Sociocracy will govern tomorrow's projects



Today’s decision makers are facing two growing aspirations in their teams: Teammates all want to be part of the decision-making process and commit to the project if it offers significant value for them. Whether at the head of a community, a company, or a project, the leader will have to adopt a “leadership turnaround” in order to meet these expectations.

New management tools will be required, as well as new behaviours and approaches. After setting the stage, this paper contains three case studies showing how this “leadership turnaround” can be applied to making decisions and involving people.

For the author, a primary mission of tomorrow’s project managers is changing and is becoming a mission of helping people give the best of themselves.

“It's Not Like Before!”

These days, I’ve been attending a new show where I meet with executives, managers, leaders, and project managers of all types. I can see from their looks of despair that they don’t understand what’s going on. I see them shaking their heads and mumbling: “Gosh…It's not like before!”

Some look angry, as if they were making others responsible for their inability to solve the new situations they are facing, whereas others seem a little lost. They look around for assistance or for a sign, like the walker who finds himself at a crossroads, without having a clue of where he is. Still others show their weariness and discouragement. They sigh as if all of a sudden, all the misery of the world rests on their shoulders.

The reactions are different, and yet, in the vast majority of cases, these executives, managers and leaders persist in doing the exact same things, while cursing, grumbling, or lamenting, but mostly without changing their habits.

But, if it's not like before, why continue doing the same thing? This is when I like to quote a phrase that sometimes shocks those hearing it: “A little more of the same thing…gives a little more of the same result.” So, yes—If indeed this is not the same as before, it is my job, as an executive or a project manager, to adapt myself and find new ways to continue achieving my goals.

To start: What, in fact, has really changed?

What is Changing?

Complexity and heterogeneity drive change

We are witnessing two major changes, which reinforce aspirations that are so significant that no executives or project managers can afford to ignore. First, is the complexity, of course! The purpose is commonplace: the world around us is becoming more complex. Organizations, projects, processes, and systems are composed of more and more elements, with, as a consequence, more and more interactions and interdependencies.

With complexity naturally comes a second upheaval: the heterogeneity. By introducing more elements into our systems and organizations, diversity multiplies, as well as multiplicity of cultures, value systems, representations, and benchmarks.

Change affect at all levels

These two changes—complexity and heterogeneity—apply at all levels of society. At the geopolitical level: The crisis in the Eurozone is a textbook illustration of the enormous difficulties arising of increasing complexity and heterogeneity. It demonstrates the limitations of traditional approaches to governance.

But we find these two aspects in the heart of private companies as well. We all have examples in mind of global companies facing cross-cultural difficulties, or examples of mergers facing the clash of two different corporate cultures.

We also find these issues whilst managing projects. Consider a development project, such as creating a new track for a high-speed train, such as the project in the Aquitaine region, to connect Bordeaux with Toulouse and Spain. Complexity is there of course. Heterogeneity as well, with its countless different viewpoints, variety of stakeholders, and multiple competing interests.

But, let there be no mistake—A simpler project, such as the integration of sustainable development within a company, will also be confronted with the wide diversity it will need to manage.

Change is going to accelerate

Complexity and heterogeneity literally become explosive when combined with two accelerators. The first accelerator is the continuously increasing level of education in our society. With levels of skill and expertise that rise, the refusal of authoritarianism and decisions imposed by others also increases. This past summer, it was not surprising to see that the average education level of the “indigenous” of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Spain was especially high.

The second accelerator is the progression of individualism that leads to the need for consideration of individual interests and often to their precedence over collective interests.

Two growing aspirations

The changes we have described nourish and strengthen two aspirations for any person facing a decision, a project, or a change of any kind, and they are:

  • Wanting to balance collective interests with personal ones (“what’s in it for me?”)
  • Wanting to be part of the decision.

As we explained before, we expect to see signs of these aspirations at all levels. At the geopolitical level, this was the key message of the “Arab spring” of 2011 and the Tunisian revolution. At the political level, this is the call for additional decentralization we witness in all local authorities.

At the company level, the titles of two recent books express the necessary evolution of managerial models, particularly regarding the integration of employees in the decision-making processes. Their evocative titles show the urgency of this development. The French version of Gary Hamel’s book is titled The End of Management, whereas (2007), the original title was The Future of Management. French management expert, François Dupuy chose to give an English title to his last book, Lost in Management (editions du Seuil). No wonder the managers I talked about at the beginning of this paper look as confused as Bill Murray in the movie, Lost in Translation!

