“Sociocracy is like permaculture for people”- Erin Young

Article by Alex Aguilar – Board Member

I think back to my first corporate experience as an intern for a prestigious company in Mexico. Although the pay was great and the work was relatively easy, I quickly realised there was a lot of toxic politics at play – I would hear whispers in the corridors about management, complaints about meaningless processes and how no one’s opinions were valued or needed; a rather dreary feeling that nothing would ever change. Back then, I wished there was a different approach to this ‘traditional’ corporate world.

I’m happy to report things weren’t that bad after that experience, and I have had my share of excellent supervisors and coworkers. Even then, sometimes it seems intrinsically hard to work in a group. At worst, I have inevitably ended up feeling like my voice didn’t matter all the time. I’m sure some of you will agree with me: this feeling that our voice doesn’t matter is detrimental to us as individuals, and also to the group’s work.

Dreaming of something different is what first led me to find permaculture. I think we have an obligation to do better for every living being on the planet, and yes, that includes ourselves. I also feel a tremendous sense of urgency. We’re at a time when climatic instability is affecting the world’s energy systems, which are becoming overwhelmed more often and with more serious consequences.

I don’t know about you, but ’overwhelmed energy systems’ is not how I want to describe 2023. The bucket is already full. Our traditional models and ideas need changing with the times, and they need to adapt as fast as possible. And this my friends, is where sociocracy and permaculture intersect, as options to try something different right now.

Permaculture is based on simple, core ethics and principles I resonate with – the foundations of Earth care, People care and Fair share. It is a framework upon which everyday actions align with ethical values and vice versa. It can be practiced anywhere in a myriad of different forms. Jonathon Engels wrote it beautifully in an article for the Permaculture Research Institute on “Why permaculture?”.

Also based upon basic principles, sociocracy focuses on the social aspect, covering the delicate intricacies of communicating effectively with other human beings in a group that aims towards a common objective. Much like Permaculture Australia’s mission of supporting, promoting and advocating for permaculture ideas, solutions and strategies. This is why the PA Board decided to look at sociocracy more in depth.

Enter Erin Young, member of The Sociocracy Consulting Group (TSCG) and a fellow permie. Erin helps organisations to be adaptive, responsive and effective by consulting in collaborative decision-making and governance, based in sociocracy. In August, she facilitated 2 sessions to a small group of volunteers and paid staff as a taster to sociocracy (Thank you Erin!).

The beauty of working in circles

From the get go – this felt different. We kicked off with an opening round where each of the participants got a turn to share their name and location, a word that described how we were feeling coming into the meeting, and a sentence that enshrined what we hoped to achieve through sociocracy. I had a turn to speak and a turn to listen. This opening round allowed a space for our collective intelligence to be informed for the meeting.

Erin defined sociocracy as a living design systems approach for organising work and making decisions to guide that work so it is effective, transparent and equivalent. A simple definition that carries a lot of complexity – much like people whenever we gather in groups!

We humans are influenced and bound by our past experiences with organisational culture. We are naturally wired that way. Therefore, sociocracy’s realm exists within invisible structures of power which are inherent to any group. These sessions with Erin served to “point to the fish, the water they’re swimming in”. Sociocracy allows us to envision a possibility where we can distribute leadership and design that organisational power effectively, transparently and equivalently.

We were encouraged to think about a system that changes and adapts. Since creating adaptive and effective culture requires long-term application & steady discipline (not always so attractive!), keeping it simple and working in small steps are key. Much like slowly building back up a parcel of degraded soil.

Communication sets the bar to how well we can work with each other –imagine how much we could achieve collectively with a very clear sense of purpose and existential equivalence.

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1. Existential equivalence can be felt in our human bodies. Each of us operate as a living system riddled with feedback loops, made up of self-organising parts doing their job in order to stay alive (achieve its purpose).

Credit: Laia Martinez, Wikimedia Commons.

