice differ in whether they have a domain. Circles have a formal domain, communities do not. Both can exist in organizations, to varying degrees — depending on the nature of the organization.

5. Separate decision-making from feedback

The basic idea of sociocracy is that it is easier to hear each other in small groups. In small groups, we can build trust, get to know each other and build history. The somewhat counter-intuitive observation is that if a group is small and established, this group will have a much easier time to process additional information together. That means that a well-running, small circle of 5 people will be able to receive and interpret feedback from 50 people outside the circle more easily and come to a decision than a group of 55 people could if they were in the same room making a decision together.

This means that sociocratic organizations will have to separate decision-making from receiving input. Small groups make decisions. Large groups give input. Or even more to the point: because small groups make decisions, many people can be heard and considered. It is the responsibility of every circle (and role) to ask for enough feedback to make a well-informed decision and to communicate their decisions back into the larger context. For example, if a website re-design happens, a website circle of 5 could survey 50 or even 5000 people and make a decision based on what they have learned. It is standard protocol of a sociocratic circle to get feedback as it seems necessary. It is also common for people in roles (imagine them as circles of one person with defined authority and tasks) to get feedback from trusted individuals or circles — some refer to this as the advice process.

→ This principle is highly valuable to networks since it ensures hearing the voices of many people in the network. We can at the same time hear many people and empower small groups and individuals to make decisions if we have clarity on the difference.

6. Variety of levels of involvement between participants

In the same network, some people might be putting in 40 hours a week, some people might show up to a few events. How can we hold that variety?

One of my favorite features of sociocracy is the packaging of tasks into roles. For example, one person might be doing the role of day-to-day maintenance of the website for the whole network. Some roles might include a lot of hours of work, some might only need action 2x a year. Whatever it might be, we can package it in a way that’s organic and tailorable and distribute the roles according to time commitment, experience and occupation. Policy, on the other hand, is made by peers in circles. So it is well possible to have people who hold many-hour-roles and less involved people in the same policy-making circle. The separation of operations (in roles) and policy-making (in circles) helps tailor the distribution of workload and power between staff and volunteers, more involved people and less involved people etc. The key word here is intentionality — distributing tasks the way it makes sense with a clear sense of choice and consideration.

A working hypothesis

My working hypothesis is that organizations and networks are only gradually different and that it helps to understand which parts are what.

The question of open/closed membership

If decisions are made by ever-changing groups, it is hard to maintain coherence for forward motion and building of shared common ground. The group meets one time and has a sense of next steps — just to see the part of the group replaced by new faces the next time. As mentioned above, in sociocracy, membership is defined and does not allow walk-ins in decision-making. Does this mean sociocracy is not compatible with open networks? The short answer is: correct.

However, if we consider the difference between circles and communities of practice, we can refine this. Decision-making circles require defined membership, and communities of practice do not. Any community of practice can be as open and fluid as they choose to be. That’s why knowing the difference between both is so crucial.

Organizational parts of networks

Many self-identified networks have organizational parts. This could be around the tasks that are performed by staff, by a hosting committee, a project team or whatever entity creates the infrastructure for the network. The principles of sociocracy carry over 1-to-1 to those organizations within networks. Many networks also have communities of practice which will be much looser, more spontaneous, potentially with open membership and less need for coordination between the communities of practice.

On the other hand, many organizations (especially in but not limited to the not-for-profit sector) will have communities of practice. An example could be a social justice interest group within a workplace.

It’s about the ratio

My working hypothesis is that networks and organizations differ in the ratio between circles and communities of practice. Networks might have a minimal number of circles to create the necessary structure while allowing for lots of loosely connected communities of practice. (Sociocratic) Organizations have their mission and distribute the working towards the mission between. In addition, they might also support connection in communities of practice that might be ‘sprinkled in’ as people feel inspired. For example, my own employer is a sociocratic non-profit that provides training, resources and consulting around governance and also hosts interest groups and communities of practice, for examples, for sociocracy trainers.

Groups — both communities of practice and circles — have a sphere of influence around them. The more learning happens in a group, the more people will talk about it and carry their learning outside of that group. This might be outside of the circle, the community of practice, the organization, or the network. Those overlapping “waves of energy” are the glue between people, and they don’t necessarily align with any formal structure.