Why is Unicorn Grocery using sociocracy principles in governance?

A workshop at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester discussed how the model can be used to produce consent on decisions

Unicorn Grocery is in the process of adopting a new governance structure using elements of sociocracy – and presented the model during a workshop at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last weekend.

Debbie Clarke and Abbie Kempson from the Manchester wholefood store told delegates at the conference – organised by Co-operative Business Consultants  – that the growth of Unicorn over the last couple of years have made it impossible to do things the same way.

Unicorn started exploring sociocracy in 2017

A collaborative governance method, sociocracy was devised in 1851 by French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte. Unlike the one member, one vote rule used by co-ops, it sees a group of individuals reasoning together until a decision is reached that is satisfactory to all.

While members have preferences, they also have a range of tolerance. The model aims to map everybody’s range of tolerance to make it easier for them to agree. It does not aim to produce a consensus, but rather to have people give their consent and have no objections to an option.

“Consent is not about everybody getting their favourite option, but getting an option everyone can agree on,” said Ms Clarke.

Another principle of sociocratic organisation is a hierarchy of semi-autonomous circles. The structure enables all members to raise issues and be listened to – without feeling they have to wait for their message to get across, said Ms Clarke. Everybody in the circle can participate actively.

Equally important is the principle of circular steering, with individuals acting as links between the different circles; they function as full members in the decision-making process, within their own circle and also within the next, higher one.

Sociocracy also encourages participants to try something new, said Ms Kempson, and allows them to record concerns, measure impact and set review dates.

Using this model, Unicorn says it can experiment for short period of times, as collectively agreed by members, and search for the right solutions.

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