In Sociocracy, what are the differences between operations, policy, and operational meetings?

What exactly is the difference between operations and policy?

Operations are the concrete work that is done in contribution to the organization, for example writing emails, coding, doing bookkeeping, weeding, teaching. Operational decisions are made along the way by those who carry out that work. If operational decisions require coordination (for example to coordinate timing) then they can be made in operational meetings. Policy decisions are decisions about the same kind of work, just that they are made with a more general scope, effective for more than just one decision. For example, there might be an operational decision to cut a teaching lesson down by 30min to respond to an urgent matter. A policy decision would be to change the schedule more permanently, cutting down the time frame for all similar lessons, for example on the same day of the week. We think of operational decisions as one-time decisions while policy decisions are “bulk” decisions.

What is the difference between policy decisions and operational decisions?

Operational decisions only affect one instance. Policy decisions are general decisions that are in effect not only in the concrete case but also beyond. For example, if you make a decision on who is bringing out the trash today, that only affects today. If we make a policy on who is bringing out the trash in general, that’s a policy decision. (In this case, it’s who is filling a role.)

What formats work best for operational meetings?

Operational meetings can make use of rounds for check-ins. Most operational topics only require quick reports and decisions. Do reaction rounds for operational decisions when more consideration is needed.

Is an operations meeting a meeting in which you actually do work, or you just talk about the details of doing work?

People seem to use the word for both. Operational decisions are always made when work is done (e.g. the order of tasks etc) so operational decisions are hard to separate from operations. So, an “operations meeting” can either mean “doing a piece of work together and making necessary decisions along the way” or it can mean to coordinate and make decisions so work can be done outside of the meeting.

Do we have to separate operational and policy (governance) meetings?

Depends on what works for you. Operational decisions are about making quick and pragmatic decisions for a one-time application, for example making a case-by-case decision on someone’s membership. Policy decisions aim to address a repeating or general issue and make a decision that covers a set of similar and related cases, for example making a generic membership policy.
In meetings, some really prefer to keep them separate. Making operational decisions in short and more frequent meetings and policy decisions with more space and time and – possibly – less frequently.
On the other hand, when a circle addresses an issue, it might not be a given that the circle will decide to make policy to address the issue. Other measures like feedback, operational decisions just for that case or the decision not to do anything could be taken instead. In this more problem-focused approach (different from a policy/outcome-oriented approach that assumes policy as the outcome), all topics can be mixed in the same meetings. Some groups address operational decisions in the first half of the meeting and policy in the second half of the meeting.
Bottomline: any group will have to find the most suitable approach for their own needs.

Is the difference between operations and policy more of a continuum than a sharp distinction?

Yes. We might make an operational decision on one instance, or even a small set of instances, without ever declaring it policy and a generic agreement that applies. Similarly, sometimes circles make policy for a circumstance that is fairly unique. A related, very tangible example is the following: if we select, for example, a facilitator, we do it by consent and for a certain term, just like we make policy. Yet, if that facilitator has to leave early for a meeting, the facilitator might appoint someone to fill in, just as an operational decision. This is gradual: can the facilitator (or leader) appoint someone for one whole meeting without getting consent? How about for two meetings, or three or 6? The difference between operational and policy decisions is gradual.

For more information, check out our handbook Many Voices One Song section 2.8