Perhaps the biggest challenges to deciding whether to adopt sociocracy or consensus are the many things they have in common and the wide variety of opinions that exist both about which works best and even what the words themselves mean. Here we will attempt to summarize the most common understandings of each method in as neutral a way as possible.
Objectives – All collaborative governance and decision-making systems share largely similar intentions: collaboration, every voice is heard, dissent is engaged to improve outcomes, a high level of buy in to decisions, a strong sense of community. Among skilled groups that use either process successfully, the outcomes will be quite similar.
Training – Doing either sociocracy or consensus well will take training and practice. Books and online resources are useful, and groups generally have the most success when they receive direct support from a process consultant as they are starting out and on a regular basis thereafter.
Culture Shift – Both systems represent a shift from the mainstream competitive culture to a collaborative one. The skills and habits that make individuals successful in the mainstream may be exactly the opposite of what is needed to succeed collaboratively. Making that shift requires support and education from trainers and encouragement and patience from neighbors.
Relationship Support – Both consensus and sociocracy depend on the relationships between community members for consent or consensus to be achieved. Learning the structures is not enough. Communities do best when they include relationship training such as Imago Relationships or Non-Violent Communication.
Delegation to Small Groups – No community can make every decision in a group of 30-40 households. Successful communities delegate most of their decisions to smaller groups.
Because sociocracy and consensus have so much in common, the differences are often more a matter of degree than an opposing approach. For the most part, a practice included in one method also exists to some extent or in some way for the other. The variety among consultants and trainers further blurs the distinguishing features. The table below is intended to help those who are trying to understand the differences.
|Consensus can be defined narrowly as simply a method for making decisions, though most consensus consultants will recommend governance structures to support it.
|Sociocracy includes a circle-based goverance structure as part of its form. Thus this structure is built in from the beginning.
|Consensus has been around for a long time, and there are a lot of ideas about how to do it. While this makes for many great resources, there are also a lot of differing opinions and approaches.
|Sociocracy newer and thus has fewer texts written about it and less variation in approach. You are less likely to run into conflicting opinions.
|Consensus communities build their own consensus policies and procedures, hopefully with a lot of support and professional advice, but also with a great deal of freedom.
|Sociocracy has more built in structure and while it can be varied, the usual advice is to hold strictly to the structure as you are learning it and then adapt it as needed to fit your community.
|Consensus is a good fit for folks who want to create their own governance structure.
|Sociocracy works well for communities who are willing to adopt a structure and conform with the process.
|Most groups feel they are able to at least start to “do consensus” with little training. The upside of this is that it is easy to get started. The downside is that many communities don’t realize how much they don’t know and end up needing more help in the long run.
|Sociocracy requires investment at the front end to understand a detailed system of circle structures and meeting protocol. For some groups this early investment is too much and members are either unwilling to participate or follow only bits and pieces, which can lead to problems.
|Consensus works best when communities delegate a lot of decisions to teams or committees rather than the plenary.
|Sociocracy defines a structure of double-linked circles, each with clear aims and domains for making decisions and completing tasks.
|Tends to be conservative, meaning that it supports the status quo more than change. Once a decision is made, it is not changed except by another consensus decision unless it contained an explicit end date like a “sunset clause”.
|Sociocracy encourages ongoing improvement and builds in review of all decisions so that there is intentional change over time. The expectation of review can make it easier to get to a decision to begin with.
|Consensus trainers typically include a good bit of focus on “consensus culture” and supportive relationship skills. Additional training such as Non-Violent Communication or Imago Relationships training is also recommended.
|Sociocracy trainers generally refer communities to programs like Non-Violent Communication and Imago Relationships training as these skills are essential to well functioning governance. Some trainers include these skills in their sociocracy training.