But look closely…Don’t we have the same scenario in our own families? Do you think our kids do not want to be part of the family decisions? Don’t you think that they want to balance family interests with their own? Advertising agencies know the important role that children can assume in the decision to buy a car for example: These two growing aspirations apply to all levels. Managers will have to learn how to deal with this, but parents will likely have to learn it too!

The Late Models and Illusions

Considering these two strong aspirations, and truly taking them into account, will require abandoning the traditional models of management.

C2 management is over

The time for autocratic leaders is coming to an end, This is true for heads of states as well. This is also true for business leaders and project managers who thought they could hold full power, decide for others, and impose their choices on their entire organization. In managerial terms, it is the end of the mode “C2 Management,” which is to say, the “command and control,” terms of military origin. This is the end of the project manager who alone, structures the project, assigns responsibilities, distributes tasks to be performed, and monitors their implementation. You may say that such leaders are no longer in business. Allow me to refute this, because I meet them often.

Charisma is not enough

Some authoritarian leaders felt adding charisma would be sufficient. These leaders often have a clear vision of where they want to go and explain that vision to all those who want to hear. They turn it into objectives, and because they understood that the world was changing, they delegated.

These leaders are an improvement over C2 leaders. They do not delegate at the task level, but at the target level, thereby giving a little bit of autonomy to their employees. They are proud to practice “management by objective.” And yet…these leaders are then also suspended. They added charisma and delegation to their manager’s outfit, but they still are authoritarian, anchored in a decision process that can only go in one direction: from top to bottom. In doing so, they are not really taking into account the aspirations we developed above.

Participatory management is often an illusion

Some have understood this and thought they should add new accessories to their manager and executive suits, so they disguised themselves as teachers. They believed in adopting a “participatory management,” as others have believed in adopting “participatory democracy” and make it work. The idea is laudable and interesting.

Information flows

Exhibit 1 – Information flows

But, unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases this is only another illusion. Indeed, putting a “suggestion box” available to project team members, or organising discussions about the vision and goals that come from above, does not change the decision-making process. At best, it makes it look nicer. In any case, we can’t resolve the real problems that are posed by the confrontation of collective interests and individual interests, or the issue of competing interests between different teams (such as production and quality or commercial and customer support).

The last type of leader: the democrat. This person no longer exists in the business world. By organizing a referendum to determine what the majority opinion was, he missed his targets and got fired!

The Revolution of Leadership is Now

A leadership reversal is needed

In our companies or communities, the revolution of leadership is for now! This is the only way to meet the aspiration of involving stakeholders in the decision-making process. This is the only way to take into account individual interests as collective interests. I use the term “revolution” deliberately and literally. It's a real turnaround that our leaders, managers, and executives must operate.

As evidence, let us look at some words from the vocabulary of today's decision maker. First, he or she will talk about the need to “make people adhere,” whether it is to his or her team, company, or fellow citizens, to a common and shared vision. He or she will still speak of “give meaning” to the change he or she is about to manage. He or she will seek to “motivate” his or her troops. Finally, he or she will talk about “empowering” his or her managers, teammates, and employees. And, during all this, he or she will work hard to “manage stakeholders.”

Look at these sentences carefully Because they are telling. The subject of each of these verbs is the leader himself. The original intention was to involve others, to make room for everyone, and to make sure everyone ends up finding his or her own way within the team initiative. But, in fact, it is merely a cover or disguise. The means and the words chosen simply show that nothing has changed in the end: the information still flows downward and decisions are still made at the top and spread downstream.

The revolution to operate is to reverse these sentences. The goal is to make the subject of these sentences—the actor of these verbs—no longer the leader, but the team member him or herself, the employee of the company, the average citizen. The question is not to focus on the leader to “make people adhere.” The focus is that people “decide to join” the initiative, “discover the meaning” of the project that is being proposed, “get involved” in its realization, and “take responsibility” for its implementation. Regarding the stakeholders, the reversal is not to “manage them,” but for them to “agree” to the project and participate in discussions and decisions.

