10982447_1535925890020463_3931142038674361825_nRecently I came across the following.

“I am looking for (if possible) a short and clear explanation of how sociocracy is different from consensus.”

I was inspired to offer an answer:

Firstly to clarify that consensus is a decision making process. Sociocracy on the other hand is a system design and governance methodology, with a decision making process built in.

So, the short answer: Consensus deliberately seeks to establish an agreement that reflects what everybody wants to do in order to address the needs that inspired the decision being sought to start with.

Consent decision making deliberately seeks to establish if there are any objections to a proposal designed to address a need, from becoming policy.

Consensus is seeking to find the best decision for the purpose. Consent decision making is seeking to find a good enough decision that can then be tried out, tested, and improved over time.

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Consensus Decision Making places emphasis upon equivalence (giving people a voice in the decisions that affect them). Sociocracy places emphasis on striking a balance between equivalence and effectiveness. In complex environments, striking such a balance is essential and where there is the additional issue of limited time and resources, then consensus can be intolerably ineffective and can lead to frustration, in-equivalence,  despair even, and implosion or dissolution of an organisation!

It’s a bit like the difference between writing a 50 page business plan, or to write a one page business model canvas (as is the flavor these days). The reason the one pager is usually the better bet is because we mostly live in complexity. Environments are changing rapidly, both within and without, and they can be difficult to read accurately. In addition, the future is hard to predict. Therefore, good practice in organisational development, software development, facilitative parenting, intimate relationship, formulating opinions and all manner of other human activities, is leaning towards beginning with only a few assumptions, discovering through experience and adapting and evolving according to changing context, increased experience and actual need.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Well, it’s pretty much what life has been doing in its perpetual business of unfolding, for all time! Only life, it seems, does not fear it’s own emergence. Human beings however, fear many things, and especially the unknown future, and perhaps this speaks to the the essence of what drives human strategies of command and control.

So we rest in to various processes that we image will somehow guarantee our needs being met, and if we’ve been wounded sufficiently from engaging in the “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze” paradigm, which reflects a natural phase of human development, and have the privilege of living in an environment where our lives are not threatened, then we are probably ready for trying something a little more progressive. At this point it becomes clear that some form of collaborative process is the way to go and that tools like consensus decision making become appealing.

Longer answer: To take a slightly longer way around answering the question then I would say the following:

I like to suggest that there are more and less mature interpretations of consensus. A reductionist view sees seeking consensus as arrival at a decision that everyone is super happy with. This tends to be reliant upon a more ego-centric point of view whereby everyone feels like the decision reflects their preferred choice.

In actuality however, in groups, (even seemingly flat, egalitarian groups) there are issues of projection, rank, inequality and power / vulnerability dynamics, all of which tend to influence peoples willingness to speak up or to stay silent. This leads to the potential for all kinds of distortions in a consensus decision making process.

Add to this that life is diverse and complex and that efforts to establish a decision that everyone is always super happy with, is likely to mean that diversity has been sacrificed in favor of uniformity, and we can see how consensus can lead to decisions being made that have been crafted more in order to win favor, than specifically to address the need that was being sought to be met.

A more mature interpretation of consensus is to describe a decision being agreed to that reflects the collective intelligence of the group, and through navigating the processes of consensus decision making, one can arrive at the “holy grail” of proposals that everyone fully endorses.

Such an outcome can be wonderful, resilient and fit for purpose.

One of the key issues with consensus decision making, regardless of which way you interpret it, is that it tends to take quite a bit of time. Some people (half) jokingly call it “decision making by endurance”. I say “half” because often times it is no joke and people really suffer a lack of effectiveness in organisations using consensus, because more time is taken up (trying) to make decisions than in carrying out the actions that result from these decisions.

In order to understand Consent Decision Making, which is the type of decision making process that sociocracy endorses, it’s helpful to consider first some different types of decision making and their relationship to supremacy. Supremacy being “the concentration of power to one individual or group, to the exclusion of others”.

So in Autocratic decision making, supremacy goes to the individual or small group. Often very effective (in the short term at least because it doesn’t take long) but usually less than resilient in the long term. It’s an approach that maximizes the potential for organisation wide (and nation wide) disengagement over time.

In Majority decision making, supremacy goes to the majority, and often to the cost of the emergent wisdom that is coming through the minority voice. ~This is much like the typical case where a child brings new wisdom into a family system, yet can be shut down and shamed for acting outside of the norms of the family culture, behaving in ways that seem threatening either to themselves or to others. In-fact, this has happened for nearly all of us in some ways or other.

