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Weeknote: Bringing greater equality into decision making

My positive intention for 2022 is to keep a regular online diary on my experiences as a Producer. This one is mostly about sociocracy. Actually we’ve published a Catalyst guide to writing weeknotes, which I found really helpful in writing this, and in setting my intention. It fits with our ethos of working in the open and this regular practice will also serve as a reflection space for me. I hope it’s useful to you too, my friend. I welcome your feedback! 😄

Reflections on consent-based decision making

I’ve learned that there are different ways to approach decision making, in a more collaborative way than I’d ever experienced. We attended a session introducing sociocracy last week, hosted by Outlandish. Outlandish are an awesome worker owned co-operative who are actively using sociocracy to make decisions. Ellie and Siana (my co-Producers and team mates) had more experience in this way of working than I. We felt it was important for the whole team to attend though, so that everyone would have a shared understanding of how sociocracy works — it turns out it can be interpreted and implemented differently depending on the context. In having this learning experience together we could also strengthen our bonds as a new team.

So, what is sociocracy?

Well, it seems it can be described in many different ways. I like the simple version; it’s consent-based decision making. There’s a brilliant introductory article by Jennifer Ted Rau from Sociocracy For All (SoFA) which states that:

“Sociocracy upholds two fundamental principles:

organisational effectiveness, i.e. realising the organisation’s aim and purpose effectively and efficiently; and,

the equivalence/equality between organisational members, honouring everyone’s voice. No-one is silenced, no-one is ignored, no-one is oppressed, no-one holds power over another. In sociocracy there is safe, protected time for everyone to speak and to have their voice respected and their views considered.”

This resonated immediately. I felt I’d been attempting to practice elements of this for years as a business leader, but didn’t have the language, tools, or framework for it. In order for this to truly work, other elements need to be in place within the organisation (or group). For instance, to achieve true equality between members, there will need to be the correct structure in place to enable this. The culture of the organisation or group is hugely important too; if there is an open and trusting culture it is more likely that people will feel able to voice any concerns.

Decentralising power

Sociocracy is therefore also a tool to help redistribute and decentralise power. Even in hierarchical structures, leaders can choose to give freedom to the team and more autonomy over decisions. Rather than exercising ‘power over’ and deciding for people.

This caused me to pause and reflect on the structure and culture of the social enterprise I’d previously co-created with my business partner. We worked extremely hard to create an environment where we hoped that all voices could be heard, leading with as much authenticity and openness as we could. We created an environment where feedback and honesty was valued and encouraged. Our team told us they greatly appreciated this. Yet we emulated a traditional structure — albeit a very flat one — but a hierarchical one nonetheless. Power was mostly centralised with us as the Directors and the wider senior leadership team. We were collaborative in terms of setting the vision and goals with the team, but we didn’t give team members autonomy over budgets for instance, or decisions over hiring and people management.

On reflection, I wish I’d known about the sociocratic principles when we were scaling. I think it would have benefitted the business and the team hugely as a social enterprise focussed on equality and diversity; sociocracy allows more diverse voices to be heard. We were halfway there, but as neither of us were experts in governance and structure we adopted what we’d previously known and experienced, which of course was centralised systems of power and control (which in many sectors, even in tech, is the norm).

At the beginning when there’s just a few of you the tendency is to follow sociocratic principles naturally, as you’re all considered equals. As the team grows, the questions about how you want to structure it and approach the governance become a lot more relevant. It’s easy for scaling organisations to lose the essence of what they set out to do, by failing to identify that organisational structure, operations and governance are central to the realisation of their vision. Governance is not considered an exciting topic generally, but I’m beginning to appreciate it a whole lot more through working with two self-professed governance geeks!

I have a new found appreciation for the ethos of Catalyst and the ways of working which enable us to practice what we preach. This quote sums it up — and applies to broader struggles within society at this moment in time, too:

“The struggle for our future is not between East and West or North and South, but everywhere between those who believe our only alternatives are dominating or being dominated and those working for partnership relations of mutual respect, accountability, and caring.”

Extract from Riane Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Course

Good enough for now, safe enough to try?

One of the core definitions presented to us during the course was ‘consent is acceptance, not agreement’ (John Buck).

This seems important because if we seek consensus by 100% agreement as a group, decisions can get very stuck. There is a huge difference between agreeing to something wholeheartedly and accepting that it feels OK to try it. The framing of ‘is it good enough for now, and safe enough to try?’ works well to gain consensus. If there are no ‘critical concerns’, or these have been aired and mitigated, we can tolerate a range of concerns and accept that it’s safe enough to try. 👍

This diagram neatly illustrates the range of tolerance with acceptance, and gives an example of an objection;

Image courtesy of Outlandish, sourced from training slides

In essence, the process follows a series of defined steps in order to make consensual decisions as a group and during the training we practised these steps fairly rigidly. The image below outlines the basic process;

Image courtesy of Outlandish, sourced from training slides

Someone will bring a proposal to the group and we’re seeking to either pass it, or reject it. Instead of seeking agreement, we’re asking if anyone disagrees. We’re checking for ‘critical concerns’. Critical concerns are welcome, because they can hugely improve a proposal. If someone has a concern, that can be OK, as long as it’s not critical (safe enough to try). It’s therefore also important to define what a critical concern might look like and what the ‘range of tolerance’ might be, which can of course differ for each individual.

