Learning from Sociocracy to Better Engage Supporters
August 10, 2023
Contributor: Weronika Paszewska
Progressive movements often struggle to develop practices to better engage their supporters and involve members in power sharing and decision making. In this article, we introduce sociocracy, revealing how it can reshape engagement practices, and bring transparency and collaborative decision-making to reimagine greater supporter engagement and work more efficiently towards mission-driven goals.
At Tectonica whenever we work with our clients we operate on the assumption (proven by the extended survey among European organisations that we did in 2020) that communication strategies are not enough for political parties to win in elections and for organisations to have the impact their mission envisions.
The element that is critical is engagement of supporters and members through mobilisation and organising practices that are rooted in authentic and honest relationships. Moving from an approach where organisations mainly inform supporters to engagement-based practices is never a straightforward change that just requires the implementation of one or two steps. It is an ongoing process, and this is why Tectonica achieves the best results from relationships with clients that last for long periods of time.
Transforming the way an organisation works with its supporters and members almost always requires a culture transformation within the organisation. This is the reason that it takes time and involvement across various teams and that it is hard to expect tremendous results overnight. Sharing power and decision making with your constituencies through decentralizing practices is important to establish the long-term commitment you need to achieve political change, either by winning electoral power for political parties or influencing decision makers for advocacy and constituencies-based groups. Sociocracy can help you in this process by providing structure and guidelines in order to not be lost in chaos while decentralising.
We believe that one of the reasons that progressives don’t win in modern times is short-term planning cycles. Strategy planning for one, or maximum 2-3, years and working only between election cycles are the most common practices (we often hear: “We cannot plan for longer as reality changes very rapidly”. We also empathise with this statement as well as the pressures of market realities and the high volatility of the world today. We see this in our own experience of running a social impact business at Tectonica). As truly engaging audiences in the ecosystem of an organisation involves cultural changes, it requires grasping a long-term perspective and also reflecting on culture norms and the organisation’s governance structure.
I felt and experienced that a command and control approach doesn’t work when you organise people power communities for a long-term political change where commitment plays a critical part. I experimented with loosening hierarchical structure at a digitally-first campaigning NGO and, together with a group of people, we brought sociocracy to activist work in the Polish Climate Solidarity Movement, with some valuable results. The path from this realisation to fully showing up differently as a manager or activist leader took some time for me. It was an ongoing process for me to transform what the surrounding culture had imprinted on my habits and attitudes. Discovering and practising approaches and methodologies that go against socially accepted norms is an art of persistence and happens when we keep reminding ourselves why we are doing it.
Sociocracy and Holacracy in recent years have gained greater popularity. I always gravitated towards organisational structures far removed from a conventional top-down hierarchy, emphasising a culture that minimises the exertion of excessive power and control. I first discovered Frederic Laloux's book Reinventing Organizations where he presents the concept of teal organisations (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it). Later I discovered Holacracy as a specific organisational framework registered as a trademark, and then sociocracy as an broad, very flexible approach toward governance and decision-making processes. This terminology might be a bit confusing. There are some differences between these terms. From my perspective what is important is these terms have more in common than what differentiates them. Below I will be referring to what I learnt from sociocracy and what it can bring as a governance structure and methodology to political organisations, and how they can benefit from it. Let's start with clarifying the term.
What is sociocracy?
It is a governance and decision-making system that is characterised by:
- Use of consent for decision-making processes (consent differs from consensus, check below to see how).
- Division of responsibilities to working circles that is clear and transparent.
- Two links connection between circles (two people from one group also sit in the other group for better information flow, which is important in informal groups with less structure in general).
- Selection of roles for people that are consent-based.
- Use of rounds as a meeting format.
- Evaluation and reflection as regular practice.
Here you can find a 20 minutes video from Sociocracy For All explaining basic elements of this self-governing system.
Between 2021 and 2022, we were developing a sociocratic structure of governance in Poland for the Climate Solidarity Movement. What I took from this experience and what I personally love about sociocracy is that it involves:
- Empowerment of individuals and a deeply rooted belief in their capabilities,
- Bringing the best of people through stimulating skills like: clarity of expression, arguments grounded in mission and objectives, good listening and putting ego aside
- Efficiency in decision making processes that allows many voices to be heard and for decision making to be fully informed,
- Transparency and clarity of the structure and processes that build trust and encourage new people to step into leadership roles.
How can progressive political organisations benefit from sociocracy?
Reason 1 - It strengthens involvement through autonomy and distribution of power
The most common blocker for political organisations to work more broadly with supporters and members, and through it unleash their true power, is preparing meaningful roles for supporters, so they see themselves as a critical part of the organisational theory of change.
