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Stepping Beyond Consensus in Communities - A New Paradigm in Governance and Decision Making

This last week I had the privilege of a trip to Ängsbacka Ecovillage in Sweden following an invite from my new friend and colleague, Diana Leafe Christian. I met Diana last month at the UK Cohousing Network’s annual conference, held at the Threshold Centre, Dorset where she was the keynote speaker.

*This text was originally posted on Creative Community Devon.

Diana, based in the United States, is an author of the well known books in the communities field, Creating a Life Together and Finding Community. She’s also the publisher of Ecovillages newsletter, shares her voluminous knowledge about all things community as a community’s consultant, and travels extensively around the world gathering experiences and offering workshops.

Diana, who visited Ängsbacka as the keynote speaker for the annual conference of the Swedish Ecovillage Network in April, was invited to return last week to lead a workshop on Sociocracy, a whole-systems governance model with a decision making method and feedback protocol built in.

I’ve been exploring, working with, and offering training in Sociocracy for over a decade now and my passion for sharing it with others is fuelled by my appreciation of its remarkable results. As Diana explains, “Sociocracy has three “parents”:

  • Mum No. 1 - Quaker-based consensus decision making

  • Dad No.1 - Engineering and cybernetics, the science of steering and control, and feedback loops

  • Mum No.2 - Nature, Chaos Theory, and self-organising systems"

I had the pleasure of assisting Diana on the training as the community of Ängsbacka got to grips with the basic elements and principles of Sociocracy. Diana’s vast wealth of experience, sensitivity, humility and easily digestible way of teaching Sociocracy to people living in intentional communities created a storm of enthusiasm and hope amongst the participants. Hopefulness, not only regarding the potential for improving the ongoing evolution and management of Ängsbacka, but also, simply in realising that effective, equivalent, and transparent methods for governance and decision making are not only possible but exist now and can work well.

Having visited and worked with many intentional communities and organisations over the last decade or so, I’ve been struck by how generically the microcosmic environment of a community reflects the macrocosm dance of the wider society. Good intentions alone are often insufficient to avoid the power-over and personality distortions so present in the wider culture from bubbling up from time to time in communities of well-intentioned folk. This can often lead to breakdown of relationships and sometimes the disintegration of whole projects and communities.

There’s good news and there’s good news! For whilst the phenomena of societal mayhem emerging in a well-meaning group of people may seem undesirable and can be immensely painful and challenging, there’s no more effective place within the collective consciousness of humanity than communities, for the healing of some of its imbalances and distortions to occur. In a community of people who are committed to a shared vision beyond their own personal gratification, a combination of determination, courage, love, and good tools for decision-making, collaborative organisation, and communicating together, can be a recipe for extraordinary transformation.

A new dawn of hopefulness is arriving in the fact that there are remarkable tools and methods emerging into the collective. Tools for transforming conflict into creative opportunity, cutthroat competition into opportunities for collaborative innovation, and ‘wading through mud’ decision-making methods into fluid, co-creative processes.

Sociocracy is a simple yet extraordinarily effective method for communities to self-organise. A method for good enough decision-making; it generates equivalence, is highly effective, minimises time spent in long discussions, and insists on transparency.

Sociocracy gives supremacy to “argument”; that is, reasoned and paramount objections to proposals are welcomed as emergent wisdom seeking expression into the shared consciousness of the group. This wisdom helps to shape and design policy that reflects the combined creativity of the whole.

No decision can be made without consent, including people being elected in to roles. The process has built-in safety mechanisms, including feedback and evaluation loops. This ensures a group of people, working together, dynamically steer and adjust their course as the community’s inner needs and the outer environment changes.

So, what about consensus one asks? Well, I’ll let Diana, a practitioner of consensus for eighteen years and former consensus trainer for six years speak to that by referring you to her article series, the final one of which will be published soon.

In short though, the big issue with consensus is its lack of effectiveness in communities where there are diverse aims, rapidly changing circumstances, complex relationships, and differing needs. Whilst consensus can be extraordinarily effective in single-issue action groups, communities tend to overlook the criteria for consensus when choosing a decision-making method:

  • A small homogeneous group

  • cohesive and cooperative

  • A good understanding of the technique

  • A shared purpose

  • Explicit values

  • Time to work with process in depth

  • Trust in each other

Besides, these days, many groups using consensus include a fallback position of majority-rule voting rather than unanimous agreement. Fine, but what about those gems of wisdom that so often hide out in the dark corner; that of the minority voice?

Sociocracy’s “Consent Decision-Making”method is a breath of fresh air for anyone who wishes to maximise the creative potential of the whole and reduce time spent in long and potentially unproductive meetings. It will appeal to those who appreciate the transparency and equivalence that consensus seeks to guarantee but who long for more effectiveness too. It also ensures that every voice is heard and that all wisdom within the group can be utilised towards shaping decisions that will affect its members.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Sociocracy, then there’s a wealth of information available on the web. A great place to start might be somewhere like where you’ll find a library of articles. You can also check out the Resources page of my website.

Over the coming year I’ll be offering a number of free introductory talks on Sociocracy. Please let me know if you’d be interested in attending and do spread the word to others if you feel so inclined.

If you’re part of an organisation, community group, intentional community, or just interested in knowing more, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

More on Ängsbacka

Along with the absolute pleasure of talking with Diana late into the night about all things community, I also had the opportunity to discover Ängsbacka, one of Europe's leading meeting points for human sustainable development, and an abundant source of inspiration for social, personal, and global well-being.

Ängsbacka is a vast complex comprising huge and beautiful timber frame barns for concerts and speaking events, conference rooms, studios, therapy rooms, a fully equipped music studio and a capacity for more than 220 guests.

Incredibly, the whole place is run predominantly by volunteers. Even most paid staff receives only minimal monetary payment, with the major currency of exchange being well-being.

It’s inspiring to share time with brothers and sisters who are so committed to being in service and work so hard together to keep this ocean liner of a centre for sustainable human development afloat. Ängsbacka offers a variety of workshops and trainings throughout the winter months and then the summer is a rolling programme of festivals to appeal to every audience.

Drug and alcohol free, love and hugs aplenty, Ängsbacka is a place I highly recommend if you’re looking to spend time in a nurturing and nourishing environment and definitely worth putting on your list of places to visit.

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