Valve LogoIn 1996, we set out to make great games, but we knew back then that we had to first create a place that was designed to foster that greatness. A place where incredibly talented individuals are empowered to put their best work into the hands of millions of people, with very little in their way. This book is an abbreviated encapsulation of our guiding principles. As Valve continues to grow, we hope that these principles will serve each new person joining our ranks.

If you are new to Valve, welcome. Although the goals in this book are important, it’s really your ideas, talent, and energy that will keep Valve shining in the years ahead. Thanks for being here. Let’s make great things.

Valve Software, Handbook for New Employees, “Preface”, 2012.

The Six Problems With Holacracy, and Others

William TinCup on the Fist Full of Talent website

William TinCup on the Fist Full of Talent website

My disclaimer… (1) I am NOT an expert in holacracy, (2) I love new stuff, and (3) I absolutely love people and concepts that challenge the status quo. That’s that.

Why am I discussing a commentary on Zappos adoption of holacracy that begins with that particular picture of the author and that particular quote from the author? Because the picture is fun and the comments are good. When he says he knows nothing he means nothing more than he has read at the Holacracy, “Holacracy” at Wikipedia, and the Medium websites. And then to watch this video of Brian Robertson explaining Holacracy. While this isn’t direct experience and Tincup hasn’t become a HolacracyOne graduate, that is pretty much all there is to know. I encourage you to read them too.

What Tincup does is present the confused response to the issues that Holacracy, sociocracy, dynamic governance, and other forms of circular organization will have to conquer before they will be accepted. Every governance method has to address these misunderstandings and prove itself capable of addressing, even democracy.

What happens when things go badly? To quote Tincup, The answer to all these questions is… a resounding… I don’t freaking know… and neither does anyone else. And that should terrify you.”

My response is “the same thing they do everyday.” Making decisions is hard even when things are going right—everyone has to make choices. The same people make decisions in “bad” times as in good times.

Who will and won’t thrive in Holacracy? “(1) people that have a problem with authority, (2) people that can consume ambiguity, and (3) independent thinkers and doers.”

This is nowhere indicated except in the headlines saying there will be no bosses. Circular organizations are very structured and in particular have feedback loops that guarantee that everyone stays on target, even the Board.

Holacracy has well-defined roles. Sociocracy has log books for each member of the organization with job descriptions; circle responsibilities; vision, mission, aim statements; organizational charts, notes of circle meetings, etc. Ackoff’s Circular Organization is well-charted and clear.

“A clever attempt to create homogeneity—likeness… and I’m not talking about white people. I mean people that are really similar to one another. They will argue that it’s an efficient system, a lean system, and it will be at the expense of diversity.”

No sure why this would be true except that people tend to hire people like themselves. If a central authority were hiring everyone would tend to be like them. Instead, the understanding that poor performance affects the outcome of everyone else’s work the more likely scenario is that the circle would understand that they need someone different from themselves to bring a broader perspective and complement, not duplicate, their own strengths. This leads to diversity, not homogeneity.

What happened to my values—our values? ”They have been replaced by holacracy. That’s the value system. That’s the code. Kind of seems cultish, right?…Again for holacracy to have a fighting chance, you have to hire to it, fire to it, live it… each and every day. Bye bye values.”

There are times when any new method of any kind sounds like a cult, but to say that an organization has to abandon its values in order to reorganize is rather strange. The Vision, Mission, and Aim statements express the unique values of an organization. Those are unaffected by holacracy.

How will it scale? ”At the end of the day, holacracy might be great for 20 programmers in Silicon Valley. But will it work in retail in Tampa? Will it thrive at a hospital in Duluth? Light manufacturing in South Texas?”

Circular organization methods similar to holacracy are currently work in hundreds of organizations and businesses around the world. Some are very large and others very small. Ackoff become famous when he implemented one at Anheuser Busch in the late 1970s, a rather large and complex organization. Sociocracy is being used in a large agricultural firm in Brazil. Semco, also in Brazil uses a similar system in several factories. Many organizations in Europe and the United States use sociocracy including small businesses, corporations, university departments, housing complexes, healthcare facilities, and schools. There are many companies using part or all of the principles and methods and they have been doing so for decades.