In consensus decision making, supremacy goes to…. the individual, in that they have the power to block a decision! If there is a lack of clarity regarding what specifically constitutes a valid block then we find that people can stop decisions being made to serve all kinds of motives, and regardless of whether or not there is a clear reason. So then, consensus can actually turn out to be just another form of potential autocracy, only in this case, nobody “wins”! Even in consensus with recourse, the recourse usually involves falling back to the majority, so we still lose the potential wisdom emerging through the minority!

In consent decision making however, supremacy is given to reason. Reason meaning, a valid objection results in a clear explanation that clarifies why doing what is being proposed stands in the way of our aim together, or the shared aims of the organisation. Or stands in the way of someone’s ability to fulfill a role that they have been appointed to, in order to serve the aim/s.

In sociocracy we DELIBERATELY seek objections. Objections are seen as gifts! I like to say that “(reasoned) objections conceal wisdom seeking emergence into the consciousness of the group”. I go further in suggesting that “within all perceived problems, challenges and difficulties, lies wisdom seeking emergence into consciousness”.

Sometimes of course, what convincingly seemed like an objection (through the objectors eyes at least) turns out to be arising not from a proposal that could harm the shared aims or my ability to contribute to those aims, but rather upon a misunderstanding of the proposal, or someone acting out of a fundamentalist mind-set, or simply a bit triggered because of an alternative preference etc.

Sometimes the wisdom seeking emergence is for the person who thought that they had an objection… in discovering a blind spot to their perspective for example, or in realizing that they had some personal belief about how things “should” be done, and that this was just one way of going about addressing the tension that had led to the issue being considered to begin with.

Sociocracy places a strong emphasis upon the principle of learning from experience. Therefore, all decisions are regularly reviewed and improved, whenever reason is discovered to do so. This means that we don’t need to write the world’s most perfect proposal and ”iron out all the creases” before giving it a go. We can check that there is no obvious reason not to do something and then try it out, evaluate it regularly, and improve the process as we go.

So we seek to make decisions that people can live with and that are fit to serve the purpose for which they were made to start with. As my dear friend and fellow sociocracy trainer Diana Leafe Christian says, we make policies that are “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try”.

It’s important to realize that Consent Decision Making is not a “free for all” where people can add whatever proposals they like, at any time, and in the absence of objections then everyone has to go along with it. We avoid making policies for policy’s sake, and instead, craft proposals when tensions arise that require some kind of agreement to be made in order to establish shared clarity and alignment on how to address it.

In order to support the creation of resilient policies, sociocracy has a built in “Proposal Forming Process” specifically designed to reveal the scope of an issue. Taking time to reflect on an issue from many angles, before jumping in and identifying possible solutions, makes a lot of sense because the more reflection points a group of people have to consider, the more the creativity is stimulated and the more comprehensive the variety of potential solutions will be.

The Proposal Forming Process can be used to support everyone affected by a decision in participating in forming a proposal, so that by the time it comes to actually checking to see if a proposal draft has objections, everyone is feeling a sense of ownership and interest in whether it is fit for purpose.

If people have a sense of equivalence (having a voice in decisions that affect them), and if they’ve contributed towards crafting and influencing the decisions that affect them, then they will be far more tolerant towards being guided by these decisions. This is one of the shared benefits of both successful consensus decision making and of consent decision making.

But decisions made by consensus are harder to change easily because then you potentially need to go through the whole process again. With consent decision making, regular retrospectives are an integral part of the process. People expect to regularly review decisions and it’s for this reason that they are more prepared to live with decisions, even if they  do not reflect always their first choice.

With the addition of the inclusive and collective intelligence tapping Proposal Forming Process, then members of a group invariably feel motivated to take an active role in reviewing and evaluating the consequences of the policies that they helped to create. Because of this they engage more actively in contributing towards improving policies over time, as the inner and outer environment changes.

Conclusion: travel light, improve continuously, dynamically steer and treat tensions and objections as the portals through which life’s wisdom is knocking at your door! Be prepared to let go and to step beyond the comfort zone. It’s usually a third way that represents the most resilient and holistically valuable path, but in order to discover it, we have to learn to embrace the tension of opposites, lest we all become instead a generic version of uniformity, where the creative potential lying between seemingly polarized points of view, becomes lost forever to obscurity.

In the end, whichever methodology we opt for, what’s probably most important is to be clear exactly what it is that we wish to achieve and why, and to decide how much of our short, precious lifetime we wish to spend discussing how to go about doing things, verses how much time we wish to spend actually doing them.

If you’re preference is more towards effectiveness and getting things done, but you still wish to ensure that you’ve checked in with collective intelligence, that everyone affected is on-board, and that your decisions are robust and fit for purpose, then consent decision making is probably going to be “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try”.

The great thing about knowing that you can say “no” tomorrow, is that it makes it much easier to say “yes” for today!