Sociocracy and dynamic gouvernance

In short, this change revives the word sociocracy invented in the 19th century by the French sociologist, Auguste Comte:. The autocrat has sole power. In a democracy, it is the people who have the power. In sociocracy, governance is provided by the entire social body, that is to say, by the various related persons and thus interdependent of each other. Americans, who do not like words that begin with “social,” describe this with the words “dynamic governance.”

Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

Exhibit 2 - Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

It was not until the 1960s that sociocracy became operational, with the work of Gerard Endenburg. Endenburg is a Dutch engineer who inherited an electrical engineering business from his father. After a few years, marked by deep conflicts within the company, he decided to work to improve its organization. He combined his work with Kees Boeke, an educator of whom he had been a student. The objective was to implement sociocracy, this dynamic governance, with the central concept: no decision can be taken while argued objections remain.

To achieve this, Endenburg developed four operational principles that are extremely simple:

  • The circle: Within a sociocratic organization, each work unit belongs to a traditional hierarchical structure, but this work unit also consists in a “circle.” Operational issues remain treated by the traditional hierarchical structure; however, policy issues are dealt with within the circle. For example, one can imagine a project where all people responsible for deliverables are together in a circle. They decide on the strategic directions that should be taken. Once decisions are made, executions are carried out by the operational manager of the specific deliverable. In sociocracy, everyone belongs to at least one circle.
  • The double link: Each circle is connected to the upper circle by two different people. The line manager on the one hand and a representative delegated by the circle on the other hand. He or she can grant or withhold its consent on decisions taken at a higher level. This double link provides two-way communication. With the double link, it is not possible to make a decision that condemns the rest of the organization or the project to failure.
  • Consent: Decisions are made based on the consent of all. No decision can be taken while a participant makes a reasonable and argued objection; however, an objection commits its author to actively look for the solution, along with the entire circle. The goal is not to all be in agreement (and to achieve consensus), but that no one object (obtain consent).
  • The election without a candidate: The skills and qualities needed to be a good candidate are different from those needed to be a good elected representative! And rare are those who have both! The last principle of Edenburg’s implementation of sociocracy addresses this dilemma. In sociocracy, elections do not require candidates. When specific responsibilities need to be assigned to someone, each member of the circle makes his or her suggestion and the person is chosen by consent from all members of the circle.

To summarize sociocracy in one sentence: it is about learning to reconcile rather than choose, learning to switch from “or,” which divides and separates to “and,” which brings together; and associate, to move away from the “yes but” toward the “yes and.”

Figment or reality?

Recently, someone said to me: “sociocracy is a figment of the imagination!” He's wrong. Sociocracy is a legal structure in The Netherlands. More and more organizations operate with systems of governance dynamics. Local authorities, such as Communities of Commons, have adopted such principles to strengthen democracy within their territory and involve citizens in the development of a development project.

On the contrary—Not only is it not a figment of the imagination, but I believe, it is vital and necessary. Today’s leaders who will not evolve toward sociocracy will face resistance and strong opposition.

I now want to share three examples to show how this “leadership reversal” can solve particularly difficult situations.

Sociocraty at work and leadership reversal

Exhibit 3: Sociocraty at work and leadership reversal

Three Case Studies

Case 1: Deciding otherwise

A Community of Commons wants to create on its territory a mini “cluster”; these now famous structures bring together companies, research centers, and educational institutions. The idea is to create a center of expertise that builds on existing structures and entities and leverages the expertise and culture of the territory. My role is to bring together stakeholders and bring them to jointly develop the project vision, co-construct the architecture, agree on objectives, and commit to a roadmap for implementation.

Stakeholders are a “circle.” Everyone has the same status: the president of the Community of Commons, other elected officials, business leaders, heads of trade chambers, researchers, teachers, and technicians. There is no difference in status. The project is the central concern, not the “leader.” The circle meets several times. These meetings are called “summits”; they are the important venue, structured to allow in-depth discussions, which lead to collective decisions and commitments.

