Consensus’s big brother: Sociocracy

It has always struck me a odd that the decision making system most often employed by radicals and revolutionaries (in my experience) is a conservative one.  While group culture can certainly effect it, consensus tends to gravitate towards the status quo, especially for complex or tricky decisions.  Unable to convince everyone to try something different, the group will often keep doing what it has been doing.

conservative revolutionaries

I was talking to Tree on the phone about this phenomenon and she mentioned that one of the things she discovered in her research on Sociocracy was the opposite tendency.  Most people who examine this Dutch developed decision technique walk away feeling like it is a more ornate and slightly different flavor of consensus.  But I think Tree has identified the critical cultural difference.

Like consensus, Sociocracy uses a collection of decision making tools to help it guide the group towards resolution.  There is however only a small amount of overlap between these tool sets.  Sociocratic elections ask “who is best to do this job?” first, rather than “who is willing to do this job?” which often results in different people being selected than other selection methods.  In my experience when the Twin Oaks visitor team was using Sociocracy, when we did it right, we could dramatically reduce the amount of time we spent talking about topics, especially by using the quick reaction round technique.  This was where everyone in the group gave just a single sentence response to the proposal.

Sociocracy as the next evolutionary step in decision making systems

Sociocracy as the next evolutionary step in decision making systems

[The above graphic distinguishes Sociocracy from consensus in a way many, including Tree, find problematic – see her  comment.  On the question of whether Sociocracy is importantly different from consensus, we might disagree.  Tree feels it is well inside the large consensus family.  I think the different aspects make it at least a different dialect, and possibly even it’s own language.]

The full set of Sociocratic tools and structures dwarfs formal consensus in size.  There is far more overhead in learning Sociocracy.  And central to the difference in these two cultures is how blocks are different.  In both anyone can block.  In (what I think are the better forms of) consensus decoding the blocks is the groups responsibility.  Even though it often comes from a single person, the collective needs to elaborate it and then see if the proposal can be modified to address the blocking concerns.

In Sociocracy, the pressure is flipped.  Your block needs to be “reasoned and paramount” if you can not convince the group it has these attributes the block does not stand.  This is one of the ways sociocracy is progressive, rather than conservative.

This would not satisfy the Sociocrats

This would not satisfy the Sociocrats

The other, which Tree pointed out in our chat, is that Sociocracy has numerous built in tools for designing temporary solutions which will be tried out and then evaluated.  Sunset clauses are regularly used in consensus, but in Sociocracy, everything is up for periodic evaluation, with an eye towards correction and refinement.

The cultural assumption of Sociocracy is “Let’s try something new, and make sure we have safeguards in place to protect us if something does not work.”  While consensus more often says “if we can’t get the whole group to agree on changing, then we are better off staying where we are.”

But culture is mushy.  I’ve been in consensus based activist groups which did our process on the way to the action – we started with the assumption that we had to constantly be doing things. Our critique was that  the status quo around us was not working and our job was to be change agents.  The culture of that affinity group was constantly advancing new things and trying novel techniques.

Just as easily you could get a persuasive intellectual in a Sociocratic setting who was always framing their objections in reasoned and paramount ways.  And it would turn the organization into a discussion group.


[On a personal note: I have been remiss posting on this blog recently.  It has long been my personal adage that “Excuses are like cotton candy.  They have a sickeningly sweet taste but there is not much there, really.” But in case you are curious, it is influenced in by extended family visits from Willows half brother Fabian from the Netherlands and his half sister Rachel from Death City visiting Twin Oaks. These lovely encounters have thrown further out of whack my engaged (not busy) schedule.  Thus resulting in fewer blog posts.] 

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

7 responses to “Consensus’s big brother: Sociocracy”

  1. Tree Bressen says :

    A few comments:

    1. You wrote: “In (what I think are the better forms of) consensus decoding the blocks is the groups responsibility.” I have long taught that for consensus to work effectively, groups must have a robust response to blocks, especially if blocks are threatened or exercised inappropriately. Systems for this vary. Probably my favorite is from N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, which mandates that anyone proposing to block must convene meetings with others every two weeks for up to three months in an effort to find an acceptable alternative–if they fail to do this, their block is automatically lifted and the group proceeds. Cohousing groups, like the Occupy movement, have voting fallbacks (usually super-majority) in their bylaws in case consensus is not reached. Quakers allow the facilitator to overrule blocks deemed inappropriate, even blocks by several people at once.

    2. For clarity, i am firmly in the “sociocracy is a flavor of consensus” camp. It’s a direct Quaker spin-off, it aims to get everyone on board before moving forward with a decision, etc.

    3. That second graphic is, um, very problematic. Do we really want to conflate democracy with voting? No way! And because sociocracy is a type of consensus, several of the phrases listed in the last column have been used by generations of non-sociocratic consensus trainers. Also autocracy can be wonderful in some circumstances, it depends on the situation.

    For further reading on consensus, blocking, and other process topics, see my website at Cheers!

