Update on A Deeper Democracy

My Frazzled Brain

My Frazzled Brain

In January 2014, I decided that developing both my Sociocracy site and my Deeper Democracy site was turning me into a frazzled mess. In order to focus, I imported all the information from A Deeper Democracy to Sociocracy.info, planning to close down A Deeper Democracy. I spent almost a year developing Sociocracy.info as both a guide to the principles and methods of sociocracy and an exploration in relation to other ideas. I put a closed align on A Deeper Democracy and let it be.

The problem was that writing about democracy, sociocracy, and governance all at the same time was confusing readers who were trying to learn sociocracy. Learning new methods is easier when the teaching focuses rather narrowly on the specific methods. To compare and integrate diverse ideas is a more advanced and a different task.

Combining my two interests—providing a comprehensive guide to sociocracy and exploring other ideas from the point of view of sociocracy—wasn’t going to work. And even without updates, the Deeper Democracy site was continuing to have high traffic.

A Resource & a Blog

My resolution is to develop Sociocracy.info as a resource site on Sociocracy, and develop A Deeper Democracy as an ongoing blog examining governance in society.  It will take some time to sort the two sites out because it involves re-categorizing the hundreds of details of posts, pages, categories, and tags that have been exported and combined on one site and then imported back. There is much duplication and disorder now. I am convinced, however, that the time spent spinning my wheels to put things in place will be worth the time.


So with this update on A Deeper Democracy, I also messed up subscriptions. I informed people when I closed down A Deeper Democracy that I was also transferring all the users. This time, everyone was imported back when I only intended to import posts. Sorting that out is impossible because I don’t have old records.

So I ask your patience if you receive unwanted emails. I will put a big unsubscribe link  in the emails about new posts. If you have to log in, you may have to update your password. I have not a clue why—I just saw a notice about it. I’m better at writing than understanding what is under the hood. If all else fails, email me directly and I’ll unsubscribe you.

With any luck I’ll finish before I run out of Law & Order reruns on Netflix. Since I’ve seen most of them 2-3 times, they will keep my monkey mind occupied  while I toil away at the sorting out.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

Ornamental Capital Letter CCollaborative, collective, and cooperative are words often used interchangeably. When I hear them I wonder which one the speaker or writer means. I use them interchangeably too, sort of giving equal time to all of them. I have a preference for cooperative because it seems to have fewer political overtones than collective, and collaborative reminds me of clabber. It sticks in my throat.

The Problem with Dictionaries

The dictionary definitions of these three words don’t help very much because they tend to give each as a synonyms of the other, particularly collaborative with collective and collective with cooperative. Remember when dictionaries told you which word was correct? They might have been too proscriptive but at least they preserved the precision of language.

There is great value in language becoming new with inventive applications and combinations that play off the original, but smushing words together with no regard for distinct word origins and historical use is not inventive. It’s lazy.

So I decided not to be lazy and look for something that did more than reflect how words are used whether the usage is meaningful or not.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

On distinctions between collaborative, collective, and cooperative, journals in education are  the clearest—with economics, sociology, and political science not very much interested—at least as far as I was willing to go in a Sunday afternoon library search. In education the distinctions become important because educators are teaching skills. To teach skills you have to be clear what you are teaching and what you need to accomplish. educators have learned that:

One can design a collaborative task in which there is no collective learning and reward coöperation without producing collaboration.

According to dictionary definitions this sentence is gibberish. In reality it is very meaningful and in seeking to develop sociocratic societies, crucial. Self-organizing people may be cooperative but not have the skills to collaborate well enough to produce a collective result.


Collaboration is sharing knowledge or services with others on the solution to a problem, an investigation of an event, or development of a product. Collaboration doesn’t mean necessarily that people are working together in unison. They contribute in a way that helps others  accomplish very different aims. They may be working toward the same aim in their own domain,  but not necessarily.

Collaboration does not require that each person contribute equally to a task but means they all share what they can that will help to accomplish each other’s goals.


Collective refers to actions done as a group. A Corn Collective grows, picks, and sells corn. A Collective to Stop Hunger in Chicago, will be composed of people working together on projects that serve the aim. Members function more or less as equals in the sense that they work together and the company or resources are typically not owned by someone else. They have both unity of ambition and self-determination.

In the education program where students learned to work collaboratively but not collectively, most individuals were able to contribute in tasks but some were not able to function as a member of a group that accomplished a particular task. Some students remained individual collaborators.


