1.1 Holacracy and sociocracy — likeness and differences
With complexity rising in all contexts in all sectors, decentralized self-governance systems have received more attention in recent years. Two big players in the field, and closely related, are Holacracy and sociocracy.
It seems to be almost universally true that if there are two players, we focus on their differences. Being a big fan of convergence and synergy, this has troubled me and others for a while — after all, Holacracy and sociocracy are very, very similar, especially compared to mainstream top-down hierarchies. This article is an attempt to map out the sameness of, and differences between, Holacracy and sociocracy. I hope to show that the perceived sharp divide of Holacracy on one side — depending on who you ask — as the “better suited for business” or “rigid and cold”, and sociocracy on the other side as “wishy-washy” or “more wholesome” is not accurate and, more importantly, not useful. The differences are small, yet — depending on your values — significant. Knowing the difference gives you choice, and, hopefully, it supports more learning and constructive discussion to further our understanding of circle-and-role-based governance systems.
1.2 My own background
Let’s start with the obvious — I’m a sociocracy person. I teach, consult, and use sociocracy in my daily work life and in my living community.
Yet, I have been following Holacracy, spent a lot of time in conversation with Holacracy coaches, and in two study groups on the topic that I’ve convened with Holacracy practitioners. Part of the driver was simply “knowing the field”, but also curiosity about what could be learned from Holacracy. And I learned things! For example, I love the strong focus on roles in Holacracy and that has certainly changed my practice of sociocracy.
In this article, I am striving to give an accurate description, not to prove a point that one is better than the other. Quite the opposite, I am appreciative of the diversity of role/circle-based governance systems — even beyond just the two.
1.3 A note in history
The term sociocracy (“governance by those who associate together”) is old and goes back as early as 1851. It was picked up and filled with life in the early 20th century by Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury who founded a school using consensus decisions making that had a student Gerard Endenburg who later became a electrical engineer and experimented with what was later called the Sociocratic Circle Method in Endenburg Elektronieks. By the 1980s, the basic principles were established: consent, selections by consent, nested circles, and linking.
Holacracy evolved over a span of about 5 years from sociocracy and other sources, and the initial core of the content of Holacracy was in place, and the name coined in, 2006, (Read about it from Brian Robertson.) It has seen a few evolutions since, while staying true to its original ideas.
2. How they are the same
Let’s start with the biggest piece: how sociocracy and Holacracy are the same. They both embrace radical transparency, experimentation and empiricism, empowered members, clarity of process, effectiveness and equality of peers. How do they do that? By using the following features.
2.1 Consent and consent process
Both Holacracy and sociocracy are consent-based systems with the exact same definition of consent (‘a decision is made when there are no objections’). Consent is used to make governance/policy decisions that give people the freedom to carry out those decisions, making their own choices within that framework on a daily basis when doing their work.
The steps of getting to consent are the same, even down to the labels — with some variation depending on trainers/coaches. Presenting the proposal, clarifying questions, quick reactions, objections/consent round, integrating objections.
Holacracy calls it integrative decision-making, sociocracy calls it consent decision-making. Same thing.
2.2 The selection process
The selection process for roles is also the same, again with some variation among trainers/coaches. Yet, they all boil down to: define the role, define the personal qualifications required to perform the role, provide time for people to think about who they’d nominate for the role, share nominations in a nomination round along with reasons, do a change round, make a proposal and make the decision by consent. Same thing.
2.3 Nested circles and linking
There is a bit of difference of jargon here but doing my best to describe the concepts:
- Circles have autonomy in their domain, i.e. area(s) of responsibility/authority
- Circles are nested, i.e. can form a sub-circle and pass on some of their domain to that sub-circle
- super-circle/sub-circle pairs are connected by linking: one role links top-down, one role links bottom-up. The top-down link (“circle lead” in Holacracy/”leader” or other terms in sociocracy) supports all circle operations within that domain.
- Each circle also has a facilitator and a secretary plus additional process-related roles if desired (like a logbook keeper etc.)
- People act in roles; the basic idea of people focusing on the role and purpose, as well as the issue at hand is the same.
This area is also where some of the differences lie (see below), but so far, it’s all the same.
Rounds are used both in sociocracy and in Holacracy and it will depend on the culture of the organization how exhaustively rounds are being used and in what kinds of contexts.
Check-ins and check-outs/meeting evaluations — in rounds — are used in both systems; depending on the context, the meeting formats for governance/policy meetings are very similar as well.
