Is sociocracy agile?

Decision Making Systems Matter is an interesting article by Pieter van der Meché, Jens Coldewey, and Hendrik Esser, with Anders Ivarsson as additional contributor. The article is funded by the Agile Alliance and is a Supporting Agile Adoption publication. The authors describe how combining ”Agile with ideas from Sociocracy provides … a way to create alignment between Agile ecosystems and the business needs of strong leadership and a clear hierarchy”.1 The article gives excellent insights into sociocracy and is well worth reading! Pieter van der Meché has over 20 years of experience in sociocracy.2

Pictures from the article (from left to right): Pieter van der Meché, Jens Coldewey, and Hendrik Esser.

The assumptions in the article are 1) that ”a clear hierarchy and strong leadership” are required to achieve ”speed and control (coordination)” and 2) that ”policies … ensure alignment”.3 My question is whether ”strong hierarchical leadership and strong participatory [policy] decision making”4 contributes to agility? It’s possible, of course, that agreements on policies — which are defined as ”general agreements on the what, when, how and who”5 — can increase the speed. But a strong focus on policies can also become rigid. It’s as if sociocracy, for the sake of control, values policies and following a plan — the ”what, when, how, and who” — over responding to change.6

While a sociocratic organization certainly values individuals and interactions, it’s also policy-driven, which easily leads to a focus on process-discipline.7 Sociocratic leadership is furthermore ”conductor-like”.8 The idea is that you as the leader should coordinate (control) your team like ”a conductor of an orchestra”.9 It’s self-evident that you as a strong hierarchical leader value control over participation. What if the team can coordinate itself? (Here is an example of collaborative leadership in a conductorless orchestra.) And what if the challenge isn’t primarily to ensure ”alignment throughout the hierarchy”10 but to nurture collaboration throughout the organization?11

So, is sociocracy agile? I’d say no. It depends, of course, on what you mean by agile. My impression is that sociocracy values policies and control over people and collaboration. While there is value in the latter, sociocracy values the first more.12And, yes, decision making systems matter! But why limit participatory decision making to policy decisions only?13 It’s as if sociocracy doesn’t take the full consequences of participatory decision making.

1 Pieter van der Meché, Jens Coldewey, Hendrik Esser, and Anders Ivarsson (contributor), Decision Making Systems Matter (The Agile Alliance, 2016), p. 1 (accessed 2016-07-20).
2 Ibid., p. 14.
3 Ibid., p. 7.
4 Ibid..
5 Ibid..
6 Agile values ”responding to change over following a plan”. See the Agile Manifesto. There are similarities between sociocratic policies (what, when, how and who) and plans.
7 Agile also values ”Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. See the Agile Manifesto. The focus on policies easily leads to a focus on process-discipline, i.e., define the policies and processes (albeit in a participatory way!) and make sure people follow them.
8 Pieter van der Meché, Jens Coldewey, Hendrik Esser, and Anders Ivarsson (contributor), Decision Making Systems Matter (The Agile Alliance, 2016), p. 8 (accessed 2016-07-20).
9 Ibid..
10 Ibid., p. 10.
11 It’s an Agile principle that business people and development teams must work together daily. See the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto.
12 This is a paraphrase of the Agile Manifesto. The crucial question here is which values are given precedence over others.
13 Elections of people to roles and responsibilities are allocations of resources and thus policy decisions. See The three principles in Sociocracy, Wikipedia (accessed 2016-08-02).

2016-07-24: Pictures of authors added. Questions added. Text and notes updated.
2016-07-26: Questions updated. Text updated. Related post added.
2016-08-01: Middle section split into two parts.
2016-08-02: Note added. Minor changes in the text.

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