How do I manage my career? ”Wait, the churched up version of that is a term called career pathing. Holacracy is about flatness What I do know is that we all—all as in every single one of us—think about the next thing. So, in an extremely flat organization… What the hell is next? Darkness floats about.”

Here I have to resort to my knowledge of sociocracy. Salaries are set by the market for particular skills. From hiring on they are determined by across the board increases and performance increases, just like other organizations. To remain competitive salaries also have to compete. There are many jobs within the organization. The janitors are unlikely to be paid the same salary as the software programmers. One can develop new skills, assume a higher level of responsibility, etc. In holacracy, these are defined as “roles” and each role has a job description that won’t be the same as another person’s. That all jobs are the same is not what “flat” means.

How will they manage bad apples? “How will they identify these rotten apples and, more importantly, get rid of said apples? Group think? Call a tribal council meeting? Sounds bureaucratic and slow. If you are thinking of adopting holacracy, dig in and ask tough questions regarding the treatment of bad apples.”

My experience it is that management rarely gets rid of bad apples and they are totally unreliable in their judgement of who is a bad apple. Management wants to avoid the issue as long as they aren’t drowning in low performance. Even then they are more likely to reorganize than get rid of people.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a new religion.… If you understand what holacracy is all about, then you are one of us. If you don’t then, re-join the cavemen and cavewomen.”

I agree that some of the literature and speeches on this do sound messianic but so does campaign literature, school brochures, promises for every new diet, mouthwash ads, etc. It’s enthusiasm for something the speaker has mastered or is selling plus a good deal of marketing. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

It also doesn’t mean it’s based on blind faith. There is good research and demonstrated performance data on the principles and methods of sociocracy. Holacracy is much newer but to the extent that it has incorporated the principles and methods of sociocracy, and uses them appropriately, it is based on the same research and demonstrated performance.

Circular organizations have a clear performance path since the 1960s in businesses and decades old performance paths in community organizations.

Oh, and the marketing of holacracy is about to take over our HR worlds.

This is certainly true. Brian Robertson is an expert in marketing but that isn’t necessarily bad. If he has all his T’s crossed and his I’s dotted, he can take the pressure. He’s done a professional job of developing, teaching, and promoting his specific application of sociocracy and the concepts of a circular organization.

Consent

The issue that Tincup didn’t discuss is the guarantee of consent decision-making. This is essential if all members of the organization—not just the managers—have control over their working conditions. In sociocracy, each circle has a defined domain, or in holacracy a role. Within that domain, their area of responsibility, everyone must be equivalent. If a decision is being considered that will affect their ability to do their job, to fulfill their responsibility, they have the right to object. Their objection must be resolved before the proposal can be implemented.

This is a very important assurance when people are expected to take on the responsibility of self-organization. How can I do a good job if decisions are made that screw up my ability to do that job? I would rather have a manager responsible in that situation. I would become much more passive and resistant, as many or most workers are.

The original Tincup post is here:  Six Problems With Holacracy, and Other

WILLIAM TINCUP, SPHR, is the CEO of HR consultancy Tincup & Co and one of the country’s leading thinkers on social media application for human resources, an expert on adoption of and HR technology. He has been blogging about HR related issues since 2007. He’s a contributor to Fistful of TalentHRTechEurope andHRExaminer and co-hosts a daily HR podcast called DriveThruHR. Tweet him@williamtincup and check him out on Facebook and LinkedIn. He serves on the Board of Advisors for InsynctiveCausecastWork4Labs,PeopleReportJurifyTrackMavenSocialEarsAppLearnStrengthsInsightThe Workforce Institute,PeopleMatterSmartRecruitersAjax Workforce Marketing and is a 2013 Council Member for The Candidate Experience Awards. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Chequed and is a startup mentor for Acceleprise. Tincup is a graduate of the University of Alabama of Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned a MA from the University of Arizona and a MBA from Case Western Reserve University.

Holacracy, Zappos, Forbes

George Anders

George Anders

An article by George Anders on Zappos in Forbes appeared this week. Anders writes about “innovation, careers and unforgettable personalities” for Forbes Magazine and formerly for the Wall Street Journal, two of the most respected and long-lived business sources. I honestly never thought I would see Holacracy, Zappos, Forbes in the same sentence. Kudos to Brian.