2.5 Differences that depend on the culture/context
2.4.1 Strictness of process
While the definition of consent is the same in both systems, Holacracy has a defined process of validating objections where an objection is tested to see if it meets the criteria. On the sociocratic side of things, testing objections in this way is uncommon but possible.
The practices of evaluating objections in order to distinguish them from personal preferences (preferences that make little difference in the proposal’s effectiveness) differ within sociocracy which makes it hard to compare without too much simplification.
As a general sentiment, sociocracy attempts to hear people and guide the process more gently while Holacracy facilitators are asked to “ruthlessly cut out of process interaction”. How strict and how graceful the facilitator will be addressing objections will depend on their training, context and skill level.
In general, Holacracy is often criticized as being too rigid which some celebrate as an achievement and some don’t. Organizational culture will determine how the strictness is lived in practice and how that is perceived. In the same way, sociocracy is experienced as strict and formal by some and as flexible and fluid by others, most likely depending on people’s preferences and practice as well as fluency. I personally suspect that it depends on people’s expectations. In a chatty organizational culture, sociocracy will be seen as rigid. In a only-talk-when-asked setting, Holacracy will allow for people to finally be heard. Our perception will be influenced by what we consider ‘normal’ and acceptable.
2.4.2 Policy/governance vs. tactical/operational
Holacracy is strict on the difference of tactical (operational) vs. governance (policy) meetings. In sociocracy, this is highly context-dependent. My experience is that the more operations there are to take care of, the more organizations will separate governance and operational meetings. Yet, in sociocracy, it is not prohibited to talk about policy and operational alignment within the same meeting (but not within the same agenda item). Again, this depends on the ways people use these distinctions in practice.
The idea in sociocracy is that boards (Anchor circles/Mission Circles/Top Circles) are multi-stakeholder circles with members that represent interests that are present in the organization. For example, in worker-owned company, workers are represented in the work circle, while owners give input as owners in the Mission Circle. Another example is parents in a self-organized school.
This even goes beyond internal members; sociocracy represents the interdependence of the organization with other organizations by including stakeholders as board members with consent rights. For example, I know of a sociocratic school where the contact person from the municipal school administration became a board member with consent rights. The idea is to represent the web of interdependencies so information can flow between organizations.
This is a guideline and each organization decides themselves how many and which stakeholders will be represented in their Mission Circle.
For Holacracy, there are conventions and some organizations are committed to multi-stakeholder boards, yet there is no model for boards.
2.4.4 Some Jargon
Both systems use jargon. In sociocracy, jargon is often changed and adapted so there is not necessarily a determined set of jargon. Yet, trainers typically use similar words that then find their way into practitioners’ vocabulary.
In the list below, I am omitting the jargon that’s the same (like the secretary or facilitator role).
3. How they are different
Talking about differences takes a few more words than saying how they are the same and that makes the differences look bigger. So when I describe sociocracy and Holacracy, I often preamble it by saying “let me first say that they are very, very similar”. I’ll talk some more about the nuances later. For now, let’s hear the hard-wired, actual differences.
3.1 How the circle lead is chosen
In sociocracy, the leader of a circle is selected (using the selection process that Holacracy uses for other process-related roles) by the parent/super circle. The circle needs to “receive” that leader by consent; if there are objections, they need to be integrated. This can mean that the parent/super circle has to select someone new if there is no way to integrate objections! Alternatively, a circle can use the selection process to pick its own leader, and the parent/supercircle needs to give consent. In both cases, since the leader will be a full member of both circles, both circles need to consent. In doing so, sociocracy follows strictly the rule that every circle needs to have consent on all its members, including the leader.
In Holacracy, the circle lead is chosen by the supercircle’s circle lead (Lead Link). The idea is that the leader role is just another role like any other operational rule which is also chosen by a circle lead (on that difference, see below). The reasons for this in Holacracy are more efficiency and a clearer chain of circle leads and operations. “[It is a ] false assumption that Holacracy is “democratic,” and therefore the people should elect its leaders. […] Holacracy isn’t a system for governing people, it’s a system for people to govern the roles/functions of an organization.” (Source) The other reason stated in the same article is the following: a circle is not capable of choosing its own leader because choosing a lead link requires oversight of their needs and the skills needed in the leader that the circle members might not have. The assumption is that a circle lead will be chosen from outside the circle, therefore circle members might not know who outside their circle might be qualified. Experiences in the Holacratic shoe company Zappos seem to point to the fact that accountability for the lead link in the supercircle is important which seems to increase when the lead is chosen by the supercircle’s circle lead.
