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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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Community comments

  • Practice & Principles

    by Douglas Jack,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Many businesses & social organizations are implementing or trying to implement Sociocracy, I'm 65 years old & have encountered people in the many businesses & organizations, which I've been involved with, trying to implement sociocracy for 50 years of my active involvement. The principles are solid but more attention needs to be paid to practice or implementation because action is where the tire hits the pavement. Principle must come from practice.
    For implementation, we need to recognize our collective colonial hesitancy. Colonialism derived from the failures of 'exogenous' (Latin 'other-generated') empire societies / civilizations, each progressively failing. Colonial societies first destroy their once 'indigenous' (L 'self-generating') 3-dimensional abundant Polyculture Orchards & replace these 2-D 'agriculture' (L 'ager' = 'field'). Food production being the foundation of all human economy, in agriculture's case, violent destruction of nature's bounty, then as well transforms the human mind from collaborative 3-D to hierarchal 2-D. Failing colonial economy breeds fear, more violence, hierarchy & oligarchs who use the rejects of their societies (eg. 10 million from failed Europe) to invade, extract & exploit the people & biospheres of other lands & continents. Through the violence of our extraction & exploitation of the biosphere, we violate our own human relations & create collective amnesia for the 100s of 1000s of years of 'Sylvalization' (L 'sylva' = 'tree') peace & abundance, which nourished humankind before the last 7000 years of violent colonization genocide.
    Exogenous institutional & social programming behaviour-modification leaves the individual, family & society at odds with its natural indigenous self & hence the trouble groups have faced with implementing such as Sociocracy or its ally Non-violent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg). We know where we want to get to but the legacy within our programmed institutional methodology leads us away from our goals.
    It is from this experience, I have been involved with First Nation & indigenous solidarity projects for over 53 years, including the very successful implementation of indigenous economy practices. This work both practices & principles are described in 77 web-sections of the website

  • Re: Practice & Principles

    by James Priest,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Douglas, thanks for sharing your experience. While my journey with Sociocratic Circle Method (SCM) as defined by Gerard Endenburg only dates back 18 years now, I see and understand what you are describing, both in terms of dilutions or distortions people have experienced in seeking to "implement" SCM and the cultural blindspots and conditioning that acts counter to whatever following the principles invites. It's a complex topic you touch on with many dimensions to be considered.

    One of my biggest drivers towards co-developing Sociocracy 3.0 (s3) was in recognition of the quandary you describe, both micro and meta. I am now of the opinion that in general, it is a mistake to try to implement a methodology 'onto' people. Impose or mandate it if you will. I also see the fallacy or relying on a single method, and most significant of all, to fail to recognize that what is really invited in interacting with the philosophy or sociocracy, is personal transformation, which necessitates willingness to grow greater consciousness of our vulnerability and accountability as human beings.

    Consent requires consent, and the discipline and commitment required to come consciously face to face with previously unconscious habits and strategies, and acknowledge how often they are contributing to the status quo we seek to change, takes the will and courage of each individual in turn. In my experience, the modular and optional approach we are taking with Sociocracy 3.0, where people are invited to identify their areas of greatest need and pull in patterns that may help them address that and only if they would enjoy to do so, is a long game approach. But it leads to sustained buy-in to the patterns by those who choose to use them, and at a more discreet level, through that experience helps those people to understand and learn the value of the principles applied to wider facets of their life.

    I do not know what is to be done regarding the fact that the social programming you describe can in itself blind people to even recognise and understand that change may be expedient and that there are means and ways that can help. It seems that people need to come to points of realization in their own time and we can only (humanely at least) make invitation and craft environments that may help.

    I see S3 as but one of many complimentary bodies of wisdom that will appeal to some and perhaps repel others. If I look deeply then the echoes of eternal wisdom whisper from deeper within. It's one small contribution towards the emergence of that which may be possible, and surely what comes next shall reflect the collective consequence of our joint actions and our capacity to learn from one another and also, as you point out, from the vast wealth of wisdom accrued before.

    At first glance your website appears to provide a wealthy archive of recorded wisdom. I am happy to make your acquaintance and appreciated to read you point of view.



  • Re: Sociocracy: Practice & Principles

    by Douglas Jack,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    James Priest, Thank you for your wonderful explanations of Sociocracy S3. Here I am responding as life has evolved seven months later. Your writing on the 7 Principles of Sociocracy makes for wonderful reflection in the work of my own & those I'm associated with. I've had the opportunity to interact with Sociocracy over 4 decades. Some I'm with ascribe to "Sociocracy" as a set of principles, but they don't have the practice to understand the priority 'cultural' modalities & end up imposing their hierarchal interpretation.
    Coming from 'indigenous' (Latin 'self-generating') tradition, there are two guiding Practice Processes to cultural implementation of these Principles:
    1) Indigenous Council Process whereby every person has the 'Dialectic (both-sided-dialogue)-Right' to challenge any other person or professional-role, which they are affected-by to a 'debate' (French 'de' = 'undo' + 'bate' = 'the-fight'). Debates can be used in research to dialectically explore as well as in Conflict-Resolution. Typically stakeholders first debate among themselves to choose a spokesperson who represents the stakeholder group to other stakeholder groups & so-on up-the-hierarchy. Dialectic rights to debates include: Both-sided, Equal-time, Recorded & Published or Confidential as agreed upon. As many people as who are affected by the issue of a debate, have the right to hear the video, audio & or transcription of the debate.
    2) Indigenous Time-based Equivalency Accounting as practiced in the economies of the specialized Production-Society-Guilds & ~100 person Multihome-Dwelling-Complexes (eg. Apartment, Townhouse & Village) for all collective domestic, industrial & commercial contributions by all stakeholders (eg. Founders, Workers, Managers, Suppliers & Consumer). Traditionally the worldwide String-shell (eg. Wampum on North America, Quipu on South-America & Cowrie on Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia & all the islands of the world) accounting was performed by accountant specialists in these entities to keep track of or organizationally recognize & empower all the contracted contributions of each person & entity. The string-shell as a value system integrates: a) Capital (L 'cap' = 'head' = 'collective-intelligence'). One votes with one's string-shell as representing the contribution, experience, expertise, decision-making acumen in these systems of Progressive-Ownership, b) Currency (flow) for Compensation. Each person working in their own area of expertise thus developed credit to spend on all the necessities of life, c) Condolence (social-security). When someone was sick or a family member died, the Production-Society &/or Multihome provided string-shell condolence for those affected to be able to recover, d) Collegial mentored-apprenticeship educational Credits). While learning was laboratory based in real-life, there was also an element of study & reflection upon one's learning, e) Time-math Communication as a universal common denominator of economic activity, f) professional Costume so as to identify experts responsible in each of the professional disciplines & much more.

    Individuals & groups who are trying to sort out Sociocracy Practice, will do well to set up these two essential practices so as to develop a collective intelligence & related empowerment-recognition cycle for labour-doing within their organizations. I have studied & acted in solidarity with all humanity's indigenous heritage & 1st Nations (some of my ancestry) over 54 years living & working with communities, as well as been involved in such as Sociocracy, Non-Violent-Communication & other movements & organizations. I've seen how we live with the 'exogenous' (L 'other-generated') colonial oligarch-led consequences of violent invasion, genocide, command & control. Violence breeds ignorance through its methodology so we need to become conscious of insidious oligarch design in our system. ie The Medium is the message, so we become aware of Process as well as Content messages. Human indigenous ancestry contains a world-wide systematic heritage of integrated interdisciplinary, holistic whole system design complexity.

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