This is one of the more sensible articles on the Zappos adoption of Holacracy, less sensationalistic though Anders characterizes Holacracy as “a New Age approach to leadership that involves no job titles, no formal bosses, and lots of overlapping work circles instead.” Any mention of “new age” is fairly sensationalistic and it is inaccurate that either sociocracy or Holacracy have no job titles and no formal bosses. And of course it was not the invention of “business guru” Brian Robertson, nor is Zappos, at 1,500 employees, “by far the biggest company” organize based on these principles.

What Robertson and Zappos have done is attract the attention of many strategy consultants, journalists, and business school professors. Partly this is because Zappos even before deciding to adopt Holacracy was known for innovative thinking on leadership, customer service, and human resources. It is not unexpected that Zappos would adopt a circular organization that respects its employees as it does its customers. The Zappos core values even before Holacracy were to:

The bulk of the article, however, is a summary of William Tincup’s post on the Fistful of Talent blog which raises six points that will challenge Zappos. The original Tincup article is here. I will be doing comments on that article tomorrow.

Posted 9 January 2014 at 12:34 on the Forbes Magazine website, accessed on  11 January 2014:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2014/01/09/gurus-gone-wild-does-zappos-reorganization-make-any-sense/

Zappos Goes Democratic

An article by Jena McGregor In her column, “On Leadership,” appeared in the Washington Post today on Brian Robertson’s contract with Zappo’s, “Zappos Says Goodbye to Bosses.” Zappos is owned by Amazon but runs independently and has long been known for its unusual employee-responsive culture.

The unusual approach is called a “holacracy.” Developed by a former software entrepreneur, the idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing “circles.” In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run.

John Bunch, Zappos “As we scaled, we noticed that the bureaucracy we were all used to was getting in the way of adaptability,” says Zappos’s John Bunch, who is leading the transition.

The article is not particularly clear in explaining holacracy and doesn’t make the connection to sociocracy or other egalitarian organizational methods like Ackoff’s circular organization or  Semler’s round pyramid. McGregor is also confusing when explaining the change from “managers” to “lead-links.” Holacracy’s lead-links are described very much like managers. No mention of policy setting by all members of the circle to guide the actions of the lead-link.

The article reports that “Twitter cofounder Evan Williams uses it at his new company, Medium, and time management guru David Allen uses it run his firm — but Zappos is by far the largest company to adopt the idea.”

Robertson began his first company, Ternary Software in Exton PA, in 2001 based on the unique model of forming partnerships with many of the companies for which it developed software. This gave Ternary a vested interest in the performance of the software they designed and allowed promising but still developing companies to access to quality software. In 2006 and 2007, Robertson published two articles on his use of sociocracy at Ternary: “The Sociocratic Method,” in the 2006 strategy+business issue of Booz Allen Hamilton’s internal newsletter,  and in 2007 in the Wall Street Journal, “Can a Company Be Run as a Democracy?”.

Outside Experts on the Board of Directors

Image from the Getty Museum of a Council of war from the 19th century.Residential communities customarily do not have board of directors members from outside the organization. Corporations normally do, but they may not be chosen by their ability to balance expertise. Non-profit organizations and independent schools often choose board members based on their ability to raise money or influence government or foundation decision-makers.

Balanced Expertise

Balanced expertise on the board of directors steers the organization from multiple perspectives. Balance can be achieved with experts on larger community issues, on financial and  legal requirements, and areas specifically related to the mission and aim of the organization. An independent school would have an expert in education, perhaps fundraising, perhaps child development, etc. A soup kitchen will benefit from experts in food service and preparation, nutrition, perhaps motivation, perhaps efficiency in service.

From Outside

Outside expert directors can bring advice and judgements that are not influenced by possible internal biases. And they contribute new information. They cross-pollinate with ideas and cautions learned from other organizations. Condo leaders to other condo leaders. An outside expert in housing would bring information from government agencies, architects, financial institutions, etc. They may be better able to identify possible risks to the organization.