Again, this depends on context and the expectations of the organization on how many top-down elements are desired and make sense.
Side-note: the circle lead in Holacracy is not eligible to be facilitator of their circle and also can’t be circle rep. While the latter is also true in sociocracy to preserve double linking, a sociocratic circle can choose to cluster all other roles onto a person, for example, a leader can be a facilitator. In some contexts, this makes more sense than in others, and it’s completely up to the circle to choose.
3.2 How operational roles are chosen
In both systems, roles are created by consent in the circle. One difference is how they are being filled.
In sociocracy, any role in a circle, be it process-related (facilitator, secretary, delegate) or operational (e.g. the webmaster or the CRM manager), is chosen by the selection process or by consent to a proposal. The idea is that a circle knows best what they need and, since they work together, know each other best. Of course, the circle can choose to select someone from outside the circle into the circle for a role, based on qualifications and skills needed in the circle.
In Holacracy, only process-related roles are selected by consent. The other roles, by default, are chosen by the lead link, from inside and outside the circle. Since the operations of a circle are in the lead link’s responsibility, delegating operations into roles falls into the lead link’s domain as well.
Note that I’ve been looking at the default setting here, yet a sociocratic organization or circle can define for itself that operational roles be chosen by the leader as well as a Holacratic organization can define that operational roles be chosen by a selection process — both options are in the realm of possibility in each system.
3.3. Circle and roles, roles and circles
While both systems have roles and circles, how much focus there is on each depends on the context and framework. In both frameworks, we start with a circle and only form the necessary roles. Beyond that, there is a slight difference in moments when there is a new tension entering the scene. Let’s say this new topic clearly falls into the domain of one circle. By default, in Holacracy, this topic falls into the lead link’s authority. By default, in sociocracy, it falls into the circle’s domain and needs to be addressed and distributed there. What happens next depends on how the organization defines, for example, the authority of the leader when it comes to operations. Both frameworks, however, operate under a more-or-less-clear assumption of “everything is allowed until it is not”. For example, in sociocracy, it is perfectly fine to act within the domain of a circle without having a role defined. Being able to act without a governance decision makes sociocracy lean — the system only requires as much structure as people want. You can act before going through the role description process and circles are able to catch some of the invisible aspects that might fall through the cracks between neatly defined roles. Yet it also runs the risk of not being clear when people act without taking the time to define what it is they are doing.
Where an organization (or circle) lies on the spectrum of ‘full clarity (but prone to be bureaucratic)’ vs. less clarity (but lean and simple)’, completely depends on the culture of the organization.
3.3 Who owns the method
Depending on how one looks at it, the adoption of sociocracy or Holacracy can end up being the same: a written document describing the governance rules is written and then officially ratified by the decision-making body. HolacracyOne is offering an “official” constitution that is developed with some feedback and that can be forked by individual organizations that make their own version. The name Holacracy is a registered trademark of HolacracyOne LLC. The description of Holacracy itself, as defined by the Holacracy Constitution is held under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 license.
Sociocracy isn’t owned. While The Sociocracy Group has formalized the norms of the Sociocratic Circle Method (SKM), they don’t own sociocracy (and never intended to). Which explains why in this article, “sociocracy” is spelled with an “s” (lower case), while “Holacracy” is spelled with an “H” (upper case).
In sociocracy, there is no canonical document like a Constitution. Several organizations have offered sample governance agreements (like my organization, Sociocracy For All) to support organizations that want a starting point that they can tailor to their needs. The players in sociocracy (like The Sociocracy Consulting Group, Sociocracy For All, and Sociocracy 3.0) all publish their materials with a Creative Commons license.
The idea in sociocracy is that an organization gives itself a governance agreement, which is a piece of policy like any other. Top-down implementations, where an owner of a company mandates a new governance system, are possible but rare. More often, individual departments start experimenting, or acceptance and then later organization-wide adoption is advocated for first by a small and then bigger number of people. Once adopted, the governance agreement can still be changed, by consent, at any given time by the circle that has the governance agreement in its domain. (This might be the Mission Circle but it can also be the General Circle or even a department/sub-circle.) Traditionally, a sociocratic organization owns itself so it rejects private ownership. Not every sociocratic organization includes ownership into their implementation, yet this backdrop is clearly an issue for privately-owned companies.
