We form organizations to get things done. That’s basically what an organization is: we meet to make decisions and we do things. The interesting piece is how the “we meet to make decisions” and the “we do things” relate to each other. For now, let’s call the things we do the operations. And then decisions we make policy.
There are two ways of looking at it. The first is this:
In this picture, we make policy so that operations happen. This is what I call prescriptive policies. We prescribe what needs to happen and then we cross our fingers that it does happen.
Then there is another way of looking at it. It is that operations are being done because that’s what we do. And because all those operations are happening – like balls that are rolling themselves.
I think there are warriors and worriers. The warriors steam ahead and don’t care whose toes they step on. Working with them feels like being chased by a lot of heavy balls that come rolling downhill all the time. It’s overwhelming, and it can be out of control.
The worriers would rather plan out every detail. Those organizations make a lot of policy to think about every potential scenario of what might happen in 2 years, before they even lift a finger. Progress, if any, is slow. It’s actually quite a drag.
What does healthy balance look like? We don’t want to be overrun by our operations but we also don’t want collaboration to be slow and tedious. The image I am envisioning is that the operations move forward, and we stay right beside them and make sure they go where we want them. There is motion. But it is controlled. That’s where I want to be. Don’t you?
That’s my perspective on operations and policy. Operations are happening because we don’t come together to talk about things but we come together to make things happen. If that is not the case, then I don’t join, or I leave. Policy is necessary to steer the motion, to plan, to control, to make sure what we’re doing is working. In this way, operations drive policy, not the other way around.
If you know me, you know that I am a sociocracy person. Sociocracy – in case you missed it – is a governance system. In sociocracy, the basic assumption is that those who work together decide together, i.e. workers make the decisions locally or, put differently, the people who do the work in a given domain make decisions about that same domain. We call those teams of people who decide together circles. Any circle collectively will have to make many decisions together. For instance, the baking crew will do a lot of things that come along with baking. The website crew will do all the things related to making websites. The membership circle will do things related to membership issues, for instance responding to emails, put people on rosters, collect membership fees. In their domain, they have the last word on everything.
In the image of the balls as operations, there are now a lot of balls in the air and people are busy. From time to time, we hold a meeting to see where things are at. We might move a ball here and there or give it a gentle push, all of which are operational decisions because they are case by case decisions. Those are operational meetings (or operational decisions within generic circle meetings).
When do we make policy? In my observation, there are exactly two reasons to make policy:
- The first reason to make policy is because we notice that we keep inventing the wheel and we get tired of it. We notice that we keep talking about the same issue again and again and make a case-by-case decision every time. It does not seem efficient. As soon as someone says, “hey, why don’t we just make a decision about this in general”, you are making policy. “Rules” are policy just as defining work-flow or defining roles. Anything that makes a general statement on how we work together is policy. Using the same examples as above, we might get organic or conventional flour, depending on who goes shopping – an operational, case-by-case decision. In policy, we make a general decision instead of deciding organic/conventional every time. Or, when you notice that you keep deciding who is going to update the event calendar on the website and you decide that from now on, always the same person will do it: you have created a role, which is policy. Or we finally decide what our membership process will look like for anybody who applies. With intentionality, we create clarity, and with the clarity comes transparency and the hope for more effective and efficient processes. Policy is not there to restrict people but to ensure effective, intentional and high quality operations. To make our policy is working for people and creates the desired outcomes, in sociocracy, we will revisit the policy on a regular basis to make sure it is doing what we were hoping it would.
- The second reason to make policy is to settle a disagreement. For instance, possibly, there might be feelings around the question of organic versus conventional flour. Every time it’s time to get a new bag of flour from the pantry in my co-op bakery, and you see that it is conventional flour, you might get upset, asking yourself who bought it. In the same way, if something goes wrong – you notice that the membership people have not consistently collected membership fees from everyone, or you discover that the event calendar has not been updated in 6 months - your circle will meet and say, ok, let’s make this better. We come together, everyone who is affected, and we make a decision that will settle the issue.
From an organizational view, collaboration could be easy and maximally efficient if everyone had full information and agreement on how things work, where things are, who does what and what preferences people have. But that’s not the reality. Others cannot read our mind, and we never have full information and we will never agree in our preferences. Nonetheless, we walk around thinking that should be the case. And if it isn’t we tend to get upset.
Whenever you catch yourself thinking something like “Why don’t they get that it does not work to….?!”, it is time to make policy. From a sociocratic view point, there is no right or wrong, there are just strategies to meet needs. On your own, you will choose strategies that contribute to meeting your own needs but you might not know what might work for others. The only way to find out is to talk about it when making policy. You might not find a solution that is perfect for everyone but you will most likely find an agreement that everyone can work with. In a way, it is about saving attention. We cannot track everyone’s needs all the time. So to make sure we meet everyone’s needs to a satisfactory level, we make policy. In making policy, each person brings their needs to the table and we consent to a policy, and that way, I don’t have to track everyone’s needs anymore – I just follow the policy. In an organization with a considerable level of complexity, being 100% considerate all the time is simply not realistic.
As such, policy-making is a huge opportunity to make collaboration smoother and less emotionally charged. If you are able to step out of the “why don’t they” mind set and instead can get curious and start the policy process, you will never have to argue again.
Next time: how to make policy
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Ted Rau (2018). Make Policy Your Best Friend (and You'll Never Argue Again). Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/make-policy-your-best-friend-and-youll-never-argue-again