Diversity of experience is as important as technical expertise. Outside experts also relax the organization. They can confirm that the organization is following best practices and any problems are, or are not, being experienced by other organizations,

On the Board

The importance of having experts on the board of directors is the synergy created by discussion. Most organizations have a lawyer on retainer, an accountant, an insurance broker, a banker, etc. When they are on the board, however, they respond to questions and issues together, not in isolation. The legal expert comments on the advice of the food service expert. Concerns by one expert about the effect of a decision on another expert’s area can be answered in the moment. The advice of one raises concerns for another that can be discussed and resolved. The concerns of one can be resolved by a solution from another.

Even though it may seem costly and time consuming in the end it saves time. Normally a board of Directors meets 3-4 times a year for 1-2 hours. For non-profit organizations, there may be no charge for this time. In businesses, these experts are often on retainers already. In the end the time saved by not having individual meetings or telephone calls. Saved time from having to repeat conversations or making costly mistakes pay for themselves. The increased value of having more informed advice is invaluable.

With Decision-Making Authority

It is important that boards are not advisory. Decision-making authority creates accountability. Decision-makers take decisions more seriously than advisors. Some fear that decision-making power will create a board-dominated organization. That the attempt to create a more democratic organization will be undermined by “outsiders” who impose negative opinions.

However, in a sociocratic system, boards make decisions within their specific domain. The domain of the board is long-term strategic planning, financial sustainability, assessing risk, and connections to the larger environment—its market or industry. The board can be asked to make a decision when another domain is unable to resolve it. Otherwise, the board should not micro-manage or make autocratic decisions except in emergencies.

As Part of a Whole System

An organization is a system with each part having a responsibility that is essential to the whole. The whole controls its parts. The board of directors is one part of a whole system, not the controller. The board has a different responsibility than the marketing department or the kitchen or the front desk but not more power.

Outside members on the Board of Directors strengthen the organization.

(In sociocracy, what most jurisdictions call a “Board of Directors” is called a “Top Circle” to emphasize that it functions according to the rules for a circle, not the traditional rules of a Board of Directors. When a Board with the traditional rights is required by law, it is formed within the Top Circle.)

Meetings Are Not the Work

We need to remind ourselves that meetings are not the work. Much work is done in meetings and they can be exhausting, but the focus of a meeting is action. Determining effective actions. Defining desired actions. Evaluating failed actions. Or bemoaning lack of action.

Possible Sources of Confusion

In several contexts lately it has become clear that many of us have drifted into confusing meetings with the work, and even as the substance of organizational theories, like sociocracy. One example of this is that we discuss the process of making decisions without measuring the process against the effectiveness of the decision made using it. How did those decision help or hinder us in doing our work and accomplishing our goals?

The focus of a meeting in one way or another is how can we accomplish our aims better? Even when we are discussing feelings, those feelings are important because they affect our ability to do our work, to fulfill our individual roles or responsibilities.

Meetings in Sociocracy and Elsewhere

Training in sociocracy often focuses on the process of circle meetings and making policy decisions: how to conduct a meeting, how to write a proposal, and how to achieve consent. This is necessary because (1) circle meetings are unique to sociocracy, (2) many members may be new to making policy decisions, and (3) sociocracy is a method of organizing work but is often presented in groups of people who do not work together.

In mixed groups, using work-specific examples that everyone understands is difficult. Thus the focus drifts to process instead of the accomplishment of a purpose.

Decisions Are Not about Meetings

The aim of a meeting is not faultless execution of a process. It is what you do when you walk out the door.

There are many, many methods for organizing excellent meetings. They can usually be easily modified for consent decision-making or for any other decision-making method the group has agreed to use. There is nothing special about any of them as long as the group understands them and they help the group make good decisions.

The measure of a good decision is that everyone can support and execute it. The process could be considered entirely chaotic by a professional meeting facilitator or trainer. The important thing is that the work can still be done effectively.

Meetings Are About Operations

Meetings are work because making decisions is often hard. Those decisions are about what happens outside the meeting. They are not an end in and of themselves.  When you make that shift in thinking, it is easier to avoid excessive attention to process. An incomplete or unworkable decision will need to be revisited whether the proper process was followed or not.

Meetings are only means to an end. Meeting generally decrease in a well performing organization while action will increase and become more effective.

Are Your Meetings Substance or Style?

If a meeting is organized around evaluating experience, information, and measurements related to past and future actions—on feedback rather than SWAG or preferences—it will likely be  focused on substance, not style.

