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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Many Voices, One Song - Shared Power with Sociocracy

Q&A on the Book Many Voices, One Song - Shared Power with Sociocracy

Key Takeaways

  • The current systems are not satisfying because they disconnect us. Better systems are possible.
  • In order to run better systems like sociocracy, we need to understand the mindset and we need skills to use those systems.
  • Sociocracy is founded on the insight that effectiveness and equivalence are no contradiction; you can have them both.
  • It is important to have not only knowledge, but also skills in order to self-govern; integrating objections, giving feedback, facilitation all require practice and skill.
  • The book helps you implement sociocracy yourself -- it is self-governance, after all!

The book Many Voices, One Song - Shared Power with Sociocracy by Ted Rau and Jerry Koch-Gonzalez provides a collection of sociocratic tools and principles and stories about applying sociocracy. It can be used as a reference for implementing sociocracy in organizations to establish self-governance.

InfoQ received a draft of this upcoming book; the book will be published in June. It can be pre-ordered at a special price from the book website. InfoQ readers can download a book sample.

InfoQ interviewed Rau and Koch-Gonzalez about what sociocracy is and isn’t, how to teach and support the adoption of self-governance, how to structure organizations using sociocratic principles and practices, using objections in consent decision making, how feedback can drive change in organizations, and what strategies can be used to implement sociocracy and how to choose between them.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Ted Rau: Many of the people we trained asked for a comprehensive collection of sociocratic tools the way we teach them. We had a lot of great information in different places and it was time to gather it all in one spot.  

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez: To give a boost to the spread of sociocracy. We wanted to share our excitement about what sociocracy can do to support equality and a more just society.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Koch-Gonzalez: It is intended to make it easier for people who want to implement sociocracy in their organization, as a reference book. One would not read the book in one sitting cover to cover, but the intention is that people come back to it. It is for everybody who wants to learn, live, teach or share sociocracy.

Rau: It is for people who realize that they don’t want to use the systems that we all grew up with. Those who grew up in command-and-control systems are longing for alternatives that are more connecting. In authoritarian, hierarchical systems, everything becomes about being in power. In other areas, many people are frustrated with majority vote and how it seems to invite people to be more divisive; everything becomes about winning the election, not so much about content. And even consensus-run organizations often don’t provide a way out. Consensus can be great, but often, it also becomes about ideological fights, wanting to be right. Divisiveness, being in power, winning, being right, those are all part of a paradigm that disconnects us, and people are tired of it.
We always ask people we work with how they found us, and sometimes they just say they were frustrated and were hopeful that the internet would show them better ways of working together that would feel better and still be effective.

InfoQ: What is sociocracy and what isn't it?

Rau: It is a governance system: a set of tools that make sure we can work together, make important decisions together. Sociocracy comes with a decision-making method, consent, that is different from traditional consensus, and different from most other formal methods we use. Sociocracy gives a lot of power to small teams so that people can go make things happen fast and in an unbureaucratic way. Sociocracy provides a way to link teams that work on their own project so they can coordinate between teams. It also is a way to learn and evolve because it supports a feedback-rich environment.

Koch-Gonzalez: The essence of sociocracy is everyone included/no one ignored. It is a guiding framework for equivalence in policy making, workflow design and any organization where cooperation is a guiding principle.

It is not prescriptive, not set in stone. You can tailor it to your needs, your situation, and you can change it over time. It is also not a process for comprehensive personal transformation. To work best, sociocracy also needs the communication consciousness and skill offered by programs like Non-Violent Communication and an awareness of oppression dynamics. Sociocracy works without oppression but it doesn’t undo historical and internalized power dynamics; those have to be addressed with awareness and intentionality.

InfoQ: How do you teach and support the adoption of self-governance based on sociocracy?

Koch-Gonzalez: With this book! We also offer online training that shows people in an immersion context how sociocracy is done in real life. We offer articles that put the practices in context, we offer a study group curriculum for starters.

