Governance

Governance is the way we organize and steer ourselves as a group, how we achieve our common purpose. In cohousing governance is how we develop our communities and keep them alive. How we make decisions and decide what decisions to make. Who can make them? Who leads? What is our purpose?

While it is often assumed that a governance system cannot be both efficient and inclusive, Sociocracy meets both needs at the same time. Sociocratic tools maximize effectiveness and consideration of many voices. When all individuals are respected, decisions are more sustainable over time.

Consent

Consent is defined as “no objections,” not agreement or endorsement. Sociocratic groups use the word “consent” to place emphasis on each person as a necessary part of the group bringing unique perceptions and skills.  Consent means you believe that a policy is “worth trying.”  Or “I can work with it.” No decision is made “forever.” It is made as “good enough for now” and to be evaluated as soon as new information is available.

Objections

Objections are made when any member of a group believes a proposal could be improved to better serve the aims of the group. Objections are welcomed and treated as opportunities to use everyone’s creativity to improve the proposal. They are reasoned in relationship to the aim of the circle and the individual’s ability to participate effectively and enthusiastically toward the aim of the circle if the change is made. There is no standing aside in sociocracy. Every objection needs to be addressed and each person take responsibility for consenting to the group going forward, even if they don’t agree or the proposal doesn’t affect them. 

Consent Decision Making

A decision is made when no one in the circle has an objection to the proposal. The following steps are used to achieve consent.

  1. The facilitator ensures everyone understands the proposal, for example by doing a round of clarifying questions and answers.
  2. A quick reaction round. Each person shares with the group their reaction to the proposal: “It sounds ready to discuss,” “it isn’t ready— too confusing,” “I need a lot more information,” “I have some suggestions but I like it” etc. On the basis of the reaction round, the facilitator, in consultation with the group and the policy presenters, decides if the proposal is ready for discussion and possibly consent or needs more work.  If it will be referred back, there might be round that specifically focuses on needed changes so the presenters understand what is needed.

    If the policy is ready for discussion and possible consent, consideration will continue in rounds on specific issues, open discussion, dialogue between 2+ members, etc. There are many group  process skills that can be used here to clarify and resolve objections. The circle can also offer amendments at this point.

  3. The consent round: every circle member is asked whether they consent to move forward with the proposal. If there are still objections, the facilitator in consultation with the circle decides if continued consideration might be helpful or if the decision should be carried over to another meeting.

Sociocracy emphasises the “good enough for now” principle. Decisions are not made for eternity but instead, every decision has a review date. It is easier to make a decision for a shorter time period, and the group gains experience on the subject to incorporate into the next iteration of the policy.

Everyone in  a group shares responsibility by making a decision together. A healthy group dynamic is achieved when every member of the group either contributes their wisdom in the form of an objection, or accepts the decision and the shared responsibility it represents.

Advantages:

  • Accountability and trust
  • Continuity and building of shared history and expertise in circles
  • Learning over time in iterative cycles: many decisions over time instead of a few, big decisions.
  • Clarity on the group aim and intentionality to reach it
  • Experimentation and empowerment for individuals and teams to try out new things

Challenges:

  • Consent requires listening and willingness to understand and take each other’s needs seriously.
  • Training is needed both at the start and on an ongoing basis.
  • Each circle needs to fill certain roles. Many people in roles are needed and need to be trained.
  • The step-by-step processes that many find  easy and helpful may feel formal and constraining to others.
  • Some people are uncomfortable trusting small circles to make decisions that affect others. Groups that lack trust and accountability may struggle with sociocracy as the process  reveals those edges. 
Delegation

As a governance system, sociocracy combines consent with distribution of power.  

The larger group divides overall responsibility into domains (areas of responsibility) and each domain is assigned to a circle or a sub-circle. Clear domains ensure every circle knows what to do. In this way circles are empowered to act and complete necessary tasks. These smaller groups of those with the most knowledge and responsibility for ensuring results is able to specialize and focus. Decisions about both policies and operations are delegated to the smaller circle, not imposed by the full membership. Delegation encourages the leadership and self-organization that creates a stronger whole.

Circles

All circles are nested, with a General Circle as the “center” circle that connects the main circles by double-linking. For each main circle, two people (often called leader and delegate) are part of both their main circle and the General Circle. They ensure that information flows between the circles, reporting from their circle (and it’s sub-circles) to the General Circle and bringing information from the other circles back into their circle. The General Circle does not have a power-over relationship with circles—it delegates power to circles. General Circle meetings serve as a place to exchange information, get support for the circles, assign new aims, or resolve issues that individual circles have not been able to resolve. It is a wider forum for sharing information and ideas.