 

For non-native English speakers, SWAG stands for “Stupid Wild-Ass Guesses.” They

 are common in decision-making and actually not always bad. Sometimes a SWAG is a good place to start.

 

Homeowners Association Boards (HOA)

A blog post on the tyranny of homeowners association boards sparked a chord of frustration and disdain in me this morning. The blog post was by Jonathan Nettler, “The Tyranny of America’s Homeowners Associations,” on the Planitizen website, “a public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design, and development community.”

Nettler’s post selectively quotes a post by Kaid Benfield, “Coercion by Contract: How Homeowners Associations Stifle Expression, Sustainablity” on the Natural Resources Defense Council site for staff blogs, Switchboard. Benfield’s original post is much more  balanced than Nettler’s quote that portrays condominium boards as equal to Nazi’s in style and substance. It was Nettler’s distortion that was frustratingly passive aggressive.

Who Rules Homeowners Associations?

The problem with associations of homeowners, when there is one, is not the board, but the homeowners themselves. HOAs are self-governing. The state in which they are established generally has few regulations, usually limited to disclosure and owners rights. These are totally minimal compared to what homeowners themselves establish. The board can only enforce the regulations the homeowners have approved.

New homeowners agree to follow the HOA regulations when they sign their contracts. One presumes that these are adults who are beyond the age of consent and can read. They rule themselves.

Self-Governing Democracies

One of the tragedies of life is the lack of understanding of self-governance. In the years between 1850 and 1950 when people were struggling to build new democratic governments out of the aftermath of revolutions, the right to self-governance was hard-won. The refrain of progressive education in the early part of the 20th century was the importance of universal education in order to maintain a democracy. Civics was a required study on high schools. I don’t remember the statistics but this is no longer true.

Self-governance requires knowledge. The skills and understanding have to start in the family, the neighborhood, the schools, and villages. Whether a homeowners association is responsive to the needs of residents, depends on the residents, and on their ability to self-govern.

Do Condo Boards Have Any Power?

A homeowners association board only has as much power as the homeowners give it, and the only people on the board are the ones the homeowners elect. Objecting is hard but it’s the only way to confront the issue of badly performing board members.

Board members are people who have the same skills and deficiencies that each of us has. They are not miracle workers. They need help and support too.

The Buck Does Not Stop at Voting

Voting is not enough to ensure that our associations are democratic. Voting is actually nothing. What is important is the day to day understanding of what decisions are being made, how they are made, and evaluation of their results. It’s a living process, not a voting booth process—though attention to voting would be a start.

After serving on a condo board, I understand completely why board members become Condo Commandos: the behavior of homeowners. They don’t participate, don’t educate themselves, and don’t pay attention even to the financial health of the communities in which they have invested both financially and personally.

Self-Governance Requires Self-Education

It takes lot of work to make the decisions board members have to make. It can be overwhelming to do all the research and study that each decision takes. On top if it, to have to gently coax homeowners (or jerk them up by their collars) to make them pay attention is more than most board members have time for.

Being a board member means giving up many evenings and weekends to do the work required. Homeowners have to do the same in order to develop and protect a community they would be happy living in.

Each homeowner, like each citizen, has to self-educate if they want to self-govern. They need to help board members make good decisions. What many people do is leave the decision-making to someone else then sit around and complain about tyrants.

Democratic Transportation Policy

In the early twentieth century, education was believed to be the best way to ensure a democratic society. Protecting a democratic society, even one controlled by the majority, requires an education policy that ensures access to the information and critical thinking skills sufficient to understand how to participate intelligently in local and national government and civic affairs. The freedom to choose is limited by the ability to understand.

Similarly, we need a democratic transportation policy. One that ensures equal access to essential services and opportunities.

Freedom and Equality Depend on Access

The need for a democratic  transportation policy is less obvious than a democratic education policy but not less fundamental. A means of transportation other than walking is necessary in order to work, receive medical care, be educated, and obtain goods and services at competitive prices. Economic and social viability depends on access.