The basis of sociocratic governance structures are circles (you can read more in Circles in sociocracy: an effective organizational structure). They can be used for supporter or member-led initiatives and activities. When we look at the various shapes that are used for looking at the supporters’ base, a sociocratic circle, with defined objectives and domain, could be used for the most engaged supporters as the circle needs to have ongoing commitment from its participants to be operational. It could be implemented for volunteer groups, local chapters of organisations or for specific thematic groups.
Reason 2 - It enables an organisation to be constantly rooted in its mission and objectives rather than more individualistic perspectives
This is the key attribute that has the potential to revolutionise the way you think about group decision-making processes. Sociocratic consent differentiates between individual preferences and ranges of tolerance and encourages people to always think about decisions in relation to the objective. In sociocracy, we do not ask who agrees with a decision (which is how consensus works). We ask who is opposed, which makes a huge difference. So, in sociocracy a decision is made when nobody opposes it and in the consensus, a decision is made when everyone agrees. (You can read more about the difference between consent and consensus in Make Good Decisions Faster: Move from Consensus to Consent or The Difference Between Whole-Group Consensus and Dynamic Governance/Sociocracy). To give an example, during intense pandemic remote meetings, where casual communication is limited, I used this approach in Zoom meetings to reach more efficient conclusions in the group. Instead of asking “Do people agree to extend our meeting for 10 more minutes?” I asked “Is anyone against staying 10 minutes longer?”.)
When people object to a decision (sometimes it is called “block”) then they need to explain it and provide arguments why the decision is not good in relation to the objective. This repeated reference to the objectives helps the group to be fully aware and aligned with them. Part of our work as consultants with Tectonica’s clients is clarifying objectives, as we lean so much towards tactics and activities. The amazing implementation of this form of small democratic practices is software called Loomio that we often recommend for higher activation of current members. Consent, when practised by experienced facilitators, could be a very efficient way of making decisions and bringing ownership to decisions, and through it supporting long-term commitment and engagement.
Source: Sociocracy For All
Reason 3 - It empowers more voices to be heard and introduces egalitarian practices
This is probably the most straightforward benefit. In sociocracy, people speak in rounds in meetings. It is truly an egalitarian practice that limits the usual dynamic when men speak first and more often and when extroverts and strong personalities take the majority of time. It helps to hear all voices and supports better decision making as we have more information available. It is a great practice that could be used, for example, at meetings with supporters or members where people do not know each other and when we are afraid that one or two people will take over the meeting. Rounds can be used for clarifying questions, for reactions to propositions, for the exploration of ideas and for consent in decision making.
Reason 4 - It brings transparency for better understanding and trust
Circles are the main operating structure of sociocracy and, because they should have defined the objective and domain that they are covering, they support everyone to have clarity about what people do there and the scope of their responsibilities. It can be very helpful for electoral organising when things happen very fast and some of the groups are emerging while others are disappearing. Having a clear division of responsibilities about volunteer groups and proper visualisation of it also helps for newcomers and supports the onboarding process, releasing a blocker for growth in critical moments for the movement. One of the tools that I have used in the past, and could be used for visualisation and transparency, is Kumu.
Warnings and Considerations
Not every sociocratic implementation results in success. In the Climate Solidarity Movement, over time, we came to realise that we had overly structured the functionality of circles and communication. This overwhelmed new members, as it was not easy to understand or practise in the initial stages. Therefore, we needed to make it more flexible and accessible by loosening its structure.
Sociocracy requires certain skills that are not common in all cultures and backgrounds, like the ability to express yourself, listen actively, or to express opposition in front of the group (critical for consent-based decision making). Sociocratic structures can help with developing those skills and from my experience it was something that was attractive to people, allowing them ways to learn new skills, and new ways of working in groups.
Sociocracy follows its own learning path, and gaining firsthand experience, including making your own mistakes, is important. Involving a person with prior experience with sociocracy is a good approach. There is not a golden solution for every person and every situation. During politically charged periods when operating in emergency mode and when time is most critical, or in situations where there is a big information gap between those involved in a decision, sociocracy might prove less effective.
There are various approaches to implementing sociocratic practices incrementally one by one - a la carte style. You can read further about these considerations here. My point is that practising individual elements can yield positive results. For instance, incorporating specific rounds of discussions for particular topics during meetings can greatly mitigate the back-and-forth dynamics that tend to exist among the same participants. Making critical decisions that will heavily affect everyone using consent could bring needed buy-in. Additionally, introducing a clearer division of responsibilities for certain groups or people can help with transparency. Sociocratic elements can be implemented in a bizarre way at times. We see this, for example, when an element like "disagree or commit" is introduced in a corporation that is operating top-down, without respect to workers' rights or voice. Intentions are crucial. The culture will build on its own whether you want it to or not, so it is best to approach this intentionally.
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