Some communities have a “board” or mission circle that is double-linked to the General Circle. Often including circle members from outside the community, this circle attends to the overall direction of the community. While the other circles pay attention to week-to-week tasks, the mission circle’s focus of attention is over a span of years and topics that affect more than one area in a community. For example, affordability or aging as overarching topics. Having a mission circle for a community is a good strategy to bring in new ideas and stay intentional as a community.

Circles may have as many as about 40 members or as few as 2-4. The size depends on the number and complexity of the decisions to be made and the number of people responsible for the domain. Members will probably be members of more than one circle

Roles and Responsibilities

A role is a “bundle” of tasks and operations decisions. The holder of the role is selected based on qualifications and by consent, for a defined term. The holder of the role is empowered with the authority of the role as defined by the circle. Filling a role tends to be more gratifying than completing individual tasks, while increasing expertise, sense of ownership and accountability.

Role Definition and Selection

The holder of the role is selected based on qualifications and by consent, for a certain period of time. During that term, the holder of the role is empowered to fill the role the way the circle defined that role’s authority. Filling roles by consent after discussion tends to be more gratifying than ad-hoc assignments and at the same time improves the building and rewarding of expertise, a sense of ownership, and accountability.

The method for assigning roles is a process of nominations, a discussion of the strengths of each candidate and consent. Members can add and change their nomination until a person is chosen by consent. Volunteers are not requested (though people can nominate themselves), and the person nominated is not asked whether they will serve until the process is finished.

Process Roles

Each circle will have the following roles to support the function of the circle and perhaps other roles related to its domain. 

  • leader – pays attention to the circle operations overall
  • facilitator – runs meetings
  • notetaker or secretary
  • delegate – participates in the parent circle’s meetings
Double Linking

In sociocracy, the double-links establish a communications and feedback structure by interlinking circles to form a circular hierarchy. 

From each sub circle the operations leader and one or more elected representatives serve in two circles, the sub circle and a main circle, forming overlapping circles. The same kind of links connect all the circles. These links are responsible for ensuring that information flows throughout the governance structure.

This structure is responsible for maintaining continuous feedback which is essential in sociocracy as it contributes to continuous improvement.

Feedback

Feedback plays a big role is sociocracy. In reaction rounds, sociocratic elections, meeting evaluations, policy review and conversations on role improvement, feedback is constructive and honest. It requires skill, trust and responsibility to give and receive feedback effectively.  Many groups find this challenging and benefit from additional training in communication (e.g. Non-Violent Communication, Imago Relationships work, or similar).

Full Community Meetings

Depending on the legal structure and the specific implementation, very few decisions are made in the large circle. With most policy making and task management moved to smaller teams, the “whole community” meetings can focus on other tasks: connection, celebration, learning and giving feedback to circles.

Some decisions may be reserved exclusively for the full community. The full community may also discuss decisions for which individual circles need feedback, and they may meet to discuss community issues as feedback to circles rather than making the actual decision.

Asynchronous decision making and video calls

Particularly for groups familiar with working at a distance, it is possible to do the decision making process asynchronously (outside of a circle meeting). As stated above, each consent decision consists of three steps: (1) Understanding the proposed decision, (2) resolution of objections and amendments, and (3) Consent Round. Most groups can do the first two phases asynchronously where people read a proposal and ask questions and respond using online tools. Unless the group is experienced and has the tools to work asynchronously, It is necessary to limit this to simple responses.  Long threads of responses may indicate that a meeting is needed. 

For some groups, the process of meaning-making for complex topics and resolving objections will require the consideration and shared sense making best achieved in a synchronous circle meeting. In a similar way, consent can be gathered in an asynchronous manner when information has been full communicated. While most groups are accustomed to deliberating and making decisions together in one place, groups that work in other ways can also use sociocracy.

The advantage of asynchronous work for answering of questions and first reactions is that a large number of people can be included, for example when a circle wants to float a proposal to the whole community before making a decision as a circle. Feedback on proposals or ideas can easily be gathered by email or electronic or paper surveys.

Getting Started

As you begin, the following tools give you a taste of sociocracy and begin developing the skills you will need for full implementation.

Rounds – In a round, each person is given an opportunity to speak in order.  A person may pass. Rounds are particularly effective in smaller groups and generally result in  calmer, more focused energy.

Define aims for circles and delegate authority – experiment with giving circles some authority and see what it feels like. Does the circle perform the tasks with consideration and transparency? Can we learn to trust circles to take on more responsibility? Role satisfaction and participation tend to increase as more authority is granted and efficiency increases.

Consent process and meeting format – Follow the three step structure for consent. (1) understanding (2) reactions (3) decisions.  See whether it makes your decisions more orderly and calm.

The Cohousing Association thanks the following contributors for the content of this page:

CohoUS Staff, Ted Rau, and Sharon Villines