The legacy of suburban design and the single family home is dependence on private cars. While this has provided greater freedoms than at any time in history, it also brought pollution, depletion of natural resources, and dependence on an expensive asset. The cost of owning a car — purchase, maintenance and repair, insurance, and gas — is often the second most expensive item in a household budget. Support of car use and storage is a also major cost for cities and states and thus an added burden for taxpayers. There are severe environmental costs as well. The construction of roads and parking lots has sealed fertile land under millions of square miles of concrete and asphalt disrupting the ecosystems that naturally cleaning our water and air. The costs are enormous and the negative effects pervasive.

The Effects of Undependable Public Transportation

While privately owned cars and other vehicles will remain necessary in some areas and everywhere for some purposes, to create and maintain a healthy environment for everyone, we need independence from private car use. Public transportation provides equal access at a much lower cost not only to work, education, and medical care but also to parks, beaches, sporting events, recreation centers, and family and friends on holidays.

Unless public transportation is available 24/7, it is not dependable. Many people work weekends and evenings, particularly those in the service industries. Children need access to museums and sports activities on weekends. To stop service during the night and limit service on weekends affects the use of public transportation at all times, not just on nights and weekends.

Using public transportation requires the same educational process as learning how to drive and understanding traffic regulations. Unless it used regularly it will remain unfamiliar and difficult to use, even when available. Undependable service reinforces the belief that public transportation inconvenient and thus only tolerable for commuting. Public transportation needs to become as convenient, habitual, and familiar as using a car or its use won’t replace cars and transportation will remain expensive.

Equal Access to Car Storage

Car storage is very likely the last topic you would expect to be discussed as an example of creating a more democratic society. It is an excellent example of the ways in which habitual thinking contributes to our social, economic, and environmental problems.

Just as personal cars being a major drain in a household budget, car storage is also a major drain in the economies of cities and towns. It almost doubles the width of streets and thus cost of building and maintaining them. Shopping centers have parking lots equal to the footprint of the buildings doubling their environmental impact by diverting water into sewer systems instead of the ground. It has been estimated that for every car on the road, we all maintain 5 storage spaces.

To maintain and restore our the land so it contributes to our health and food supply, we need to develop excellent shared transportation alternatives and reduce the need for car storage. We need trains of all sizes and capacities, buses, and shared car services like ZipcarGetAroundRelayRides, and Car2Go.

So why do cities like DC charge car-sharing programs like ZipCar more to store their cars than they charge for personal exclusive use?

In my neighborhood, a private car receives a permit to park 24/7 for $30 a year while car sharing cars may pay hundreds of dollars a month. In part, charging car sharing companies considerably more is evidence of our bias against businesses and our assumption that if someone is in business they are rich and should pay more. Aside from the fact that we don’t use the same logic when it comes to taxing individuals, charging a car sharing company more is short sighted because a shared car reduces costs associated with car storage.

Each shared car meets the personal transportation needs of dozens of people while also being more environmentally responsible. The cost of an on-street parking spot is moved along to the shared-car users requiring them to pay proportionately more for car storage than personal car owners do. Taxing shared cars at a higher rate than personal cars is certainly not fair or equal.

While the difference in car storage costs may be relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it is an example of the logic that undermines a democratic society and permeates our public transportation policies.

Voting Has Become Meaningless

This post is not intended to discourage voting. It only addresses the fact that our votes are not as powerful as they are often portrayed by political parties.

The peer-to-peer election process is not about voting. It is designed to identify the best available person to do the job. Those with the most reliable information about the job and about the people qualified to do it are responsible for nominating and electing the best person. The preferred method of deciding on that person is consent by all those present but voting is also an option. Crucial is that the people who are electing the person have something at stake. Their own jobs will be on the line if the peer they chose doesn’t perform their job well enough for the whole electing body to perform well.

The Right to Vote Is Meaningless Without the Right to Nominate

In local, state, and national elections, the right to vote doesn’t mean voters will have good choices when voting. The authority to cast ballots doesn’t include the authority to nominate. Campaigns are so expensive that the political party system controls nominations. They often come down to the lowest common denominator because the better qualified people fail to gain popularity with one faction or another.

Political parties and well funded special interest groups control information. They cloud public opinion and determine first who is nominated and then who will “win.” Voting is irrelevant in this process except at the most mundane level. Which person has turned off the voters the least? Which is the least incompetent? Campaigns try their best to control that which further diverts the focus from qualifications to irrelevancy.