Cooperative means people are willing and able to accommodate and support others. A cooperative person may not have a common aim with another person or group, but they are tolerant and helpful. They are not generally belligerent or refusing to participate.

In cooperative organizations, like food coops, there are many different kinds of participants— customers, investors, workers, managers, governing bodies, etc. They are not collaborators because they aren’t independently sharing information or tasks. They aren’t a collective because they aren’t all doing the same thing or have the same socio-economic interests.

They all assume a role and often make a commitment to make the food coop successful, but they do so as individuals with individual aims—individuals in that each one serves their own needs differently even though they all eat food. They often don’t know each other.

Of Course  …

Of course all these words have noun, adjective, and verb forms and secondary meanings  that confuse things. This exercise, however, was useful to me in making distinctions between the skills required to participate in collaborative, collective, or cooperative organizations.

In the end, sociocratic organizations could be any of these. Since sociocracy is a governance system that can  be adapted to any form of organization, it can be adapted to collaboratives, collectives, or cooperatives.

The question is the method inherently collaborative? Collaborative is the hot word these days. People like it and I see it in many places in descriptions of sociocracy. I’m not sure any of these words is appropriate in a general application. Organizing sociocratically doesn’t necessarily make an organization collaborative, collective, or cooperative. But it does encourage all three.

Definition of Consensus Decision-Making

This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.

This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.


What Is a Policy?

When I recently looked at my stats for the site, I was surprised to find that the most searched and most read page was Policy Decisions. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to distinguish policy decisions from operations decisions when I started writing about sociocracy. Let’s look at standard definitions of policy.

A Policy Is…

Bill of Rights

United States Bill of Rights

Policy is defined variously as a principle or protocol that:

  • guides the day-to-day “doing” decisions
  • states an intent or principle of action adopted by a government, business, organization, or person
  • defines the principles that will guide and determine present and future decisions
  • outlines an overall plan for general goals and acceptable procedures
  • defines an organization or team purpose and domain of responsibility and accountability
  • establishes financial constraints
  • guides practice

Origins: Middle English police, government, policy, from Middle French police, police. First Known Use: 15th century.

Synonyms: blueprint,design, plan, scheme, strategy, intention, purpose, approach,method, path,pathway

Examples of Policies

  • Vision, Mission, Aim statements
  • Budgets
  • Allocation of resources—people, facilities, money, etc.
  • Contracts between people, organizations, etc.
  • Job or role descriptions

As Opposed to Operations Decisions…

Operations decisions are made to cover day-to-day decisions:

  • determine a method or way of functioning
  • mathematical or logical processes that follow rules
  • a step performed by a computer executing a program

Example:  A military action, mission, or maneuver that involves tactical planning and execution (operations) within the bounds of laws (policies) about civilian safety and sovereign boundaries.

Policy Decisions vs Operations Decisions

We often just lump these together and file them away in the notes or  our memories. In many offices, there may not even be notes. Just memos, also filed away. Or tacked to a busy bulletin board.

Policies are also most often written by people who are levels and levels above us, at the management level or in academic institutions, the most senior faculty. People we may not even know or interact with. We may never have had to make a policy decision. Personal policy decisions may not be recognized as such. In sociocracy, everyone is expected to make policy decisions so it becomes important to understand what they are, what they do, and that they can be changed.

The sociocratic circular organization method has distinct processes for policy and operations decisions and extends both to all levels or components of an organization. This is fundamental. This practice ensures that in a sociocratic organization, both kinds of decisions are recognized as important in all its units, not just at the top levels. And that policy properly guides operations.

Why Policy Decisions?

Policy decisions are agreements about how we will live and work together. They are often called rules, norms, or codes. And most often they are unconsciously determined. Without conscious decisions on policies that are written and have the consent of everyone they govern, a group is subject to control that is unacknowledged, idiosyncratic, autocratic, and often discriminatory.

The classic essay by Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, analyzes the effect of avoiding policy decisions and recognized leadership. There are always leaders and always policies. But if they are unacknowledged they can’t be corrected. They can’t be improved. They remain an unspoken tyranny.

Yves Morieux: Smart Simplicity

Yves Morieux speaking on stage.A wonderful discovery today, “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify,” a TED Talk by Yves Morieux. Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington DC office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)  and director of the BCG Institute for Organization. He studies how changes in structure can improve motivation for employees.

“Smart Simplicity” uses six key rules that encourage cooperation to solve long-term problems. Not by just reducing costs and increasing profit, but also by maximizing engagement in all levels of the organization.