Co-construction is a nice idea but it does not come naturally. We must begin by “confusing” the participants, so they abandon the representations they may have about each other, or prejudices they have on the subject, in order to open the field of possibilities. This is especially true when one meets people from different areas, who are strongly influenced by their own culture. We must organize meetings for participants to share, discover, and develop an appreciation of each other, focused on the strengths that each brings to the building community. It is then necessary to establish a collective writing exercise that allows each to really put his or her personal imprint on the collective achievements, participate in developing a shared vision, and find where he or she sits in this vision. We must then go deeper into detail, while maintaining the spirit of co-construction, and avoiding the usual trap that consists of delegating some of the detailed designs and expanding the link between authors and their work. And then, we must make choices and decisions and prioritize them.

At each stage, what’s important is not to apply a recipe, but to use approaches that enable one to stay faithful to the spirit of co-construction. In this example, we used the “six thinking hats,” by Edward De Bono (1985), to bring out all aprioris on the project in order to treat them rationally. Appreciative Inquiry (a methodology initiated by David Cooperrider(2003)) enabled us to then build a vision of the cluster, based on the region's assets and key players. Detailed design phases were conducted through “World Café,” a series of highly mobile and dynamic roundtables, which allow everyone to “put his two cents” into a process of gradual development.

After a few months, we had a vision, architecture, and nine goals for the project deliverables in order to put into implementation. Participants were satisfied with their work. However, for me, it lacked the crucial step: that of prioritisation. I now know from experience that it is relatively easy to agree on common goals. However, it is very difficult to prioritize them collectively. This requires making choices and acknowledging the facts that some are more important than others. This may revive the struggle for power and influence. In the past, I’ve seen a beautiful co-constructed building collapse in an instant at that stage. It was during the cluster story, that I considered it appropriate to adopt one of the principles of Edenburg’s sociocracy: the consent-based decision.

The experience is instructive. I asked Hubert, one of the participants, a few days before the summit, to make an initial proposal for prioritizing and allocating nine goals into three short-term goals, three medium, and three long-term. He worked on it and said: “It's obvious! It will not take us long to agree on it!” In opening the summit, he presented his colleagues with his original proposal. I then invited the participants to ask clarifying questions needed to understand the logic of this initial proposal. Hubert was surprised that after all this work together, what was obvious for him may not necessarily be so for his partners. Once the questions were answered and clarified, I initiated a round table to get feedback from each participant. At this point, I was careful about avoiding controversy. My goal was to make sure everyone could react to the original proposal and explain his or her views. After the round table, I ask Hubert if he wished to amend his original proposal to reflect the feedback and he made some changes. I then asked all participants if they had reasonable objections to make. We wrote the five of them down. One by one, we took those objections and tried to address them. The process is eased by the fact that those who object are actively looking for solutions. The first objection deals with reordering two goals. Solving the second objection makes the last one vanish. The next two disappear after fine tuning the scope of each objective.

This step, supposedly obvious, took the whole morning! This is the price to pay for a solid decision, which leaves no area for doubt, ambiguity, or resentment and leads to a strong commitment from the stakeholders. The decision time is essential, and should be taken.

Case 2: Discovering meaning otherwise

The second managerial turnaround. Many books deal with the subject of meaningful work, and we talk more and more about managers as “meaning givers.” But, as Eugenie Vegleris exposes in her book, Managing With the Philosophy (Editions d'Organisation) (2006): “The term ‘giving meaning’ is philosophically inaccurate. Meaning cannot be given, it is discovered and built.”

I remember being called by a company CEO who had just invested 6 million euros in building a new plant. The investment was designed to reduce the annual market launch of a seasonal product by 75 percent. Four times faster to ensure receipt of the product, grading, quality control, sorting, packaging, storage, and traceability. Dividing any process time by 75% is not an easy task. Everyone can guess what it takes in term of changes, new tools, and process redesign. The impacts for employees are huge. The question of “meaning” of these changes, as employees see them, is crucial to their commitment.

In our case, the employees began to organize resistance, claiming that they had inadequate tools, were unable to meet the new requirements, were constantly asking for improvements in working conditions, and were refusing to work on the new site. When I asked “Do employees understand the meaning of the changes they are forced to face?” the CEO responded: “Sure! We have not stopped communicating on the target of four times productivity increase.” You’ve probably noticed that this is not the answer to the question. The question is not centered on the manager and his team (“Have you communicated?”), but on the employees (“Do they understand?”). They are asked to go four times faster to prepare boxes of products that are stored there for a whole season. Did they understand that? Does it make sense does to them? What do they think about these changes, their rationale, their consequences, and their business benefits? What do they understand as the implications for themselves, on the individual level? Do they know the advantages as well as disadvantages?