4.1 The whole difference in one paragraph
I was aiming to point to differences, aware that they might be significant, yet they aren’t big in practice. When studying organizations, we often find that organizations that say that they are “holacratic” (lower case h) or “inspired by Holacracy” meet our criteria for being sociocratic. That makes sense since we consider sociocracy a bigger umbrella. The short version of this article is, therefore, this: Holacracy is one form of sociocracy. While sociocracy leaves a lot of room for many parameters to be set by the individual organization, Holacracy comes with a lot of pre-set parameters.
The only truly “un-sociocratic” aspect about Holacracy is that lead links and operational roles are chosen without the circle’s consent. (Because of the axiomatic sociocratic requirement that a circle has consent rights on its new member.) All the rest can be defined in sociocracy, if an organization so chooses.
4.2 Personal comments: So why the big difference in perception?
I personally think that the biggest difference between Holacracy and sociocracy doesn’t lie in the frameworks themselves but in the self-selection of the practitioners. Which means it basically boils down to the messaging, perception and marketing around the two systems.
I have been deliberately leaving out the question of what the role of humans (vs. role-holders) is answered differently by different people and none of it is hardwired into the governance rules. Sociocracy tends to be adopted by people who are excited by systems with an integrative approach (like Nonviolent Communication, permaculture, and similar systems) but those examples exist for Holacracy as well. My guess is that while there might be “real” differences contributing, this still says more about the self-selection that the systems.
People drawn to Holacracy are often drawn to the efficiency and clear rules of the game that acts as an equalizer in business while non-business applications, for example, the Self-Organizing System (SOS), used by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK and beyond, are more in the camp of “inspired by, but not, Holacracy”. Other organizations have “adjusted it (Holacracy) to our needs until a point that it is not Holacracy anymore”.
People drawn to sociocracy are drawn to the egalitarian and social change roots of sociocracy and the focus on human connection. Another difference is the tradition of how it’s implemented: as mentioned before, strict top-down implementations are rare in sociocracy and — by some — not considered in the spirit of sociocracy.
Because of the strong role of the lead link in Holacracy, Holacracy is often not a welcome choice in very horizontal contexts. (For example, I know an employee of HolacracyOne who told me he didn’t think Holacracy would be the right choice for his housing community.)
On the other hand, Holacracy, since so many parameters come predefined, makes it easy to learn. Not every organization is up for defining so many aspects of its governance system and would rather take a more pre-defined system that might fit better with a more top-down feel to it. The freedom and choice in sociocracy can be overwhelming and new learners see themselves exposed to a lot of versions of sociocracy which makes for a steep learning curve.
4.3 Closing the divide. Let’s talk about what we want
In this article, I tried to answer the very common question “what’s the difference between sociocracy and Holacracy”. I tried to show how they are very similar and also have some ‘hardwired’ differences as well as — probably the biggest factor in its differences — a difference in culture that comes with the sectors and “vibe” that both carry.
While I think that the clarity and direct comparison is useful, the more relevant part would be to have an undogmatic conversation about different features of governance systems. We don’t do sociocracy to do sociocracy, or Holacracy to do Holacracy. A more useful question is, for example, how much power do you give your lead link, and how is it working for you? What do you do with the feedback you’re getting on that? Do you have experience with a circle selecting its own leader and how did that work? What conclusions or changes in governance did you make to address it? Or, what are features of your meeting format or your workflows that enhance connection? What are areas where you notice that you lack clarity or where you overbuild structure and become bureaucratic? What are elements that new members of your organization struggle to learn and how can we help them?
I hope that ultimately, there will be a mash-up of all the tools, and the growing self-organizing community will have more choice and awareness of what it is that they want to use in their governance system. It’s like we have a two lego series and we’re discussing their differences instead of taking the pieces and playing with them in a creative, constructive way. With more familiarity and first-hand experience of all the tools in the larger community, the learning curve for the basic and most commonly used tools and features will be less steep so we all can get to work more smoothly sooner.
Our goal, ultimately, is to have a governance system that gives us what we want in an organization we enjoy.
Gratitude to Graham Boyd, Stephen Starkey, Nara Pais, Tanya Stergiou, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Irena Kaszewska, Paulina Koperska, Ruth Andrade for their comments on previous drafts and Patrick Scheurer, Emanuele Quintarelli, Simon Mont, and others for previous conversations.