Defining the problem in order to discover the right solutions

In permaculture design, we take some time (up to a whole year sometimes!) to observe, survey and analyze the situation so we really know the problem we are trying to solve. This is one of the highlights in the conversation in the Permaculture Circle these days. How would you describe the problem that sociocracy is trying to solve? We often speak of being more effective or egalitarian. What more is underlying the problem? What practical problems are you addressing on a day to day basis?

We are really curious about your thoughts! @renee.ruchotzke @kathy.sipple @susan.hessel


Interesting topic, and an important practice! One of the things I love about sociocracy is the way it invites us to be thoughtful and intentional in our decision making. The proposal generating process asks us to gather considerations- things to keep in mind- before we start coming up with ideas. In my experience, without this conscious step, we can grab onto solutions before we’ve explored a situation. Dwelling a bit, asking questions, leads us to more creative and effective responses.


Hmmm…I experience concern when I see what could be whole systems design reduced to “problem-solving.” What if “problem-solving” as a cultural implicit - a default behavior that we don’t question - is a significant factor in most of the messes we’ve made? There are countless examples of our culture’s “solutions” generating yet more, and more wicked, problems.

I view both permaculture design and the sociocratic circle-organization method as potential implementations of whole systems design, in particular domains. Very briefly put, re-integrating humans with the rest of living systems in the former case, and organizing and guiding human activity (‘work’ and other forms we define) harmoniously, in the latter.

Consider instead a frame such as “life as mutual learning contexts,” and a fundamental question such as “how is mutual learning taking place in this context?” (ref. “Parts & Wholes, Hope & Horror” by Nora Bateson in her book “Small Arcs of Larger Circles - framing through other patterns”).

Dem’s response touches on this - clarifying questions rounds, and picture forming rounds, as well as reaction rounds and idea generation rounds, are each, and collectively, opportunities for mutual learning in a particular context. And, if they are framed, consciously or unconsciously, as mere precursors to or parts of “problem-solving,” we haven’t let them take us out of our dominant paradigm.

Your last sentence touches on larger contexts - coming close to asking a fundamental design question, “what is wanted?” Notice any differences one might notice between that and “what is the problem?” and other default culture questions.

Also, in permaculture design, and in sociocratic contexts - in any design practice involving mutual learning and co-evolution of life - observation is endless (and pure observation is much harder than we suspect). A key insight of the SCM, and in theory permaculture design also, is that measurement, evaluation, and adaptation is ongoing. There may be remark-able experiences along the way, and, this journey does not end.

To generate fundamental culture change, permaculture design, sociocracy, and similar whole systems design-potential approaches must become implicit - default behavior - how we think and act, without thinking about it much or at all. If we are still “using” them for “problem-solving” then we’re still living (in) a problem-solving culture.
As the saying goes - “clever people solve problems; wise people avoid them.”
And as one of my mentors said long ago - to any assertion (such as “this is the problem” or “these are the right solutions”), always ask “for whom, when?”

What does anyone else think about all this?


John, I’m appreciating you pointing to frames and the possibilities and consequences of those frames. Reminds me of a creativity prompt: don’t aim to build a better mouse trap, aim to catch mice. I see a couple important things in that prompt. It asks us to notice how we approach an issue, and to consider how that approach shapes what comes next. Does a frame narrow our moves, or open up more possibilities?

In contrast to “problem solving” I’m hearing you frame things in more relational terms, attending to responsiveness and integration. I love that, and through what you’ve offered, can hear potential divisiveness, even violence seeded within a “problem solving” frame. Thanks for that insight.

I also like how asking “what is wanted” amplifies our goals and clarifies our actions (what we do, rather than what we prevent), and how that connects us to positive (even hopeful) action.

And I’m appreciating what you say, that generating fundamental change comes with implicit, default behavior. That makes sense to me, and I’m wondering about the space between behaviors: how do we get from one to the next? How, for instance, do we move out of individualistic habit and into a lived, deeply felt understanding of our interconnectedness?

When a traditionally hierarchical organization transitions to sociocracy, there is a rather strange moment where “the powers that be” might direct people to start deciding for themselves! How does that moment come about?

I suppose problems get us to these points… the need we feel for change, for more and less and different. If not problems, then longings, needs, desires.

Thinking about your question, Rhonda, I wonder if sociocracy helps us through these between spaces, offering structures that ask us to notice and move away from certain default behaviors, toward better ones, helping us change the world we have into a world we want and need.

Loving this conversation. Thanks, Rhonda and John, for the chance to share it with you.


I think that Permaculture and Sociocracy are both trying to solve the problem of “supremacy” as practiced by certain cultures, defined as certain humans in the system seeing themselvers as not only superior to the rest of the people or planet, but also empowered to force others to serve their will, especially for power or profit.

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Hello @rhonda.baird,

After reading your message and then John’s reflexions, I am not sure what is the subject you are raising. So I have a clarification question with 3 options !

  • Do you want to collect ideas about how useful it is for people to work with sociocracy ? (practical benefits for users)
  • Do you want to deepen the reflection about the fundamental purpose of sociocracy ? (core intentions of Endenburg as inventor of the method)
  • Do you want to clarify what can be the motivations of people and organizations that want to learn and practice sociocracy ? (the most common painful situations that we can avoid or heal thanks to sociocracy)

An other one is : would you like to achieve something personally or in the Permaculture Circle with the contributions from the forum participants ?

After your clarification, I will see if I want to contribute.

Thomas (France)