I admit it. I’m here for the politics.
I might be unique in this perspective, but in my not-so-humble opinion… Tech is tech.
Languages are languages, frameworks are frameworks, and infrastructure is infrastructure. I can get any number of those at any number of places.
I joined Consensus directly because of its positions on values, decision making, and the role of technology in society.
We’re a non-standard bunch with a significant number of philosophy and social sciences courses (and degrees) under our collective belts, so the conversation around the “water cooler” can get pretty deep. Because of our explicit commitment to liberatory and social justice principles, we also participate in the ongoing conversation about how to develop a new set of conventions around management - not only of our projects, but of the company as a whole.
Coming from a background in agile development and open source software, we were looking for systems that allow space for autonomy, agency, and self-direction. We hire for the ability to think about things and solve problems… so we want to make sure that the people in the company get to perform at their best and make their best contributions.
When I joined, I was the sixth non-contractor in the company. We were holding weekly all-hands coordination meetings to keep a handle on the moving parts. Even at this point, though, we were starting to run into the N^2 relationships problem. We were just at the beginning of growth, and we wanted to bake in good practices before we got too big to make changes.
One of the most pressing problems was how to keep the right people informed about the right things without drowning everybody in minutiae. Every approach we tried seemed to be missing key components, and we were doing a lot of reinventing the wheel. As good academically-inclined folks, we knew that due-diligence involves research, so we went looking to see what other people were already doing.
Fortunately for us, we don’t need to start from first principles. Since governance is an ongoing problem in organizations of all sizes, lots of smart people are working on these issues, and self-organization is an increasingly important approach. We wanted something that included autonomy, left much of the power in the hands of the people doing the work, but that also provided clarity of communication and direction, guardrails that could prevent costly errors that might undermine the viability of the company, and an approach that prevented silos. We needed information to flow with the power, so that decisions are made with maximal data, and we minimize surprises.
Additionally, we need systems in place for all the normal issues of a for-profit company: We have to make good choices around budget and payroll, prevent over- or under-staffing without undermining the trust of our people (particularly by making sure there’s enough, but not too much, work to go around), and allow timely decision making.
In the middle of this quest, one of our founders proposed sociocracy as a possible solution. It is related to holacracy, and is also called “Dynamic Governance.” To get started, we ordered copies of Ted Rau’s book on getting started with Sociocracy, “Who Decides Who Decides,” and the (somewhat heavier) “Many Voices, One Song.” (Ted Rau and Jerry Koch-Gonzalez)
Now we had governance homework in between our coding sessions.
The initial question was, “Is this worth pursuing?” After we had read enough to get the gist, we agreed that it seemed to check all the boxes, so we went as a group for foundational training.
The first thing we noticed was that this is not an intuitive way of doing things.
The facilitation processes in sociocracy formalize best practices around sharing the floor, sharing power, and sharing information. The free-form conversation that had become our habit leads to power imbalances, which is at odds with the goals we had just adopted. We needed to learn a new approach and a new set of skills.
Sociocracy provides a complete structure and skill set that are designed to make sure that people get their concerns heard and considered. It incorporates a consent-based decision making process, with the goal of finding a next step that everybody can agree advances the aim of the group.
That statement, though, sneaks in an assumption that you are clear about the aims.
This is where a lot of the Hard Part arises in changing governance approaches: by the time an organization has been around for even a couple of years, everybody is carrying implicit assumptions about the purpose and goals.
When you have to decide how to distribute resources (time, energy… money, especially) those implicit assumptions tend to come into conflict, often without an obvious cause. By adopting sociocracy, we committed to keep talking about the assumptions so that they become explicit.
Sociocracy has given us a set of principles and practices to point back to as we make decisions and have the hard conversations.
A few notes from our initial experience (after a handful of months):
This takes practice.
Even with some highly experienced facilitators in the company, getting the pace of the meetings right has been challenging. It is tempting to fall back into old habits, using a popcorn approach and letting the same people do most of the speaking. However, given current research on the importance of equal air time, making the effort to learn new patterns is worth it.
Don’t take shortcuts.
If you skip rounds, check-ins, and meeting evaluations, you will miss out on vital information and you will lose the trust of the people who are being overlooked. Now, let’s acknowledge that you would have missed that by using a more traditional structure but in this case, you are also out of alignment, and it bothers people more.
Get very clear on the difference between policy and operational decisions.
One of the things that can still trip us up adding an item to an agenda that looks like a one-off operational decision, but that turns out to have policy implications, either for future decisions, or for the company as a whole. These can come up unexpectedly; even the text in a public blog post can set expectations for clients and project partners, so you may think you’re just giving an update and find yourself enmeshed in a long-drawn-out discussion of everything that is planned for the next six months!!! This is commonly termed to be “No Good.”
Our current solution is to review the agenda at the beginning of each meeting to identify items that may have hidden policy implications and take more time to decide… With each item, we need to ensure: Is this the right meeting? Is it clearly in the domain of this circle? Does anybody else need to be here? How long is this likely to take once we start to unpack it?
Sometimes, we still miss these until we are in the weeds, but we’re getting better at catching them early.
When we find we’ve tripped into the thorns, we prefer to find a set of questions that can be addressed, and then defer the larger conversation to another (possibly separate) meeting. We also have found that temporarily convened “helper circles” are useful for hashing out a rough solution which can then be considered by the larger group. We’re still running over on a lot of our meetings, but we’re improving.
Consider rotating facilitation.
It takes a while to get good at this, and we’re concerned about putting too much of the governance skill into a small subset of the company. We’re trying to make sure that we all build our facilitation skills so that we can pick it up as necessary. Being in the facilitator’s role also increases everybody’s awareness of their own interactions, if they are jumping into the middle of rounds or doing a lot of cross-talk. When we have shared responsibility for keeping the meeting on track, we find that we are better at catching ourselves.
Listen to feedback.
If a meeting is running off the rails, it’s better to pause and get back on track than to carry on and try to get through the agenda. Similarly, the part at the end of meetings where we pause to consider the content, the process, and the interpersonal dynamics is important. Sometimes uncomfortable, but important.
As a fledgling sociocracy organization, we’re still on the steep part of the learning curve. But having a formal structure that is so well aligned with our goals and operating principles has freed up a lot of our time that we were spending “reinventing the wheel.” We’ve also started to connect with the broader community around sociocracy, which reinvigorates our commitment to the underlying principles.
We’re grateful to have found an approach that lets us treat governance as a largely “solved problem.”
We are still learning, but not inventing, which frees us up to solve our technical and business problems.
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