The focus of Morieux’s work is very compatible with sociocracy. He stresses collaboration over rule-making, self-organization over central authority,  and effective action over complex, multi-layered planning.

A 350% Increase in Complexity

In his TED Talk, Morieux first critiques the increasingly complex designs for business plans that might have 5 headings with 25 subheadings under each one, resulting in 125 cogent topics, each with numerous subcategories. Combined with an equally complicated workflow and organizational structure chart, it produces a brilliant, mind-numbing, and wholly unimplementable plan. Impressive in good graphics but hopeless in practice.

The need for an emphasis on smart simplicity is supported by a study done by BCG that reported:

We’ve created an “index of complicatedness,” based on surveys of more than 100 U.S. and European listed companies, which measures just how big the problem is.The survey results show that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.

A wonderful part of the video is when he recites an example of such business plans with their myriad of meaningless words. He has the memorization skills of an actor and the facility of a professional fast talker so he got himself through it without notes and within 12 minutes. If he had a teleprompter, speaking that fast would have burned out its circuits.

Feedback Loops & Decentralization

Morieux emphasizes that self-organization is dependent on feedback loops to make decentralization work. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2011, he says:

There are six smart rules. The first three involve enabling—providing the information needed to understand where the problems are and empowering the right people to make good choices. The second three involve impelling—motivating people to apply all their abilities and to cooperate, thanks to feedback loops that expose them as directly as possible to the consequences of their actions. The idea is to make finding solutions to complex performance requirements far more attractive than disengagement, ducking cooperation, or finger-pointing. When the right feedback loops are in place, cumbersome alignment mechanisms, ranging from compliance metrics to the proliferation of committees—can be eliminated, along with their costs, and employees find solutions that create more value.

This is has been an important point for theories of circular organization since the 1970s and for understanding sociocracy. Feedback loops are necessary to implement decentralization and impelling cooperation and self-organization.

Morieux’s Smart Rules

  • Rule 1: Improve Understanding of What Coworkers Do
  • Rule 2: Reinforce the People Who Are Integrators
  • Rule 3: Expand the Amount of Power Available
  • Rule 4: Increase the Need for Reciprocity
  • Rule 5: Make Employees Feel the Shadow of the Future
  • Rule 6: Put the Blame on the Uncooperative

For More: Two Readings

From the Harvard Business Review,
“Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You.” September 2011.

Book Cover: Six Simple RulesMorieux’s book at Amazon: Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. 2014

There is also a French edition with a much better title: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué (2014).

Morieux divides his time between leading research and advising senior executives of multinational corporations and public-sector entities in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific on their strategies and organizational transformations. He has been featured in articles on organizational evolution in Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Le Monde.

Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the  Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on  Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.

After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:

Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment

  • Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
  • Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.

In Meetings and Conversations

  • Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
  • Encourage people in finding their own answers
  • Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
  • Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no  risk, no innovation.
  • Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
  • Actively share information. Practice transparency.
  • Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.

Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them.  Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.

Introduction to Holacracy

The link below is to a webinar, Introduction to Holacracy, by Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy.  It is very well done, a good  introduction to Holacracy—very clear and not obtuse theorizing. Since much of the structure of Holacracy is the same a sociocracy, it will also help in the understanding sociocracy.

As a former software programmer, Robertson uses the operating system as an analogy. Holacracy is the operating system and the specifics of the products or services the organization provides are the applications. Microsoft Word enables people using the Mac OS or Windows operating systems to produce documents. Adobe Illustrator allows them to produce drawings.

Unlike sociocracy, Holacracy does not have a compensation system. The compensation policies and structure would be an application that each company would design for itself.

Holacracy does not use consent but it also seems not to override objections. Each proposal must have a tangible example of how it will enable or prevent something from happening. The adoption of a policy is based on how the proposed action will negatively affect the team or individual roles within the team. Such negative effects and all other descriptions have to be tangible well-grounded arguments, not abstractions or hypotheticals. When there are no further objections, the policy is adopted but there is no consent round, which is inferred to be a vote.

Since roles and domains of decision-making are so clearly defined, it is easer to see that proposals “belong” to one person’s role or to a set of roles. It isn’t up to anyone else to decide whether a role needs this proposed action, only whether this action will negatively affect any other role.

Introduction to Holacracy by Brian Robertson

This is only a smattering of the concepts explained in the one hour video.  And there are illuminating questions at the end.