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Applying Sociocracy 3.0 Patterns for Implementing Agile Practices

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Sociocracy 3.0 is an open framework which supports collaboration in agile organizations and helps them to continuously improve products and services. The framework provides patterns for activities like coordinating work, effective meetings, governance, and building organizations.

The Sociocracy 3.0 patterns are based on these seven principles:

  • empiricism
  • consent
  • equivalence
  • effectiveness
  • accountability
  • continuous improvement
  • transparency

The Sociocracy 3.0 movement provides resources to learn, practice and teach Sociocracy 3.0. Their aim is to make S3 available to organizations to help them become more effective, resilient and agile.

InfoQ interviewed James Priest and Bernhard Bockelbrink from Sociocracy 3.0 about what Sociocracy 3.0 is, how it relates to agile, how you can apply Sociocracy 3.0 patterns when implementing agile practices, and what will happen next with the Sociocracy 3.0 patterns.

InfoQ: What is Sociocracy 3.0?

James Priest & Bernhard Bockelbrink: Sociocracy 3.0 (a.k.a. S3) is a framework that people can draw on to grow more agile organizations. The framework is comprised of a selection of principles based patterns - definitions, guidelines and flexible processes - that have proven helpful for people when collaborating to achieve shared objectives.

S3 draws on key elements of the "Sociocratic Circle Organization Method" (SCM, a.k.a. Dynamic Governance in the US), agile software development and lean thinking, taking inspiration from many other sources, e.g. the scientific method, Non-Violent Communication, the Core Protocols, Holacracy (another descendant of SCM), psychology, coaching and facilitation techniques.

The patterns are modular yet mutually reinforcing, and compliment an agile (i.e. empirical and hypothesis-driven) approach towards many aspects of organization including: co-creation, organizing work, making and evolving agreements, effective meetings, building organisations, personal development, organisational structure, organisational development, alignment, and last but not least, rolling out and evolving S3 patterns. The patterns are both enabling and constraining in that they offer guidelines for how to go about things, whilst encouraging collaboration.

S3 is about building a culture of collaboration that compliments people’s natural desire for purpose, autonomy and mastery, alongside their basic needs for relationship and sense of belonging.

It’s an invitation for people to pay attention to what is actually happening and needed in the context of why they are collaborating together, and to focus on responding to this, rather than idealizing how things might or should be and trying to predict and control what happens in order to realize this.

Noteworthy in S3 are patterns for proposal forming and decision making, which encourage diversity of perspective and opinion to be shared and considered among those affected by decisions, building respect and trust in each other along the way. The patterns facilitate emergence of novelty (new ideas), continuity (maintenance of whatever is good enough) and safety checks to ensure that decisions appear (at least) safe enough to try and actions safe enough to continue based on what is currently known.

We believe that an effective organisation is one that creates value and flows it where needed, being able to easily change when it’s indicated that this would be helpful to maintain or improve the flow of value. Rather than implementing a rigid system of rules and policy, S3 supports people to free themselves up to get on with things, builds self-accountability, encourages artful participation and invites the discipline required to make just as many agreements as are needed to be effective, evolving things as necessary and dropping whatever is no longer helpful.

S3 encourages reflexive practice – reflection "for", "in" and "on" action, and the openness to pivot, evolve and adapt based on what happens, what is discovered and what is learned.

InfoQ: How does Sociocracy 3.0 relate to agile?

Priest & Bockelbrink: Most agile frameworks and methods focus on software development and project management, omitting to significantly address questions relating to management and governance, organisational structure and organisational change. S3 brings agile thinking to all aspects of an organisation. It aims to solve some interesting challenges: how can we create a coherent agile culture throughout an organisation where helpful potential is not limited by hierarchical power structures or traditional ideas of project management (which we know are incompatible to agile), and how can the people in agile organisations thrive at the same time as discovering and developing the necessary resources, understanding and skills to effectively contribute to a flourishing organisation.

InfoQ: How can you apply Sociocracy 3.0 patterns when implementing agile practices?

Priest & Bockelbrink: S3 complements the Lean Startup Method, Scrum, eXtreme Programming, Software Kanban (both on a team level and Enterprise Kanban), SAFe, DAD, LeSS, OpenAgile and many other agile and lean methodologies, and it even provides a way to adapt and evolve those methodologies when an organisation outgrows them.

Any organisation experimenting with agile is most likely already familiar with several of the patterns contained in S3, e.g. working from a prioritised backlog, or visualising work (usually on a Scrum board or a Kanban board) or holding retrospectives. What often helps agile teams take things to the next level are the S3 patterns around making and evolving agreements. Take for example Consent Decision Making, which can be used to evolve agreements in teams implementing Kanban, or product or architecture decisions in a Scrum team. When scaling agile development, teams can use structural patterns like the Delegate Circle or the Service Circle to align their efforts across teams, e.g. around the functions of architecture or product decisions. This is often combined with the pattern for selecting people to roles to determine who best represents each team in these circles.

In the article Connect Agile Teams to Organizational Hierarchy: A Sociocratic Solution Pieter van der Meché and Jutta Eckstein explained how sociocratic double-linking allows for a better alignment between bottom-up and top-down decision making in organizations:

In "regular" hierarchies there is a person (often called manager) assigned who ensures that information flows top-down. This also means that the manager has to take care that decisions made at the next higher management level get executed in the department or team he or she leads. In an agile team this could be the product owner (...).

For the information flowing bottom-up the team elects a representative. This can be anyone appointed from the team (it could be the Scrum master, but doesn’t have to be). What makes sociocracy different is the following: this representative is not only a regular team member in his own team, but also a regular member (with all decision-making authority) of the group one level above.

So this is why it is called double-linking – at the level above are always two persons on behalf of a team below: the manager and the representative. Or in other words, from every level of the hierarchy there is a person who is appointed to the next level down (as a kind of manager) and a person to the next level above (as a representative).

InfoQ: What is the idea behind the patterns that Sociocracy 3.0 provides?

Priest & Bockelbrink: A pattern is a template for addressing specific situations or challenges, which can be adapted to context as needed (there’s even a specific pattern for doing that). All of the currently more than 65 patterns in S3 are guided by seven principles: empiricism, consent, equivalence, effectiveness, accountability, continuous improvement and transparency.

Alongside the seven principles, there is also the pattern of Chosen Values, an invitation for organizations to consider choosing overarching values (inherent or aspirational) to help define ethical parameters for decision making and action which in turn can help to maintain or evolve organizational culture.

The pattern-based approach of S3 allows for an agile (and more common-sense) approach to organisational change: keep doing what works well and change when needed, whereby pulling in one or several patterns from S3 may help people respond to the challenges and opportunities faced. This way organisations can organically grow and adapt at their own pace, a stark contrast to the revolutionary change mandated by all-or-nothing approaches like Scrum or Holacracy which can pose a great risk to organisations but makes a great business model for consultants!

InfoQ: What will happen next with the Sociocracy 3.0 patterns?

Priest & Bockelbrink: As more individuals and organisations experiment with S3, the framework will inevitably expand to include more patterns. Existing patterns will be refined and updated with variants that prove useful. One example for this is the Driver Mapping pattern inspired by Gojko Adzic’s Impact Mapping, which was discovered and evolved by groups of people using patterns from S3 who wanted to identify, distribute and prioritize a projects operational and governance backlogs in response to larger projects or startups.

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