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Exploring the Seven Principles of Sociocracy 3.0

Principles guide behaviour, and when made explicit can raise consciousness and help to evolve culture. The seven Sociocracy 3.0 principles support organizations that want to act in integrity with their environment, learn from experience, and generate a collaborative, adaptable and intelligent system to navigate complexity.

James Priest spoke about Sociocracy 3.0 at the Agile Consortium Belgium 2017 conference. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) is an open framework for evolving agile and resilient organizations, said Priest. You can view it as a set of ideas that people are already using, which seem to bring value in certain contexts.

At the Agile Consortium Belgium conference Priest presented the seven principles of Sociocracy 3.0 and discussed with the audience what’s behind them:

  • Empiricism: do things based on evidence, experiment, test your assumptions and be prepared to re-evaluate knowledge based on new experience.
  • Effectiveness: extends beyond just efficiency to consider the bigger picture and the impact of actions, both now and in the future.
  • Transparency: assure that things are out in the open, visible and understandable to those who need to know or are affected. Make information available and understandable for everyone unless there is a good reason for confidentiality.
  • Continuous improvement: learn from what you’ve done to do better in the future.
  • Accountability: take care of things. Take ownership of responsibilities and for the overall objectives of the organization. Do what you’ve agreed to. Clean up your own mess!
  • Equivalence: people affected by decisions are involved in making them, with the power to influence change when there is reason to do so (equivalence is important precisely because people are otherwise often not equal in their ability to influence).
  • Consent: do things in the absence of reasons not to do them. Aim for "good enough for now and safe enough to try" decisions and improve as it becomes obvious how to do so (supremacy lies with the argument, not a person!).

Earlier InfoQ interviewed James Priest and Bernhard Bockelbrink about Applying Sociocracy 3.0 Patterns for Implementing Agile Practices.

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 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.

Patterns in Sociocracy 3.0 are not intended as prescriptive; they are there to help you come up with solutions that can work for you, said Priest.

InfoQ spoke with James Priest after his talk.

InfoQ: How did Sociocracy 3.0 come up with these seven principles?

James Priest: As S3 was taking shape we took a high level look at what was emerging and asked ourselves what behaviours were being invited. Classic Sociocracy (SCM) is built on three "values" - equivalence, effectiveness and transparency - so it was obvious that these should be woven into the fabric of the framework. We chose to describe them as "principles" because we felt that this would widen the scope for people to consider them. After all, one of the first places people get into conflict is over "values" they have, whereas, you don’t need to value a principle to consider it.

Making decisions with consent was already a "principle" in SCM and continuous improvement and empiricism were also obvious candidates because they are both essential if people are going to settle for "good enough for now, safe enough to try" decision making, and evolve things as they go along.

Accountability was an additional principle we decided to make explicit. S3 is about decentralizing and distributing power to influence throughout an organization. To delegate authority and responsibility, it’s important that those who take on responsibilities also take accountability for following through.

InfoQ: Which role do these principles play?

Priest: I think the implications of these principles are numerous, both in terms of organizations and regarding our daily lives in general. Overall, they guide behaviour but a good way to start answering this question is by asking yourself how you see these principles alive in the organizations you are part of, or the absence of them. Consider if there are some principles that would benefit the quality of collaboration; whether they were (more) explicitly and consciously adopted.

Besides the consequences of actually adopting these principles, one of the most notable outcomes of even considering them is that we become more conscious of how we are behaving in their absence.

There is no rocket science involved, of course! These principles make good sense to any organization that wants to act in integrity with its environment, learn from experience, and generate a collaborative, adaptable and intelligent system that can navigate complexity. But just because they make good sense, doesn’t mean that they are currently widespread in organizations today. I would argue that they are becoming increasingly important to consider, though.

InfoQ: What if someone values a principle which is not on the list? Can they still use the Sociocracy 3.0 framework?

Priest: Sure, and if we take a minute to consider it, there are many other principles reflected in the patterns and overall framework of S3. For example: "respect oneself and others" – "collaborate" - "bring more consciousness to what we are doing" - "act with integrity" - "eliminate waste" - "intentionally open to learn and more importantly un-learn" - "invite rather than impose" - "leverage diversity and avoid imposing conformity" - etc.

A great thing about S3 is that people can do whatever they like with it. The question is perhaps more, would people want to pull-in patterns from S3? Broadly speaking, if an individual or an organization’s chosen values (explicit or implicit) do not embrace some of the principles of S3, then it’s less likely that they will want to experiment with S3 to begin with. I think this is an important factor to respect. Forced change often leads to "unhealthy" outcomes that may outweigh the apparent benefits, even if we are trying to change something we considered "unhealthy" to begin with.

My personal view is that adopting the seven principles is an essential part of being able to pull-in many other patterns from S3 successfully, but I still think it’s important that people decide for themselves what’s important for them. I’d rather that people take a look at S3 from whatever point of view they are coming from and whatever their current cherished principles may be, than to reject it at first glance because it appears somehow contrary to what they until now believed important or valuable.

Conversely, experimentation with many of the patterns from S3 helps people to learn for themselves why the seven principles are valuable for more effective collaboration. When people learn through experience, then they can take ownership of this knowledge for themselves. Self-determined change is often the most robust because unless people see value in doing things differently for themselves, then they are unlikely to give their best and truly engage. Engagement and the wish of people to give their best are two qualities that contribute a lot to an organization's overall effectiveness, adaptability and resilience, and neither can be forced – only chosen.

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