I have recently read Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace by Ricardo Semler, which is an international bestseller from 1993. While reading, I was struck by the similarities and differences between how Ricardo Semler runs Semco and The Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method, which was developed by Gerard Endenburg.
The first and most important similarity is that both Semler and Endenburg took over the family business. This made it possible for Semler and Endenburg to conduct their bold experiments.
Both Semler and Endenburg uses a circle-organization. Semler uses three levels of concentric circles, while Endenburg uses a hierarchy of semi-autonomous circles (principle 2). Interestingly, Endenburg mentions that many people can be structured in a small number of levels,1 which is what Semler does.
People are elected by consent in Sociocracy (principle 4). Similarly, people who are hired or promoted leadership positions in Semco are interviewed and approved by all who will be working for them.2
Consent governs policy decision making in Sociocracy (principle 1). Endenburg deduces Sociocracy’s principles from an automatic central heating system.3 Endenburg writes (my emphasis in bold):4
“The thermostat, boiler and sensor element decide by consent that the thermostat is empowered to issue its own instructions … to the boiler ‘within certain limits’ whether or not to heat the water. …
If the thermostat wishes to issue an instruction which lies outside these limits, it will first have to make a proposal to the other components of the system to obtain their consent.”
This means that operating limits are very important in Sociocracy. Policies, or rules, indicate the limits within which control is exercised. The components of the system, that is people in the organization, establish these limits by consent.
Semler’s approach is very different. His basic message is to have absolute trust in people. Semler writes that: “If you haven’t guessed [it] by now, Semco’s standard policy is no policy”.5 Semler even devotes an entire chapter on the trouble with rules.6 So, if rules are important to Endenburg, Semler couldn’t care less!
Semler writes at the end of his book that people must have the freedom to determine their own ways.7 The freedom of the individual is very important for Endenburg too.8 Endenburg emphasizes, over and over again, the importance of each person’s equivalence.
1 Gerard Endenburg, Sociocracy: The organization of decision-making and Sociocracy: As social design (Eburon, 1998), p. 29.
2 Ricardo Semler, Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace, p. 7.
3 Gerard Endenburg, Sociocracy, pp.19–23.
4 Ibid., p. 22.
5 Ricardo Semler, Maverick, p. 4.
6 Ibid., pp. 87–94.
7 Ibid., p. 273.
8 Gerard Endenburg, Sociocracy, p. 168.