Sociocracy in Small Groups

Originally published at: Sociocracy in Small Groups | Sociocracy For All

Introduction

Whether small groups can use sociocracy in a meaningful way in small organizations is a recurring topic with my clients and students. This article is an attempt to answer the most typical questions. 

I will assume an organization size of 7 people, as I find 7 or 8 people the trickiest size to answer this question. 

Features from sociocracy that small groups can use all the same

Sociocracy is a comprehensive governance system that covers more than just structure.

Small groups can use all the practices below as usual: 

  • Aims/domains
  • Consent
  • Meetings
  • Operational and process roles
  • Feedback processes
  • Selection process

I recommend our resource page for a quick refresher on these topics. 

Features that might need modification

Okay, so what does change? 

Here’s another distinction I have to make to answer the question. Is the organization going to stay small? In other words, is this team of 7 just the beginning group but with a clear intention to grow? In that case, please refer to my latest book Who Decides Who Decides as it describes how to set up a small group and grow it. The situation described in this article will be interesting, however, but just as a transient step. 

If the group is intending to keep its current group size, then we are right in the inbetween-situation that makes this topic so hot. On the one hand, we appreciate sociocracy for its effectiveness and clarity, yet the details on structure – like double-linking – seem overblown for our organization. So what’s to do? 

First, let me remind you that circles with aims and domains, and double linking are strategies that we recommend for a particular reason: 

Feature Benefits
Decision-making in small circles (in their domain) + Focus
+ Local decision-making
+ Small groups
Double linking + Balance of power between the circles
+ Optimal information flow
+ Having a place to determine aims/domains of the department circles

Yet, if you can reach the same effects with different tools, you might not need those particular strategies. 

Finding the appropriate number of circles

In many organizations, there’s both a tendency to have too many circles and a tendency not to have enough circles. 

So, what’s the number of circles that’s just right? There is no universal answer. But there is a test. The right number of circles is perfect when every agenda item in every meeting is relevant to every person in the room for their own work. In other words, if half of the people in your meeting are bored for half of the meeting, then a sub-circle would have been useful to address those topics. 

![|227x227](upload://9f33U8HHjmtGfB3cQfMdizbYbGn.jpeg)Learn about circle structure and then draw your own with our free circle structure course!

Possible Circle structures for small groups

Now when it comes to small groups and sociocracy, I will answer this question for two different scenarios:

  1. Homogenous group with lots of shared generic operations: one circle 

In this scenario, everyone in the organization does more or less the same work. There is limited specialization or differentiation, and everyone can understand each other’s work. For example, if a group of gardeners works on a shared garden, they might all be doing very similar work. If 7 people are canvassing, they will all do similar tasks, and most decisions will apply to everyone’s work. 

(In this case, I will assume that the organization isn’t intending to grow and will stay at around 7 members. If this organization did want to grow in membership, then  Who Decides Who Decides describes how to get started.)

There might be little use for an entire circle structure, keeping the group together as one circle most time. If there are specific tasks, the group can define operational roles and select individuals to fill those roles. For example, if the gardeners want one person to oversee the compost, that’s a good use case for an operational role (might it be written down and formalized or not).

  1. Some differentiation: circles with people overlap

Keeping in mind that we want that perfect fit between topics on the agenda and people in the room, it can easily happen that there are topics that not everyone in the group of 7 needs to talk about with everyone. In that case, we’d create sub-circles so subsets of the people can focus on those special topics.  

Option A: double-linked

![](upload://oaKx6Tq5QhndN6KjCOb2EZyeeAa.jpeg)

The sub-circles might still have many members, and there might be many people who attend more than one circle.

  • In this example, there are 7 members in 3 work circles. 
  • As you can see, two members (dark blue background and red background) are part of all the circles. 
  • One member is only part of one circle (blue background). 

This structure might work well if this structure follows the interest and involvement of the members. 

Speaking with my consultant hat on, this is my preferred scenario for this kind of work. It’s clear, makes sure the circles have what they need without creating bottlenecks, and aims/domains of the circles can be stewarded well in the General Circle. 

Feature Benefits
Decision-making in small circles (in their domain) + Focus
+ Local decision-making
+ Small groups
Double linking + Balance of power between the circles
+ Optimal information flow
+ Having a place to determine aims/domains of the department circles
Features and benefits of a classic double-linked structure

Yet, it does require attention. Some of the challenges I’d watch out for are these: 

  • It might be hard to keep decisions strictly in the circle’s domain and not blur the lines too much – as soon as the lines get blurred, people might be left out. For example, Circle B might be tempted to have a discussion about something in Circle A’s domain (because it’s almost the same set of people), leaving out two members from Circle A. That is not a problem as long as people are aware and a little disciplined. And it certainly helps if aims/domains are defined well, so the blurring doesn’t happen. 
  • The General Circle – 2 people from each circle – in this example consists of 6 people, which means only one (yellow background) of the 7 members is not a part of the General Circle. That might be okay if that person’s ego or fear of missing out doesn’t get triggered. Yet, depending on the organizational culture, it might also be awkward.
![](upload://3TrD08eJOgUIJtmkmptaYxHReFm.jpeg)

Structure isn’t everything. Sometimes we also have to factor in how things happen to play out. For example, in practice, it’s not uncommon that 1-2 of the GC members are at the same time leaders or delegates in a different circle. That way, we might have fewer people in the GC, bringing more balance between the total number of organization members and the size of the GC. 

For example, if Circle A selects a delegate that is the leader of another circle, the GC only has 5 members in 6 roles. 

The question is how pragmatic a group wants to be about those things – I am certainly not intending to say that a circle should try to “double”-dip; I am merely sharing my observation that it’s not uncommon in practice.

