The power of consent-based decision making | In conversation with Pete Burden

In our latest podcast Pete Burden, an organisational strategist with over 30 years’ experience working with purpose-driven businesses introduces sociocracy, a consent-based decision making approach to organising. Kate, our communication manager interviewed Pete on the transformative potential of sociocracy.

For the uninitiated, what is sociocracy?

“Essentially sociocracy is a way of talking to people. That’s the most important element of it. It’s centred around this idea of making decisions and how we gain consent to do things. Then there is a structural element, how you design the organisation, how you shape it. And the third idea is around learning and feedback.”

What kind of situation would you commonly employ it in?

“Many really! It’s certainly something an organisational consultant can use to help an organisation develop and grow. But I think it can be used in pretty much every kind of work. So you know, if you’re sitting with somebody and you say “I want to do this”, “I want to go and do something” then you could use this way of checking for consent to say, “Is it okay?”, “are you worried about that?”, “would it cause you a problem?” And if they say no, well then you get on and do it.  It’s very much about action. It’s about doing things.  We all spend a lot of time in meetings trying to make plans and what sociocracy’s trying to do is get us out of planning things too much in advance and help us just get on and do things.

The other reason that consent is such a powerful technique is that what usually happens in meetings in my experience, is that if the most powerful person in the room says look we’re going to do this everyone else just nods along. It’s only when you leave the room reality kicks in, which may be, “oh, I don’t really want to do that”.  Typically there’s a lot of dragging heels, sometimes a passive or active kind of sabotage of what has been proposed because people didn’t really want to do it in the first place. And critically they didn’t get a chance to say that they didn’t want to.  What the consent process does is get all the concerns and all the objections out onto the table and then as a group, you deal with these concerns when you’re together.”

Can you talk about a concrete example when you might have done this?

“I’ve worked with a number of organisations and in some cases spent years introducing the whole structure. Those organisations use these consent processes to make everyday decisions and policy decisions. So, typically there’ll be a board meeting every week or fortnight, somebody will bring along a proposal. A key part of the consent part of sociocracy is this idea that you bring a proposal. And essentially what happens is you work in rounds where you go around the room and everyone gets a chance to speak, and even though all voices may not be equal, everyone gets an opportunity to to put their piece in.

This begins the process of uncovering objections.  There’s a change in the group where you shift from discussing a proposal brought by somebody to be something that you’re trying to do in the group.  We work hard to respect the energy that the person who brought the proposal has and find something we can all get behind.

In one sense it’s really simple and there’s a simple process to learn, which we’ve seen at the Losing Control sessions.  You can really get a sense of it in under a day.

On the other hand, it is such a change for some people because all of us grown up in families where there are different relationships between parents and children and so forth. We’ve all been to school and we’re very used to hierarchical organisations with teachers telling us what to do, when to be, where to be, when to be there. And then we start work and many work organisations are that like that as well.

When it works you see people starting to take responsibility and be creative, and of course that’s brilliant for the organisation. So many organisations say they want creativity and innovation and then they do as much as they can to kind of stamp it out.”

Listen to more podcasts with inspiring change-makers

Free resources

Movement Building Canvas

The Movement Building Canvas is a practical framework and printable worksheet to help you or your organisation design and build a social movement.

Power Mapping Canvas

The essential, practical tool for campaigners – If you want to influence change you need to understand who holds the power.

See more resources