Differences between whole-group consensus and Dynamic Governance (sociocracy)
Over the years, dozens of cohousing communities worldwide have adopted Dynamic Governance (DG, internationally known as sociocracy) as a governance model. My own community adopted DG in 2012, after 18 years of whole-group consensus. By pure happenstance, I joined immediately after.
So, what’s different in DG compared to whole-group consensus? In DG, decisions are put into small, distributed, transparent teams instead of deciding everything together in a large group. Those small groups are the decision-makers on whatever we “give” them as a domain on an ongoing basis.
That’s different from what some people are used to. While there are proponents for either strategy – “we decide everything together” vs. “let’s decentralize and focus” – it’s evident that the experiences of sociocratic communities will be different from those run with whole-group consensus.
Here are the main differences I can point to:
- Onboarding. We can’t expect people to know how DG works when they move in as new neighbors, so it’s on us to make sure people get trained. (And In my experience, learning by osmosis is not enough to learn DG and understand why we use certain processes.)
- Small group decision-making gives us the opportunity to use different, inclusive processes like rounds. Rounds can take a little while to get used to and take new nuances of facilitation skills for facilitators.
- Small group – large group dynamic. People who move into cohousing typically want to experience their community as a whole. For many, that means that they enjoy experiences where everyone comes together. For communities that govern by whole-group consensus, the community meetings serve that need, but whole group meetings focused on decision making may be tense and difficult. In decentralized decision-making in small groups, the plenary meetings might still exist, but they serve a different purposes: feedback, education and community building. The potential of whole group meetings in DG is worth explorating to make good use of all-member meetings.
- Additionally, information flow needs to be looked at. While it’s probably not true to assume that in large-group decision-making everyone knows what’s going on in every aspect of the community, it’s even less true in decentralized decision-making. To quote my colleague Jerry Koch-Gonzalez: “When our community used whole-group consensus, everyone knew how little we were doing. In DG, no one knows how much we are doing.” A catchy joke, but there’s some deep truth in it: keeping people informed sometimes feels like an uphill battle given how many moving parts there are and how much autonomy circles have to do things.
- Information not only needs to flow from circles (aka committees) to community members but also from community members to the circles so decisions can be made by small groups with everyone’s feedback in mind. In my personal experience, the feedback flow back and forth between input-givers and decision-makers is a dance that can be tense, or joyful and rich.
- The legal interface. Many communities need to operate with an official board. How does the centralized power of a board go together with decentralized decision-making of a sociocratic community? There are several solutions I’ve seen in the field, and it’s definitely a topic worth more investigation and sharing of good practices.
- Like any other system we use in a community, DG needs maintenance and improvement work from time to time. How can a community steward the evolution of its own system well? What is a “good” system anyway, and how can we tweak and improve it?
To give sociocratic communities a place to talk and share their particular set of experiences, the nonprofit Sociocracy For All is hosting a trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) online conference on Sociocracy in Community on Nov 20. The presentations are about sharing experiences and particular topics that particularly apply to sociocratic communities, but may be useful to communities regardless of your choice of governance – for example:
- how to manage conflict, or
- connect the board in a decentralized governance system
- how to onboard new members when the learning curve is steeper than usual, and
- how to use plenary community sessions well for connection and shared learning.
The hope is to share, refine and inspire each other.
Ted Rau is a trainer, consultant and co-founder of the non-profit movement support organization Sociocracy For All.
He grew up in suburban Germany and studied linguistics, literature and history in Tübingen before earning his PhD in linguistics there in 2010. As part of that career, he moved to the USA and fulfilled a long-held wish to live in an intentional community. Since a career in Academia required more moving around than he was willing to do, he left Academia. Ted identifies as a transgender man, and he is a parent of 5 children. He lives in Pioneer Valley cohousing in Massachusetts.