 
 

Option B: single-linked

![](upload://9iCP2s77KjL0N6RjPcLD2VL6Bo8.jpeg)

We could also forgo double linking and only have one person per circle sit on the General Circle. In terms of balance and information flow, single-linking is a little riskier. But it can certainly work if we can trust the three GC members to manage the aim/domains of the circles responsibly so that we always know what’s decided and the power balance between the circles remains intact.

Note: we might also choose to single-link less critical circles, and double-link others. This is not an all-or-nothing system!

 

Feature Benefits
Decision-making in small circles (in their domain) + Focus
+ Local decision-making
+ Small groups
Double linking ? Balance of power between the circles
? Optimal information flow
+ Having a place to determine aims/domains of the department circles

Option C: Everyone on the General Circle

![](upload://kbJ7F9t0GOC62hYAAJhOyTF277a.jpeg)

If almost everyone is part of the GC anyway, why not simply have everyone together in the GC? Let’s think this through. 

Look at the diagram. What you see is the same three circles with links. But the person “left out” in Option A is now also a part of the GC – a GC member who is not a leader or delegate. 

Many groups clearly prefer this structure because it seems to give us everything we want: 

  • No one is excluded
  • We can do focused work in the circles
  • Everyone is fully informed about everything

And it’s true; I’ve seen this work well. Yet, there are a few challenges or slippery slopes. 

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• The biggest concern is that the GC becomes the judge on everything. It’s very tempting for work circles to prepare proposals and bring them to the GC. Yet, that’s a centralized system when sociocracy tries to decentralize. Instead of empowering small groups to make decisions and make things happen, every decision needs to pass twice, once in the circle and then in the plenary/GC. This can lead to a lot of tedious repetition.

• In my experience, the focus of negotiating and clarifying aims/domains can be less likely to happen in this kind of setup – but that’s the GC’s job. I worry that the lines blur and the whole implementation becomes an intertwined, vague mess, and no one actually knows where and how decisions are made because they aren’t clearly living in circles anymore but also not clearly taken on by the General Circle. Basically, this structure invites losing most of the benefits that a sociocratic structure brings in the first place.

Again, this can work. The better people are aware of the potential challenges, the more they can face them head-on. 

Here are another few thoughts on this. A plenary (the all-member meeting) is a good sounding board for circle work – giving feedback, not making decisions for the circles. In our scenario, the GC/plenary has two functions now: 

  • The GC to support the department circles, and 
  • The plenary functions as a sounding board. 

Conflating both functions into one circle can work well if the circles hold both functions intentionally. For example, the GC/plenary meeting could be split: in the first half of the meeting, they address GC functions. In the second half, they bounce ideas and give feedback to circles. Alternatively, they could alternate GC and plenary meetings. (These approaches can also help identify where people’s energy is, in the plenary or in GC. Sometimes we notice that being on the GC sounds like being important and appealing at first, and then over time, we trust more for others to do the work of alignment.)

My score for this structure is this:

Feature Benefits
Decision-making in small circles (in their domain) + Focus
? Local decision-making (easy to be taken over by the plenary)
+ Small groups
Double linking + Balance of power between the circles
+ Optimal information flow?
? Having a place to determine aims/domains of the department circles (easy to get chatty and forget)

Heterogeneous groups with lots of specialized operations. 

Organizations with a high degree of specialization and differentiation are a whole other story. In this situation, it’s no longer the case that everyone is almost doing the same work and understands each other’s work. For example, in a small nonprofit, we might have a role for development, treasurer, volunteer coordinator, communications, a program manager for program A, and a program manager for program B. They are all dealing with very different topics. Putting everyone together in one big team to talk things through might simply be a waste of time because they might not be much help to each other. 

What could this look like? 

A few examples for illustration: Circle A might be the Tech and Communications team with fundraising as a sub-circle. (Obviously, these are just examples, your actual structure will depend on a lot of other factors.) Circle B might be more programmatic with a sub-team on a certain specific program. Circle C might be the Admin circle of HR and Treasurer. Both of them own a big, somewhat self-contained chunk of the work. They might enjoy having the other person to make decisions and compare notes with. There might be a separate leader of the GC, the Executive Director. Since there’s not much of a need of having a manager, the ED might also be at the same time the leader of one of the department circles or take some other operational role, like fundraising. 

Same as in Option A and B, the GC might be single-linked or double-linked, with the same pros and cons as earlier. 

In this kind of setup, part of the challenge is to give people enough companionship that actually relates to their work. 

Feature Benefits
Decision-making in small circles (in their domain) + Focus
+ Local decision-making (easy to be taken over by the plenary)
+ Small groups
Double linking + Balance of power between the circles
? Optimal information flow
+ Having a place to determine aims/domains of the department circles 

Depending on the culture of the organization, while this is very efficient, I’d worry about cohesion and a sense of togetherness as well as shared reality if people don’t understand each other’s work well enough and don’t have a lot of opportunities to share. It might help if there’s also a place (like an open chat in the plenary on a recurring basis) where people can report and ask for feedback. This could be a Friday morning check-in, a mini-retreat every 6 months, or a monthly chat. Having this extra bit of reporting would also serve the additional information flow. 

Conclusion

Circle structures from sociocracy are the easiest for groups of 10+ people. Yet, small teams can also benefit. 

Structures for small teams might take a little bit of attention to figure out until they feel good. For those of you who have some experience with rounds, here’s a comparison that works for me. Rounds are very easy to do in a group 4 and up. In a group of 3 or 2, it’s harder to have the discipline to stick to rounds. It seems less necessary – but without a clear format, it’s easy to fall into old ways. 

In the same way, circle structures for <7 people take more discipline – not because it’s harder or less beneficial but because it’s so much more tempting to cut corners. 

Want to talk through your own structure? Look at our coaching page.