Rau: Our preferred model is to be second line support: we train and support leaders in organizations so skills and knowledge around self-governance can spread in the organization; that works best with regular check-ins to troubleshoot as the organization moves along. Self-governance has to be simple enough to do yourself, or it’s not self-governance! We help with the skills and the inspiration because our society does not have many role models. A reviewer called out book 300 pages of common sense, and that’s really what it is. We hope that very soon, systems like sociocracy will be the new normal and then we’ll be out of business!

InfoQ: How can we structure our organization using sociocratic principles and practices?

Rau: The starting point is to look at your organization and understand what areas can operate fairly autonomously. Those areas will be the basis for circles. If you need to divide the areas into smaller areas, you can easily use a fractal structure to divide them up more.
I always say, we want to create circles that have the perfect fit: the goal is that in every meeting of that circle, every agenda item is relevant to everyone in the room. If a bunch of people are sitting through a meeting that does not mean anything to them, you need to re-think your circle structure or put more authority into roles.
Once we have our circles that are empowered to do work without having to circle back to the whole organization, we make sure that we don’t end up with silos. Each circle is connected to its parent circle by what we call double-linking: two people are members of both the child circle and the parent circle. That way, both know well what each circle is up to and no circle will make a decision that will harm the other.

Having two people instead of one changes the energy a lot. You have to imagine that: when for instance the leader reports from a parent circle meeting, the other link (the delegate), who was also at the meeting, hears the report as well. That alone will change the way they report. There will be more transparency and more self-responsibility in a system like that.

Koch-Gonzalez: It is important to have clarity about what the practical aim of the organization is. Design the organization to carry out the elements of what is needed to produce the product or deliver the service.

Delegate authority to act within their domain to the most elemental units of the organization. Having double-linking --linking top-down and bottom-up creates a circular hierarchy instead of a top-down hierarchy. Learn and practice decision-making by consent at all levels. Generate and implement feedback processes for all aspects of the organization.

InfoQ: How can we use objections in consent decision making to improve decisions?

Koch-Gonzalez: Understanding objections is a center piece to sociocracy. In general, every circle will have an aim, which is a description of their work. This could be, for instance, onboarding new members for a membership circle. In order to improve the way we go about our work, we can make proposals. For instance, I could be making a proposal to move all the onboarding process onto a specific online platform. Depending on how the circle frames its work, this might be a policy decision, so the membership circle would have to consent to the proposal which means that the proposal is only approved if no one has an objection. Let’s say someone is concerned that this policy might make it easier for a membership circle to onboard new people but it also makes is harder for some new people to find their way in the new organization. Technically, this means that the circle member is concerned that we can’t do our work - onboarding - as effectively with the proposal as is. The circle’s task is now to integrate that objection -- what can we do to harvest the information from that objection and include it in our proposal?

The way sociocracy looks at objections is constructive. In this example, it is clear that everyone is doing their best to perform good work. That’s what is driving the proposal, and it’s also what’s driving the objection. There is no right or wrong, no us against them. It’s just all of us wanting to do good work.

Rau: And that’s where skill comes in. Knowing the mindset behind objections is important to address them with the attention and care they require so we can make sure no one is slowed down in doing good work. However, we also need solid skills to resolve objections. What options are there to resolve objections? Of course you can adjust the proposal. But there are more options: you can go ahead and try the new system out, with a short time frame -- whatever time frame seems safe enough -- while making sure to pay attention to agreed-upon metrics that tell you how it is going. Objections contain very valuable information of what we want to pay attention to. We can consent to running experiments so we can revisit the decision with more information. That way, we move forward in a safe way, we move together, and we learn more. It’s truly win-win-win.

InfoQ: How can feedback drive change in organizations?

Rau: Feedback is everywhere if we choose to pay attention to it. In the example we just mentioned, our metrics will give us feedback. Besides metrics, there is interpersonal feedback that helps us be more connected.

The more we know, the better we can do our work. That is true for what we know about each other, what we know about our work, and what we know about the way we work together.