In designing the project, leaders followed a path of intellectual thinking and development. It probably took a lot of time (several months?) to gradually mature the decision. The same path must also be travelled by employees. It is useless to tell them the conclusion, but it is necessary to get them on the journey and invite them to discover for themselves the direction of the project, which is what we did with all employees at this factory. For two days, we brought them together and stimulated their thinking on the journey of rediscovery of the company, its mission, and its projects.

I remember precisely the time when the breakthrough came—it was 3:30 p.m. on the second day. Suddenly, the group had just grasped the incredible competitive advantage that this increase in productivity brought. Suddenly, they were able to see the impact it had on each one, on the sustainability of jobs, on the development opportunities that the project was opening for each of them, and on the pride of becoming an industry leader.

Fifteen days later, I walked through the factory. The very same people who earlier had been unplugging the new tools “that screw-up all the time” were the ones wanting to show me, with understandable pride, what they could now do, and how it helped their colleagues succeed in their mission.

Meaning cannot be given! It has to be discovered.

Case 3: Involving otherwise

How do we “motivate?” Again, a reversal is required. Motivation that managers most often seek to raise is the extrinsic motivation: that which is drawn not from the activity itself but that is external to the activity (e.g., obtaining a reward). However, the strongest motivation is intrinsic motivation, that which is drawn directly from the activity itself. One does not exclude the other, but research shows that extrinsic motivation may kill intrinsic motivation. Building a sustainable involvement of actors in a project can be built on intrinsic motivation. To do this, it is no longer a question of knowing how to motivate your team but a question of thinking about ways to get your team involved. The distinction is significant.

In 2004, a few stakeholders in the fruit and vegetable sector in Aquitaine (one of the primary economies of this region) came to us. This industry was in decline and one of its leaders strongly claimed that “decline is not a project.” They wanted to create a new dynamic and to trigger new aspirations to become entrepreneurial in this domain.

Initially, they imagined starting a project with some key players, thinking of a “commando” like operation and hoping that it would gradually snowball and change the entire field. They knew that an entire sector does not move unless all stakeholders engage in collective action but they did not know how to get there.

Our challenge was to bring together 100 industry players, for three days of talks, which would subsequently be referred to as the “Dax Summit.” Needless to say, sending 150 invitations wasn’t going to get us to reach our goal, especially when one knows the state of despair that exists on farms. It was therefore necessary to build an engagement strategy.

This was one of the first times that an Appreciative Inquiry of this magnitude was conducted in France. We formed a small team to conduct appreciative interviews, an interview style that opened fields of exploration for the future, leveraging the successful past experiences. We sent our interview team to meet with 110 industry players to talk about their successes, their key achievements, their pride of feeding people good-quality products, the strengths and assets they had developed, as well as all that remains to be built.

Remembering the emotions during some of these meetings and the tears I've seen shed, I have no doubt we touched on the intrinsic motivation of these women and men. A few weeks later, 90 of us gathered at the Dax Summit to start building the renaissance of this industry.

Involving is not convincing—It is helping others find out what drives them.

Building Projects of the Future

To build future projects, the project manager should take into account the new aspirations of people. Whether to merge two companies or two information systems, to cross a territory with a new high-speed train, or start thinking “sustainable development” in the company, he or she will need to acquire new tools and new ways of doing things. These tools are not lacking: from Appreciative Inquiry to Sociocraty, from World Café to the collaborative writing process discussed here.

But tools and methods are nothing if they are only seen as tips and tricks. To accommodate these aspirations, the leader must reflect deeply on the evolution of its role. He or she must be able to make the managerial turnaround we discussed and his or her primary mission becoming: To help people give the best of themselves!


Brown, J. (2005). The world café. San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Cooperrider, D. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. United States: Lakeshore Publishers.

De Bono, E. (1985). Six thinking hats. United States: Key Porter Books Ltd.

Dupuy, F (2011) Lost in management (French Edition) Paris, France: Seuil

Hamel, G. (2007). The future of management. United States: Harvard Business School Press.

Vegleris, E. (2006.) Manager avec la philo. Paris, France: Editions d’Organisation.

© 2012, Patrick Beauvillard
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France



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