Patterns for decentralized governance
This article describes the high-level, foundational patterns that underlie sociocratic decentralized governance. It’s best suited for organizations with clear boundaries between “inside” and “outside”, and there are shared activities that are
- explicit, i.e. it’s clear what the overall aim of the organization is
- collectively held, i.e. there is a commitment to collaboration and shared ownership
Why we need a better approach
Typical governance issues fall into familiar clusters:
- Power is decentralized but there’s a lack of cohesion and/or clarity.
- Power is centralized and there’s a monopoly of power among a few
It’s not uncommon for organizations to fall into both of the clusters for different aspects of their organization, or to alternate them and flip-flop between decentralization and decentralization.
A solution lies in combining the best of hierarchical patterns — their clarity and cohesion — with the best of decentralized patterns — autonomy, flexibility, and closeness of those doing work and the decisions for that work.
The assumption is that this is possible when we follow simple design patterns. All design patterns are based on a more fleshed-out system of governance, sociocracy. They all have a direct correspondence to Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for successful governance of a commons.
There are two basic patterns. It’s important to appreciate them separately but also to see how they mutually support each other. Using them separately does not unleash the same potential as using them together.
Note that these patterns have to be considered the bare minimum to make things work; other supportive factors like patterns for meetings, integration of objections, selection of roles, feedback, communication/conflict resolution, and the interface of governance and resource allocation has to be added to make the whole mix work.
Decentralized decision-making in domains
To achieve decentralization of authority, we “chop” it up into areas of authority called domains. Whichever group owns a domain is the final decision-maker in that domain that cannot be overruled even by a “higher” circle.
- Domains are generally held by a defined collective (a circle), but a circle can decide to give certain authorities to individuals in roles in a circle.
- Each circle will have an aim that corresponds to the domain; for example, the circle that maintains the website needs to be the final decision-maker on topics of the website.
- A key ingredient is that aims and domains are not only associated (like “glued together”) but can also be subdivided and passed on.
- A circle can form a subcircle and give it its aim of and domain which will be a subaim and subdomain of the forming circle’s aim/domain.
- No circle can exist without a “parent” circle.
- A circle can’t entrust a subcircle with an aim or domain it didn’t own.
In this way, aims and domains are local agreements between parent circles and their subcircles. No one else needs to approve a change in aims/domains but the circle and its parent.
Therefore, for a circle to own a domain and to function, it needs:
- an aim (a subset of the parent’s aim)
- a domain (a subset of the parent’s domain)
- a place in the system (no orphans!)
- 1–2 connecting links to the parent circle; i.e. at least one member of the circle also needs to be a member of the parent circle.
- defined but open membership; new members can be added with the consent of the existing members.
It is highly recommended to only have those as members who are operationally involved in the circle’s aim. A good size for a circle is 4–9 people.
The center of the organization held by a General Circle (GC). The GC makes sure there is alignment between the highest-level circles, and issues the aims/domains for the department circles. The GC is made up of 1–2 people from each department circle.
A Mission Circle can support the longer-term strategic thinking. More on circle structure
For any given proposal in a circle, the circle members will evaluate whether the proposal is compatible with the circle’s and its parent circle(s) aim(s).
Consent = the proposal doesn’t negatively affect how we achieve our aim
Objection = the proposal needs to be changed because it negatively affects how we achieve our aim
If at least one circle member objects, the proposal cannot be approved. It is typically possible to integrate objections and find a shared way forward.
Organization members who are not members of the circle cannot object to another circle’s decision. Yet, it is advised that each circle solicits and remains open to feedback from outside the circle to make appropriate and sustainable decisions. The underlying idea is that many voices can be heard in the form of input/feedback, yet that deliberate decision-making is best made in a smaller group where everyone has context, expertise, and mutual trust in the other circle members. For very large organizations, deliberate systems can be designed to combine decentralized decision-making and large-scale input.
How to get there
How to get to a decentralized system highly depends on the size of the current organization. For groups of 10–15 people involved, it’s often possible to build the foundation together and set up the rules of the game to decentralize and, if desired, grow using decentralized patterns. A resource for that situation is the book Who Decides Who Decides. How to start a group so everyone can have a voice (2021).
For bigger organizations, the key is to identify who/which group would have the mandate to change the rules of the game to implement a robust system for decentralization. The most promising scenario is then a small-group effort — by the implementation circle — to design and advocate for that new system.
For organizations of more than ~15 people, a decentralized approach requires an inversion, i.e. shifting of activity to circles and de-emphasizing the central circle. Details are described in a video on forming organizations (starting around min 18:00).