Sociocracy provides natural points for giving each other feedback. The end of a meeting, the end of a project, policy reviews, performance reviews. Again, skills are important here. Feedback is only useful if it can be heard. If it cannot be received -- for whatever reason -- then the feedback will go unheard and it will not contribute to improving anything. If done poorly, feedback will even do more damage than good. With solid skills, it will be easier to  be honest without being hurtful.

Koch-Gonzalez: Feedback generates information about what’s effective -- how can we do more of it? It also generates information of what is less than optimal and opens the opportunity for improvement.

InfoQ: What tips do you have for getting and giving effective feedback in circles?

Koch-Gonzalez: Feedback is most useful if it is specific. Describe in observational rather than judgmental terms the behavior that is of concern. Ground that in the impact that it has on you or the organization’s capacity to do its work. Clarify that the feedback that you’ve given has been heard the way you intended by asking something like “I want to make sure that what you’ve heard from me is what I intended to communicate. Would you be willing to tell me what you heard?” You can follow up by asking “what comes up for you when hearing this feedback?” Continue the conversation to reach mutual understanding and then mutually generate next steps. That’s about personal feedback.

Rau: For roles, it starts with having clarity about what we are wanting from someone filling a role. That gives the person a good start into doing the work, and it gives us solid criteria to evaluate and improve. In giving feedback, it is important to keep in mind that it has to be mutual -- it is not one side deciding top-down what is good enough. We need to be curious about what is under someone’s behavior. We assume that people always do the best they can.

If an obstacle is mutually acknowledged, we’re not on opposite sides anymore. Then we can be allies in resolving whatever stands in the way.

InfoQ: What strategies can be used to implement sociocracy and how to choose between them?

Rau: We prefer when organizations are driving the change themselves and form a team that learns a lot about governance first. That team will also be able to practice together and gain skills and their own experience. We often help those implementation circles in finding good information about governance, training individuals or groups in our online learning-by-doing classes so they get a feel for what sociocracy feels like and sounds like. It’s more than a set of formats, it’s a culture based on shared power.
That circle will provide information for the larger organization, train others and with the feedback from the larger organization, work out a proposal of how the circle structure might look to coordinate the work being done in the organization.

Facilitation is an extra skill that is worth spreading in the organization, beyond the implementation circle. Not everyone needs to be trained on an expert level, but everyone in the organization needs to understand how things work. The more people are trained, the more meetings will flow, work will be delegated well, feedback will be given and received better -- good education creates the grease that helps things run more smoothly.

Koch-Gonzalez: An implementation can go top down from a board deciding to implement sociocracy and creating a change team than involves a cross section of members of the organization to develop an implementation and roll-out plan. Another approach is to do small-scale experiments in one department or unit of the organization. Even in an organization that is not consciously open to trying out sociocracy, an individual can initiate processes that support hearing everyone’s voice, for example by suggesting to do a round during a meeting, or small interventions like asking for a review date for criteria for review for a policy that is being adopted. For any work process that seems to be effective, ask for an exploration of what makes it effective so that lessons can be learned and therefore you model continuous learning.

InfoQ: Where can people go if they want to learn more about sociocracy and get ideas for applying it?

Koch-Gonzalez: All the processes are described on our website, and most comprehensively in the book, of course. We also have webinar recordings on our website, or look at upcoming events. We do telephone, online and in-person consultations; see our website.

Rau: Some of our students write up case studies that usually help people, and I am active on Medium and social media.

About the Book Authors

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez is a long-time social change activist who helps companies and organizations implement sociocracy to create adaptive and effective organizations where all members’ voice matters. He is a consultant and certified trainer in both Dynamic Governance/Sociocracy and Compassionate Communication (NVC), with a focus on governance, decision making, communication skills, and conflict resolution.


Ted Rau is a linguist, videographer and singer-songwriter, parent, cohousing resident.  Rau has been teaching and supporting sociocracy in organizations for more than two years and holds leading positions in three different sociocratically run organizations.


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