Sociocracy and Non-Violent Communication

At first I really wanted to reject this framework. When it was my turn to facilitate, it felt clunky and horrible. I failed at following the steps in the right order. My most recent pathway has been one of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). I use this in my facilitation lightly, in terms of checking for feelings and needs and reaching a broad consensus. What initially bothered me about sociocracy was that the language utilised just seemed to be so negative.

I remembered that when I first learned NVC it felt really clunky too. There was jargon and a framework involved. One of my main initial objections was that it could alienate some people. Yet I can honestly say that it has changed my life (that’s for another blog post!) Reflecting on this, I consciously decided to stay open to the process. Gradually through the course of the day I moved from rejection to a begrudging state of acceptance. I began to see how beneficial this could be as a tool and a practice for creating equal environments where everyone feels heard and valued.

Of course, like anything, it’s open to abuse. In the words of Kayleigh, one of our trainers, it can end up as ‘militant sociocracy.’ For example, if the the person bringing the proposal also then facilitates the discussion. Or if there are pre-existing ideas or perceptions about power dynamics relating to the person bringing the proposal. However, I’ve seen these type of things play out in other forums, even when sociocracy isn’t being used. At least it gives you a fighting chance at some equality and potentially a forum for calling out these abuses of power.

Our trainer Aaron stated that ‘there is no sociocracy without NVC.’ It made sense to me. It became apparent that people’s observations, feelings, needs, requests and how they communicated really had a bearing on the outcome. As a facilitator, being able to draw upon NVC as part of the toolkit felt wholly appropriate. Empathic listening is important if you are to really hear people’s critical concerns and delve into the needs behind them.

The Catalyst team had a debrief following the session. We decided to adopt this practice and see how it goes (none of us had any critical concerns!) I felt gratitude for working in a place where there is no need to completely reconfigure the organisational structure to redistribute and decentralise power, or do any work on the culture as a prerequisite. We already have the conditions in place for this to work. Ellie has been testing the principles with the wider network too, via the initiative leads circles. There will be more reflections from us on that in the future.

Domination structures are devoid of love

As a team we’re now swiftly moving from the team ‘forming’ stage into ‘norming’. One of the regular heartbeats we established in our routine is a weekly meeting to talk about ‘what’s on our radar?’ This is a moment to discuss what we’re reading, listening to, watching, or anything which has inspired us really.

Last week, because we’re all reading ‘All about love’ by bell hooks, it was a natural choice. I could write a whole piece about our shared reflections on this and how it is also relevant to our work (maybe I will!) Keeping it ‘on theme’ though, I will use one extract from bell which chimes with sociocracy;

“Domination cannot exist in any situation where a love ethic prevails. When love is present the desire to dominate and exercise power cannot rule the day.”

So, if you do choose to dismantle structures of domination in favour of a more bureaucractic / sociocratic approach, you are by definition welcoming in an ethos of love. This links nicely to my previous reflection piece on working with love as a core value. I’m excited by the prospect of working with more equitable, adaptive and regenerative networks and organisations.

Reflections on the week

It’s not all plain sailing at Catalyst. It was our first full week back after a long break, for which we were all thankful. We’re all acutely aware that there is a huge amount to be done. At present Ellie holds a lot of the existing workload due to being on the team before Siana and I. This brings up questions about how to reorganise this in the interests of equality, and where we may need broader support.

We’re grappling with maintaining ‘business as usual’ which involves holding multiple projects and needs at any one time, with the ‘gargantuan’ review (Siana’s words!) which will help us set a new vision collaboratively with the network, and define what comes next. We’re wading through murkiness in terms of ways of working, shared processes, tools, rituals, and still getting to know one another.

But I have faith that the answers will begin to emerge, and that we’ve got this. It’s also OK to sit with some ambiguity for just a little while longer — thank you Dan Sutch, for that timely reminder! 🙏

Some further resources on sociocracy, taken from the Outlandish resources:

The Outlandish workshop we attended — highly recommended!

Decision making doesn’t need to be painful, even when you’re remote. An Outlandish blog giving an interesting example of passing a paternity leave policy collaboratively.

Abi from Outlandish on how to write a good sociocratic proposal.

Sociocracy 3.0

Ted Rau on the validity or otherwise of objectives.

Strategies for integrating objections from Sociocracy for All.

The difference between individual and organisational decision-making by Doug Belshaw.

Using consent asynchronously (and some helpful insights into objections) with Loomio.

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