Sociocracy in Brief

I’ve spent most of the last eight years studying and writing about sociocracy, a system of governance based on consensus decision-making. A seeming U-turn from the arts and fiction writing, but the many organizations I’ve been involved with over the years were striving for a social order based on inclusiveness and equality. I believe that sociocracy is a method of organizing and governing such a society.

In America, “sociocracy” is an unwelcome and tongue twisting word. Subconsiously and often consciously, it reminds people of “socialism” with which it shares a root word. And it is hard to say in English. A reader just returned from Europe to say, it’s a much nicer word in any other language but this one. In English,  the tongue gets lost somewhere in the middle. We’ve tried other names including dynamic governance, dynamic self-governance, and as in our title, a deeper democracy. None have surfaced as clear favorites although dynamic governance is used by many and deep or deeper democracy is taking hold.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) , a rapidly growing national organization of 15,000 organizations, uses dynamic governance in chapters across the country. The Center for Non-Violent Communication has used sociocracy, but has pulled back from using any name for its governance system because it was blurring their image, confusing NVC with sociocracy.

The idea of governance by the socius, those who associate together, began with Comte and was further developed by Lester Frank Ward and Kees Boeke. The first method that could be applied in a large organization was developed by Gerard Endenburg in The Netherlands. Endenburg studied cybernetics in the 1950s and when he assumed management of his parents’ electrical engineering company, he began to apply its principles to people management in the same way he had applied it in engineering electronics. Cybernetics is the science of communications and control and is related to chaos theory, complexity theory, systems thinking, and system dynamics. The feedback and feed-forward loops basic to systems thinking and system dynamics are central in in sociocratic principles and methods.

Sociocratic organizations use consensus as a decision-making method because it produces deeper commitment and more consistent follow through. Before Endenburg, no one using consensus decision-making had been able to figure out how to use it in a large organization, or in a production-dependent environment like corporations. While many corporations and other organizations use consensus decision-making in strategy sessions for top management, that was as far as it went.

Endenburg was able to extend consensus decision-making from the boardroom the loading dock by delegating decisions to hierarchy of interlinked circles. The circles are overlapped by two or more members participating in the policy decisions of both circles, both using consensus decision-making. This means that both circles, through these links, must consent to any decisions that materially affect both circles. This creates an organization that uses advantages of consensus decision-making, without the disadvantage of functioning as one group. The circle structure enables specialization and self-organization while retaining a strong sense of the whole.

My coauthor and I finished We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods in 2007 after five years of work. The task was to translate the concepts into standard, all-American English and to discuss it in the context of management theory. That had not been done. The result is the most comprehensive work on sociocracy and the only one written in English. Endenburg has two books translated into English but neither is comprehensive or in comfortable English.

The current project related to sociocracy is starting the Center for Sociocratic Governance. The focus of the Center will be educational programs and publications. And it is past time to revise We the People.