This is the second part of a 3 part article – looking at the second tool. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.
Many organizations are intrigued by the idea of self-management using circle-based frameworks and other decision making tools from sociocracy. However, it can be intimidating to implement those methods. You’ll have to do research, train everyone, implement — months or even years of transition time. And regular work needs to get done as well! I always compare changes in governance to beating heart surgery. Tricky — at the very least.
Is there an easier way? Most of all, is there a safer way? Something that’s not all-or-nothing but more step-by-step? Luckily, sociocracy lends itself to that. Start with something and then add more features if and when you want. You do not have to ask anyone for permission. You have full power over your self-management method.
The 3 tools presented here don’t need long explanations or trainings. You can do a small-scale experiment and evaluate how it went. When you’re ready to hear more beyond those three tools, I am happy to point you to the next step.
I picked these three tools because, in our experience, these are the tools that our training participants bring into their companies and that stick the most. Try them and see what you think.
Make better decisions with small group decisions
More a principle than a tool, sociocracy, like all frameworks building on distributed power, pushes authority to the teams on the “lowest” or most specific level. Those small teams will be the people who do operational work in that domain and have a defined area of responsibility and authority to govern their own team’s work, a key ingredient of self-management. As often as you can, let the people decide who are going to end up doing the work. There is much more to say about organizational structure but I promised easy, accessible tools, so let’s keep it simple.
A common reaction here is “but if we are all equals, shouldn’t we all decide together?” Although this sounds so intriguingly logical, it simply doesn’t carry over into reality. It is not how people are wired. In a large group, individuals will dominate the discussion or struggle to make themselves heard. Or they will disengage and give up on getting heard. Is that what we have in mind when we all want to be equals? Not really.
Deliberation in a small group makes it easier to listen to each other and to engage with each other. But then — how can we trust that those few people will make a decision that works for everyone who is affected by the decision? In short, how can we make sure everyone is heard and still have the benefits of an engaged discussion (ideally, in rounds)?
How to use small group decisions from sociocracy
A helpful solution is baked into sociocracy for decision making in small groups. It is not a compromise between small groups and an all-inclusive approach. It is truly a both-and: we include everyone by hearing their input. The input is taken into the team where they can engage with the input and come to a decision. A group can go through multiple iterations of feedback. Decreasing the number of decision-makers while increasing the number of input-givers is the best of both worlds.
Benefits of small group decision making
With more input and more deliberation, your organization’s decisions will get better. Oftentimes, decisions also get faster.
There is a side-effect of small group mandate that is big for me. I can relax. I don’t have to take care of everything. Not everything requires my opinion. We all have to make so many decisions every day that many of us are grateful not having to make one. Similar to rounds, small group mandate protects us from being too attached to our own opinions.
Typical reservations about small group decision making
We have seen implementations where a team rushed to make a decision which they knew was controversial as soon as sociocracy was implemented. Finally they were in charge and could just do as they pleased. Response by those affected? Big outrage. What had gone wrong? Decrease the number of decision-makers and increase the level of feedback. The interesting things is, you will get the feedback. Before making a decision, the feedback can be called input. After some decisions, the word to describe feedback may be outrage!
Trust in a small group of decision-makers has to be earned and maintained. No decision should be surprising. If a decision triggers strong reactions, the team did not do their homework. In the dance of feedback and decision-making, governance turns into a quiet, well-oiled machine.
How to start using small group decisions
Next time you sit in a meeting with more than 8 people, identify one agenda item that could be dealt with by a group of 4. Suggest a way to form the group members, decide how they are going to get input (and from whom) and suggest a schedule of presenting ideas — getting feedback — announcing decision that feels safe to your group. If you want an even better result, make sure the group is also clear on which channels they want feedback.
If your organization truly does not allow for smaller groups to make decisions, here is a compromise (and this is merely a compromise, not a both-and solution). Ask for a group to work out a proposal (using the same cycles of feedback etc) and to bring it to the large group for a decision. If this goes well a few times (especially with consent as a decision-making method!), you might be able to train your organization to trust small groups. Then you can hand over decision-making power to small groups more and more.
Magic phrases for encouraging small group decisions
It does not seem a good use of our time to work on the wording for this in a large group. Can 4 of us take this on and bring it back?
I trust that the three people who are actually running the ____ can make a decision here. Let’s do one more go-around where everyone gives them some input on this particular issue, and then we can let them run with it.