  2. Ethan Tupelo says :

    In general I agree with what Tree writes above. In addition, while I wasn’t on the visitor team at the same time as you, we still used sociocracy for my first two years or so on the team, and overall my experience was far more negative than my general experience with consensus. My summation of sociocracy is that the process is more or less the first person to propose wins. Meaning, if you get a proposal out there, there are little ways in which it can be altered by people who don’t have major concerns, and the blocking bar is set fairly high. We ended up dumping that process (or at least most of it) mainly because almost everyone was feeling unsatisfied that the process left so little time for discussion, and we were often suspending the rules to allow for a more consensus-style discussion because that was what needed to happen for people to be able to get behind a proposal. Overall, I would say that the process seemed to leave us with officially passed decisions where there was significant lack of group buy in for the decision. Even with increasing the potential discussion time, the visitor program team has drastically cut the total number of hours spend in meetings over the last 7 years since I started (although a lot of this is not a result of cutting out sociocracy). To be fair, my experience with sociocracy was limited to this group and one or two others, and there were really only a few people in those groups who were really into it as a form of decision making; the rest of us were just along for the ride.

    I’d also point out that almost all of the smaller consensus-based activist groups I was involved with in my later years in DC (as well as my former Twin Oaks labour collective!) had some form of standard for blocking. It was usually something like you were saying that the proposal would work against the core goals of the organization (there were many different ways of formulating this), but it was a similar concept to the “reasoned and paramount” standard for sociocracy as it was explained to me. Occasionally we had checks in place, such as you had to have one or two non-blocking people agree that someone was blocking for what the group considers to be a legitimate reason to do so, even if they don’t agree with the block itself. We never had anything as involved as Tree’s description of N Street Cohousing, but I agree that there needs to be some strong standard for an actual block besides someone simply not liking a proposal (or not understanding that a consensus block is not like a no vote in a voting system). Whether the consensus groups that I was involved in got this as a process idea back from sociocracy or from the decision making reflections and failures of some of the anti-IMF/World Bank organizing (talk about some consensus disasters!), I can’t say. The high standard for blocking is good, but blocks are just the ultimate ‘nuclear option’ when things go really wrong. In a well run process, something has gone seriously wrong if you got to a point where someone actually blocks at that stage. The bulk of a measure of a decision-making process is how well reasonable concerns with a proposal can be addressed in a reasonable amount of time, and sociocracy left many of us feeling like our concerns weren’t important enough to be addressed in the process. Sociocracy has a lot to offer in terms of specific tools and process ideas (as do almost anything that can be added to a consensus facilitator’s toolbox), but I definitely don’t think it can be considered an evolutionary step up in decision making.

  3. leavergirl says :

    Tree is a very knowledgeable person doing good work, but has in her decade+ long insistence that “sociocracy is but a flavor of consensus” held back a new method and new understanding, IMO. Sociocracy is underlain by another way of being and doing. But folks who have bet their whole lives on consensus want to keep that fiction alive… along with the old canard that if consensus drives people crazy, they must be doing it wrong and need more training.

    Well, no problem. The main thing is that sociocracy is out in the open now, getting the exposure it deserves, and people can choose.

  4. Tree Bressen says :

    I call ’em like i see ’em. Last i checked in with her about it a few years ago, Sharon Villines (co-author of the only US book to date on sociocracy) had come round to the same viewpoint as me.

    I’m enthused at the emergence of sociocracy and any other approaches that people find helpful. To my mind the insistence by early US sociocracy fans that the decision-making portion of it is not a form of consensus has muddied the waters quite a bit and caused unnecessary confusion. I have been frustrated by continual comparisons of a perfect sociocratic process against poorly run traditional consensus process that shows the latter as lacking, especially since these “straw men” comparisons are typically offered by people who don’t have much real experience actually implementing the process they are praising. It’s taken me years to get through all that mud to the “piece of the truth” that Pax wrote about in his post based on his conversation with me: that the most important difference in a sociocratic consensus process is setting the cultural default to “yes, we are likely to move forward on this!” That distinction is important and exciting, because i do recognize that the most common problem consensus groups encounter is getting bogged down in concerns.

    After years of talking about sociocracy with people in the communities movement who did not have sufficient experience with it to answer practical questions, i finally got to have a conversation with John Schinnerer who is more knowledgeable based on broader applications, which was enormously helpful. Unlike new converts, he understands what sociocracy does and doesn’t do, and when to mix and blend it with other methods and formats to meet group’s specific needs. Personally i’m far more invested in groups working effectively together than in any particular method, thus my years of volunteer labor on the Group Works deck ( which is available for free download.

    • paxus says :

      i am not claiming sociocracy is perfectly run and i have been at plenty of enviable consensus mtgs. And what is true for me is that a number of the sociocratic tools are useful and can be imported into consensus (especially quick reaction rounds and best candidate elections).

      And it is (in my understanding a bit like trying to compare voting to parliament. Consensus is a decisions method, sociocracy is a governance system. It makes no sense to do sociocracy in something small, you need to have a group that is too big to comfortably fit in one room OR that is doing lots of different kinds of heterogeneous things. Sociocracy is rich with none block charts and learning circles and interlocking systems. Casual consensus, where you sit int he room and bang it around to you figure it out to no ones objection, and hopefully some enthusiasm is what i recommend for smaller or less complex groups.

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