Too Many Voters Means No Meaningful Debate Over Qualifications

The information voters need to make a good decision is hidden in layers of bureaucracy and campaign spin. Since there is no forum in which hundreds of thousands of voters can sit together to debate the arguments. They must align themselves with political parties in hopes that the parties will surface the best people.

The political parties are filled with people who work for their own interests as party officials. Others for a particular party hopeful who is also their boss. Or a special interest group that the hopeful has promised to support, lavishly. Campaign workers take pride in being clever and getting their person elected at all costs because they win if their boss wins.

Voting Starts with a Job Description

The peer election process begins with a job description. When was the last time you participated in an election that started with a job description? As I was writing, I realized I’ve never seen a job description for an elected government office. How do we properly evaluate performance without a job description?

Presenting Arguments in a Forum Where They Can Be Tested

In a peer election nominations are judged not by the viewing audience or the party officials but the people who understand the job best. In a peer election, nominations are made, challenged, and defended. The election is determined on the quality of the evidence, not the quality of the campaign literature. The people in the room who are electing are the same people who know where the bodies are buried, and not buried.

Debate is about understanding and rebutting arguments. It requires skill and intelligence. What we call debates in the United States presidential elections are not debates. They are staged performances in which the candidates have spent hours learning to duck questions and make jabs at the other candidates. Studying their make-up and consulting with experts on wardrobe choices. In turn, we applaud their ability to make quick retorts and not stumble over their words.

Common Aims and Consent

Using consent decision-making requires a common aim. The job description provides that in part. If a body has been able to consent to a job description, they can then move toward the aims stated there when measuring candidates. Freed of the responsibility for financing their next campaign, peers are more likely to be faithful to the needs of the job.

Consent is not the only decision-making method to be used in peer elections. Preference voting is far preferable to majority vote and still avoids the issue of one person or persons not sharing the aims of others. Movement forward is important.

Successive Approximations

If consent can’t be achieved, voting by peers at least ensures that the voters will be more cognizant of reality than the great mass of voters who have little access to accurate information and can’t spend their lives trying to acquire it. Successive approximations is the most we can expect when attempting to adopt more rational practices.

By insisting that everyone has a vote, whether they understand the vote or not, we have made those votes meaningless.

 

Peer-to-Peer Elections, Not Popular Vote

Organizations designed and developed using the sociocratic circle-organization method use peer-to-peer elections to produce candidates who are better qualified and leaders who are more trusted. They are used to assign people to jobs, choose operations leaders, and elect representatives to policy-making teams. As groups of people who work together toward a common aim, peers have both a vested interest in selecting the best person for a job and the most information about who that might be.

The process, developed by Gerard Endenburg, is now used internationally in businesses, schools, universities, health care facilities, associations—every kind of organization you can name—to assign jobs and choose leaders. It could be equally well used in local, state, and national governments with far better results than our current elections produce.

The Peer-to-Peer Election Process

In a peer-to-peer election, a group meets for the purpose of deciding who is the best available person. The decision-making method is the consent of all members present or prior consent to using another method. Alternate methods may include range voting, preference voting, majority vote, or any other method chosen by consent. The group may also consent to delegating the final decision.

1. The election leader reads the job description. The group may have previously defined the functions and tasks of the person to be elected and consented to the job description, or it may be done in the same meeting. The election leader may have been previously elected, may be the regular leader of the group, or may be elected in the same meeting. This is determined by the size and complexity of the organization and the nature of the election, whether it is expected to be highly competitive or not.

2. Nominations are submitted in writing as simply X nominates X. People may nominate themselves. They may nominate someone who is not a member of the group or nominate a search to be conducted for someone not a member of the group.

3. Members give their arguments for the person they nominated. All arguments for one nominee are presented in the same round, asking the additional nominators if they have arguments to add to those of the first person to present. The election leader should monitor whether arguments are based on the job description and the ability of the person to fulfill its requirements and stop the presenter if they are not.

4. Change or withdrawal of nominations. After arguments in favor of nominations are presented, members are given the opportunity to change or withdraw their nominations.

