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.
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.
[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.
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.]