In an Interview, Bernhard Bockelbrink talks about Sociocracy and how the further-developed version, Sociocracy 3.0, offers specific solutions to challenges where Scrum and the scaling frameworks are too shy to take a stand.
The Agile Automotive Conference has been well established as the leading congress about agile development processes, methods and practices within the automotive electronics industry. Together with the well-known congress organiser Euroforum, Kugler Maag Cie has designed this conference and runs the contentual conduction.
Hello Bernhard, who are you and what do you do for living? Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I work as an agile coach and consultant, helping teams and organizations to discover how to create products and services that are valuable to their customers, and how to still have a lot of fun along the way. Together with James Priest and Lili David I’m developing Sociocracy 3.0. I live in Berlin with my wife and three kids.
Your main focus is Sociocracy in combination with agility. What is Sociocracy and how does it fit together with agility?
Sociocracy – also known as the “Sociocratic Circle Method” – is a participatory governance method that has been developed in the Netherlands since the 1970s. At its core lies a collaborative decision making method, and around that are structures designed to facilitate effective governance processes and maintain the equivalence of all members of the organization.
Sociocracy treats governance as a complex problem and promotes an iterative and collaborative approach to making governance decisions. It is a similar kind of empirical and hypothesis driven approach as the agile methodologies apply to products, work processes or business models.
Agility, on the other hand, has long avoided the really interesting questions: how can you run an organization in an agile way? Most organizations just put a traditional hierarchy on top of a couple of Scrum teams, but that does make a lot of sense, they are two opposing mindsets. Sociocracy brings a lot of ideas that resonate with an agile mindset, so 5 years ago, James Priest and I created Sociocracy 3.0 as a way for organizations to experiment with these ideas.
What are the differences between the classic approach of Sociocracy and the newer Sociocracy 3.0 approach?
Like Scrum or Holacracy, classic Sociocracy is a specific method an organization has to follow. While there is a place for that, implementing a rigid method requires quite a leap of faith for an organization, which many organizations are not ready to take. And that makes a lot of sense, too, if you want to minimize risk for your organization, you’d be wise to avoid radical change as much as possible, and favor continuous evolution.
As we see it, Sociocracy and agility are mindsets not methods. That’s why we created Sociocracy 3.0 – or “S3”, as we call it – as a way of helping organizations discover and grow into that mindset, at their very own pace. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to that, therefore S3 provides a lot of freedom for organizations, a lot of space for experimentation.
At its heart there’s a very simple concept: if an organization that wants to become more sociocratic and more agile, each internal or external challenge they face provides a way for trying out ideas that other agile and/or sociocratic organizations have already used to overcome similar challenges. We call those ideas, or solutions, “patterns”, and S3 provides around 70 of them. Each of these patterns can be implemented individually and most of them can be tried within a single team, or even by an individual. We even encourage people to change and adapt those patterns to their context, after all they know best what works for them. Through that openness, we aim to reduce friction and resistance, and minimize the commitment required.
The patterns in S3 are all dealing with different aspects of collaboration, from decision making to organizing work to organizational structure. They draw on the collective wisdom of the agile, lean and sociocratic community. All we do is to take all those great ideas out there, identify the smallest patterns that can still bring value to an organizations and put them together into a coherent and reasonably complete framework.
How widespread is Sociocracy here in Germany? Are there any industries or areas where the topic is particularly well adopted?
Before we released the first version of S3 in 2015, I had heard of a few consultancies working with Sociocracy, also a few communities, volunteer organizations and nonprofits.
Traditionally, Sociocracy has been associated with “social” organizations, e.g. health care and education. From what I can see, that has changed considerably with S3, there is a lot of tech organizations experimenting with S3. They already work with Scrum, Kanban, XP etc., so they are familiar with some of our patterns for effective meetings, organizing work and so on.
On top of that, S3 offers specific solutions to challenges where Scrum and the scaling frameworks are too shy to take a stand: participatory decision making, collaborative employee development, structure beyond hierarchies, to name a few. So these organizations can see that S3 is a way forward for them to take agility to the next level.
Participative Leadership and self-organization play an increasingly important role in New Work. To what extent are today’s companies prepared for this paradigm shift and what must to happen so that Sociocracy becomes more popular?
What I see out there being called participative leadership is not so much of a paradigm shift, it’s more a of a management style that remains rooted in the old paradigm: there is still a designated leader who holds the power, also the power to decide how much the others can participate. It’s a bit like those so-called “flat hierarchies”, everyone is on a first-name basis, but when things go wrong, it’s still a hierarchy and the boss can – and will – tell everyone what to do. So it is pretty easy for an organization to claim they have participatory leadership, because they heard that this is a tool for employee retention.
I think the real fun starts when you go beyond that, when leaders are elected by the group and are recalled by the group when things go wrong. Or when an organization moves towards distributed leadership and people just step up and take the lead in a situation where they know they are competent to do so. An organization like this can leverage much the combined cognitive capacity of all its members and is at the same time a very interesting and fun place to be.
It may sound cynical, but what is really driving change in some organizations is that many are now failing in such an obvious way that they cannot help but notice they are in an existential crisis and cannot go on like this. So they are starting to consider things they would not have considered 5 years ago or even two years ago. There is more openness for experiments, even in large corporations. Of course there is a lot of inertia and a lot of power struggles along the way, but something is happening. After all, we are talking about agility in the automotive industry now, and at least some people are listening. A couple of years ago nobody would have believed that.
I would like to think S3 is already pretty popular. Over the past five years, it has been discovered by lots of small and medium-sized businesses, by NGOs and communities, and there is also quite a few enterprises already experimenting with S3, because it’s free and it is so painless to try it out.
We consult and mentor some of those organizations, but even more organizations play with S3 entirely on their own and we only hear of them incidentally. We are trying to support that kind of growth by making everything about S3 free under a Creative Commons license and by providing services that help the community to translate our materials to their languages. And even more great things are on the way.
Thank you for the interview! Last question: What can the conference participants of the Agile Automotive 2019 look forward to in your session?
I will provide an introduction to S3, so that everyone has a rough idea what it is all about. From then on, participants will drive the direction of the session. They will get to choose from a selection of short modules that explore different aspects of S3, e.g. agile decision making, transcending hierarchies, organizational culture, agile structures, software for learning organizations, strategies for agile transitions. My aim is to demonstrate that it’s very simple to get started with S3.
Thank you for the interview.
Bernhard Bockelbrink is an Agile Coach and Consultant, helping teams and organizations to discover how to create products and services that are valuable to their customers, and how to still have a lot of fun along the way. Together with James Priest and Lili David he is developing Sociocracy 3.0.
Information about the interviewer:
Sergej Weber is a Senior Consultant/Agile Coach at global automotive consultancy Kugler Maag Cie. Even after eight years in practice, he is a striving learner about all things Agile and is supporting leading German Tier-1 suppliers such as Bosch, Continental, and Hella with their agile implementation efforts.