5. Open discussion or rounds about qualifications of nominated members. Depending on the size of the group, members then do rounds to discuss the candidates or have open discussion led by the election leader. At this time any concerns about or objections to candidates may be addressed by the candidate or other by other members of the group. When appropriate, the election leader may suggest that one person seems to be the best candidate. The group must consent to this decision.

6. Candidates accept or decline. When one candidate has received the consent of all members present, that candidate is asked if they will accept the position. Candidates are not allowed to decline before this point because some candidates migh decline prematurely for fear of standing for election or inappropriately believing themselves to be unqualified. On hearing why their peers have elected them, candidates are more likely to accept.

Candidates may also accept with provisions, such as a modification in the job description, additional financial or personal support, etc. The group must decide to accept these changes using the previously chosen decision-making method. If they do not, another round may be conducted to elect another of the candidates nominated or a new election conducted.

When Peer-to-Peer Elections Produce Bad Results

There are several points at which a peer-to-peer election process can go awry:

1. Failure to read the job description or adhere to the job definition. Not reading the job description will send the discussion off in the direction of favoritism, sympathy, path of least resistance, etc. The election leader should remind members of the job requirements when necessary. If an alternate decision-making method is used that requires a paper ballot, the job description should be included on the ballot.

During the election process, it may become clear that the job description needs to be amended. After amendment during discussion, the nominations round may need to be repeated.

2. Arguing against rather than for a nominee. When arguments are given, they must be in favor of a candidate, not against another candidate. The election leader should stop any negative arguments or comparisons. During open discussion or discussion rounds, any person may raise concerns about a nominee based on previous actions or statements. Any other person present including the nominee may address those concerns. Both concerns and responses must be based on actual events or data, not potential actions or projected data or personal beliefs about the nature of the job or the person. In some contexts, personal feelings may be appropriate as data.

3. Asking the candidate before they are elected if they will serve. Before an election some people will privately ask a person how they feel about being nominated, but generally this should be discouraged. A peer-to-peer election is about the job to be done and the group’s decision about who can best do that job. The process is designed to determine who that person is and to convince that person they are the most qualified. Peers generally know, or it will come out in the discussion, when a person is unable to serve for personal reasons or because of other professional obligations. Asking them if they are willing to serve, short-circuits the process.

4. Attempting to squelch campaigning before an election. Peer-to-peer elections provide their own protection against electioneering. If the group is truly a group of peers, their sense of each other will be determined by their experiences working together. It would be unusual to be able to change this perception by campaigning. With repeated use of peer elections, campaigning beyond prior conversations between members will disappear. Efforts to stop it distracts the focus, placing energy on the wrong issues.

Campaigns are most effective when voters know nothing except what the campaign says. This is why campaigns are so destructive to the election process.

5. Attempting consent without the conditions for consent. Elections by consent are only workable when all members of a group share a common aim, all participating members are willing to discuss together until objections to candidates are resolved, and all members have reached consent on who may participate in the election.

To repeat, consensus requires a common aim, commitment to resolving objections, and defined decision-makers.

Peer-to-Peer Elections in Local, State, and National Elections

Obviously, the peer-to-peer election process cannot be used today in national elections as the federal government is currently organized, or even in state level government elections.

The beginning will be at the bottom, in our neighborhoods. In our workplaces, schools, and organizations. Once a peer election process is used in local organizations and neighborhood elections, it will be better understood and trusted at the state and national levels. Neighborhood representatives would then elect officials to city and county offices. City or county representatives would elect to state level offices. State level representatives elect to the national level. National level representatives, the current Senate and Congressional members, would elect the president.

There would no campaigning and discussion would be limited to statements for a candidate, not by the candidate, that could be tested against the evidence, on actual work with the person being proposed. Not promises.

This would need a different structure than we have in the United States now in which the national governing bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives, are elected and serve apart from their participation in state level governing bodies. But why? Why don’t state level officials elect national representatives? Aren’t they the best to judge whether their state is being best represented nationally?

By using this process at the local level and in our businesses and organizations we would begin to educate ourselves about how to define jobs, how to argue, and how to determine the best candidates. (Do we even have a job description for any elected official?) A bottom-up process would lead to restructuring government based on successful experience by an educated public. A revolution based on what works better, not how many people get to vote on it.

Our current election system is a sham and not worth conducting. It does not produce democracy for all, or a deeper democracy for anyone.