The principles and elements of sociocracy

As we continued, we were introduced to the 3 principles of sociocracy:

1.  Circle organisation: any defined team or department with a specific aim and domain

2. Circular feedback or double-linking: keeping the whole system informed, adaptive and responsive to changes

3. Consent-based decision making: make decisions together that are “good enough for now, safe enough to try”, with clear measurements and timeframes, and no paramount objections

Contrary to a regular top-down system, Erin mentioned the importance of reasoned objections. She drew the example of someone going on a hike with a sore knee or ignoring the oil light in a car – without feedback, the system blows up. Specifically for the Sociocracy Circle-organisation Model (SCM), objections are welcome. However, objections are not an argument or a feeling, they are a reflection of how well the aims of the circle are being met. I personally loved that the process of giving/listening to feedback is built at every stage of every policy and decision being made.

Elements are the fundamental qualities of the sociocratic infrastructure, with a contribution that’s clearly observable. The most basic and implementable pieces of this governance model. Without going too much into details, Erin shared 9 elements with us:

1.  Circle: A container for members to adapt & respond to their area of responsibility. “When members are defined, colleagues are aligned”.

2. Aim: Gives each circle a clear & visible purpose – aligned with organisational vision, mission and aims. It orients policy meetings and is essential to reach consent. “Clear with purpose we decide what to produce/provide”.

3. Double-link: Consists of an elected member & operations leader.  “Connecting people & information for cohesive perspectives”.

4. Policy: Enshrines collective intelligence. We trial, track & measure each of them for improvement. “Co-designing guardrails for working together”.

5. Operations: Activity that gets it done. Effective, clearly defined & aligned with circle aims. Designed by circle members, feeding back to policy on effectiveness. “Getting stuff done with oversight and action”.

6. Round: Speaking turn-by-turn without interruption, it is the pattern of the sociocratic process. Creates opportunities for honest, transparent and safe feedback & for relevant info to be heard in a tempered & useful way. “Turn by turn to focus, share & discern”.

7. Consent: Lubricant that allows an organisation to be greater than the sum of its parts. Brings collective ownership & clears the way for group intelligence to respond to areas that each circle is responsible for. Objections are for realising collective aims and to be separate from personal opinion. “Safe enough to try – on track with the Why”.

8. Aim Realisation/Workflow: Order of actions/operations. Allows circles to coordinate & self-organise.

9. Domain: Sets clear territory & describes terrain of circles. Establishes autonomy to achieve aims. Avoids overlaps with other circles to prevent conflict & duplication of effort. “Distributing work & responsibility in the terrain”.

For the 2nd session, using the information provided, Erin had us practice a policy proposal as an example. Even here, I noticed the differences with the traditional approach – she gave us the option to opt out as no one was obliged to participate. Stay tuned, as we’ll make sure to share around the outcomes of that proposal.

At the end of each of these sessions, we closed up with another round. This was a fantastic way to gauge how everyone was feeling after the meeting and the key takeaways from the group – something I had never experienced in a corporate setting before!

In conclusion

In a nutshell, the sociocratic governance model is based on circles/teams with well defined goals and membership, that are interlinked together, and that have several feedback loops built into all decision-making processes; all circles cooperating together towards the aim of the organisation as a whole.

Much like permaculture, sociocracy is a living, learning journey. Erin has simply opened the door to a new way of thinking about group work for me. I can wholeheartedly see the sociocratic governance model as something worth studying more and pursuing in my personal life.

During my time as a Board member, I have seen the passion and determination from each and every single one of our members to improve the status quo. It is what binds us together, our common objective.

There is still much to know about how this process will look like for PA, and the Board knows there’s many questions on the implementation of sociocracy. However, it is clear to me, that the PA Board believes that embodying and embracing the principles and elements of sociocracy in the organisation will allow us to reach our potential towards better policy and decision-making processes, interconnecting existing teams with the whole, bringing in different ideas and helping us achieve our goal, to further permaculture everywhere!

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