To decide or not to decide

3 decisions every young organization will make — with intention or without

Starting and growing a young organization is a tender and complex process. In setting up a new organization, we have to make three decisions:

  • Where do we put our energy?
  • Who is part of this new “we”?
  • How do we make decisions?

Each of those questions will be decided in any organization. Either it will be decided intentionally, or unintentionally. Either the decisions will serve the young organization and its members, or they won’t.

The longer you linger in the maybe-this-maybe-that phase, the more you are like the donkey that could not decide which pile to eat from first until it died of starvation.

I will decribe what I see in the context of sociocratic organizations, even though a lot also applies to non-sociocratic organizations.

Where do we put our energy?

Many organizations start with a vague idea. Let’s build a community center! Let’s make an app! Let’s put on a pride festival!

The idea then gets fledged out more and more. As excitement spreads, more and more ideas are added to the original idea. How do we choose what we do first? And what to do maybe never? We can get stuck between two options:

  • If we don’t focus and we do it all, then our young organization will be spread too thin.
  • If we focus on a few selected topics, we will disappoint people who were burning for “their” idea. Some organizations are shying away from defining their focus because they want to give room to ‘whatever emerges’.

The downside of keeping the aim emergent but vague is that, possibly, nothing is going to come out of your efforts. Remember that we form an organization to meet needs, and if we don’t find any way forward, we will not be able to meet those needs. Sometimes doing something is better than doing nothing.

It’s useful for organizations to move ahead and clarify what the actual aims are. We call an aim a description of “what we’re actually doing”, for example “offering legal advice to cooperatives” or “building and distributing an app to facilitate neighborhood support”. The more clarity you have, and the more on the same page you are, the more easily decisions will be made, and you will be able to kick into action.

If you notice that you have two or three different aims in the organization, you could split the group. Separating into different action groups does not have to be a “failure”. You may form 3 separate but connected organizations, or you may form three separate teams within the same organization. That’s better than staying together and doing nothing because we can’t agree on which project to work on. Many aims contribute to the same vision, and it is great to have a mutually supportive set of organizations with aligned visions. And we can still be open to emergence because no aim needs to be cast in stone, we can revisit and adjust in a way that’s just as flexible as we want to be.

Who is part of this new “we”?

A young organization will often have a core group and a wider circle of people who are cheerleaders but are not directly involved. As founders of an organization, we hold pride in our growing numbers of members. Still, things get muddy quickly with more people, even faster when money or responsibility are involved. Some groups start out volunteer-run, or, in a start-up situation, with just the promise of pay in the future. Membership fees, going in on financial risks, earning provilege to access resources of the organization, these are all issues that require intentionality and clarification. Discussions about “fairness” and rights and responsibilties are just a matter of time. Who is actually in, doing the work, taking the risks? Who is a cheerleader on the sidelines, waiting to see whether this new organization is gaining enough traction to be worth the effort? In other words, who is in, and who is out?

Parallel to defining the “what”, defining the “who” is essential to growing an organization but it can be a painful process to get to that clarity. It might mean making decisions about who is invited, who gets an offer, who is paid. Even more care and transparency is needed in defining the invitation for membership in the organization and membership in a decision-making circle.

The point is that the lack of clarity around membership does not serve anyone. Yes, we want to be inclusive. But some organizations confuse inclusiveness with indecisiveness. And being indecisive has a hidden cost. If no one knows who has authority to make a decision, forward motion comes to a halt, with frustration rising. We are not getting out services or products out in the world. The community center never forms. The app never gets written. And power will go somewhere. The core circle might starting making the decisions autocratically without transparency. Even though this is often done with the best of intentions, neither a scenario of concentrated power nor the system of a power vacuum supports an organization in moving forward in a sustainable and just way. Some might stay away, because the invitation was not clear enough or because they felt put off by their sense of an intransparent core group. Or they might leave, worn out from the lack of forward motion.

Our preferred way to move forward is to be forthcoming and clear. Like a cell needs a membrane to function, our organization needs a membrane. And as soon as we are willing to have the membrane, we are also able to define what we want that membrane to look like. How permeable do we want our membrane to be? How does one join? How do we reach out? How do we make sure everyone knows they are invited? How can people who are not members stay informed and involved? How can we hear feedback from members and from non-members? If you tiptoe around the question of membership, you won’t even get to answering those questions. With time, the problem will just “solve itself” by people dropping out.

A transparent and clear process will make it easier for people to join and to stay. You might lose a few early members by defining your membership but you gain a strong “we” that is inclusive because know how you invite and include new members.

How do we make decisions?

Since you’re reading my article, you will know that my clear recommendation is to use sociocracy for decision making. That’s true — and so obvious that I don’t talk about it here — but that’s not all. It’s not that easy.

In an amorphous stage of a young organization, aims, membership and decision making are unclear. But in order to create clarity, we need to make decisions. But who makes those decisions? On what grounds? In what way? There are a lot of chicken-egg problems here!
We have talked to numerous organizations in this phase, and the pattern is always the same: a few people want to create clarity and might prefer a particular system (like sociocracy), and a few people don’t see the benefit and are resistant to any kind of structure. Since there is no system in place, there is no system in place to select a system.

The absence of structure gives rise to backroom decisions, bias based on gender, race and class (as described in my article The Myth of Natural Flow). Absence of structure gives people a disadvantage to people who cannot afford to waste time in ineffective meetings, and it wastes the time and life energy of people who have good ideas and are willing to act. Absence of structure leads to ironic situations like what a client told me “Everyone in our organizations wants to look into sociocracy to improve our decision making but we can’t hire you because we can’t even make the decision to hire you.” It sure was a good chuckle in the moment but I am very sad when I think of the many young, inspiring efforts that fall apart in that phase — not because they lack good intentions or passion or willingness to put in the work. It’s because they have been burnt by oppressive structures so often that they throw out the baby with the bathewater and shy away from structure altogether.

What can you do? The first step is to help your fellow members understand that gaining clarity on our aims, our membership and our governance serves your purpose more than anything else. As for being inclusive, nothing is more inclusive than an intentional system that ensures equivalence and effectiveness. Once you have established a consciousness that being intentional about your system is better than staying stuck in the middle, picking a system is a piece of cake.

Build just enough structure to get your organization off the ground. Don’t over-build but create a context in which you can act. A good governance system, like sociocracy, does not confine you, it frees you by creating enough clarity so you can act.

Then, little by little, as you grow more experienced and build your own culture, tailor the aims, membership policy and governance system to your needs. No policy you set in the beginning has to stay that way. Create a policy and review it in 6 months. Review it again after that. See what works and learn from it.

In proposing a first structure, it works best to be forthcoming, transparent and explicit. I have seen well-intentioned founders of organizations push a circle structure because they wanted to distribute the power they hold — and then, ironically, they were accused of imposing a structure. Being explicit about their own paradox (proposing a structure so they can share power), will make the process smoother and easier. Work with feedback loops: propose a structure and ask for feedback. Work in the feedback and propose a better structure. Lovingly persist in pushing for a decision so you will gain clarity but stay open to concerns and feedback.

Remember that any living system will create order. Order is natural. Let’s pick the order that we want. We need systems that ensure equality and keep us from becoming rigid. That unleash the power we all have and help us contribute our best to the world. Good systems help us be self-repairing organizations that grow and adapt both on the inside and the outside. Good systems support us in serving our mission.

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