SAFe Mix-in’s: Sociocracy

Overview

What if you are a big fan of sociocracy or holocracy? Can you combine those practices with SAFe? Right now, when you look at SAFe you see teams at the team level (of course), programs at the program level (or release trains anyway). However, at the executive or portfolio level you don’t see any specific recommendations for how to organize into teams or groupings or aggregations. I think the portfolio level is where sociacracy or sociacractic methods might come in handy in SAFe. So perhaps it’s time for a brief overview of sociocracy. 

Basically, there are two key attributes of sociocracy as I understand it. First sociocracy involves a hierarchical arrangement of people into circles or groups. I don’t think there are any strong definitions around how those groups are composed. In essence, you have the people who are doing the work, or those closest to the work, in a group or team or circle. You have group appointed representatives that will be representatives at the next level or circle up in the hierarchy. So that next level up is perhaps a group of related teams or teams working on a similar product or effort of some sort. That higher group is your next sociocratic circle. That circle, in turn will have members that represent it at the next circle up, yet again, to some top tier circle that would represent the executive team or directors, depending on the scope and scale of the organization in question. There’s no real limit to the number of levels of circles in this hierarchy. So it’s a hierarchy of circles.

The other key attribute is that decision making is made by consensus within each circle, not majority voting. Decision making is something where we are seeking everyone to come to the point where they understand the problem and they believe it is the best possible solution, even if it is not their favorite, among all the solutions presented. This is very different from an in-or-out roman voting system, where the majority wins. In roman voting there are winners and losers. The losers think the winners are idiots and the winners think the losers are whiners. Using roman voting you only get partial commitment from the winners and zero engagement from the losers. Consensus, on the other hand, has commitment from everyone. With Consensus everyone agrees this is the best path forward, even it isn’t their favorite. Frankly, it’s a much higher standard of agreement to try and achieve.

You can find out more about Sociocracy here:

With these the two key attributes of sociocracy: the hierarchy of circles and consensus-based decision making within circles, the question is, within SAFe how do we apply this? Well, we already have consensus-based decision making using the “Fist of Five” technique in SAFe. We don’t use it everywhere in SAFe, but it is used prominently at events like PI Planning. It’s certainly something that people are familiar with and comfortable with and it would be easy to incorporate into other areas within their organization. So, if we are going to apply sociocracy and one of the elements we are going to use is consensus-based decision making, then we can assume SAFe will have no problem with that, and we can call that a win. 

How about all those crazy hierarchies of circles that sociocracy has? Well that’s where we might have to change SAFe a little bit. Now if you look at the team level it’s quite clear that SAFe already has “circles” at this level. If you go up to the next level, the program level, and look at the release trains, again, the people are participating in things like the scrum-of-scrums, those people are basically forming your next level up of circles. So, so far, our hierarchy of circles that we might see in sociocracy is well represented already within SAFe with no changes. 

So, let’s go one more level up. At the top level this is where we might have to introduce change, because as far as I know, SAFe has no guidance for what kind of teams or organization should be used here. In fact, SAFe says little or nothing at all on this topic. It’s at the portfolio level where we would be asking the management teams, the executives, to form circles of their own. How many circles is going to vary depending on the size and scale of the organization. For instance, if we are looking at multiple divisions, there might be circle for each division and then a circle above that with representatives from each division…and then a circle above that representing some larger organizational context. That in and of itself is not a particularly challenging thing to define. Actually, I think many organizations implicitly do that in one form or another. 

However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the idea of having representation from lower circles has to be captured here. That’s where I think that introducing and formalizing these teams and groups is important. You could use something as simple as executive scrum teams (or something of that sort). It would be useful for executives to walk the walk and talk the talk the same way everyone else in the organization may already be doing. So, to some degree it’s just a natural way of taking scrum and spreading it throughout an organization. Or Kanban, or whatever team-based organization tickles your fancy. The underlying idea: to use the circle model to spread the team behavior at the team and program level upwards to the executive level.

Forces

  • You are seeking ways to further empower teams
  • The executive team is willing to structure themselves in the same fashion as everyone else

Framework Impacts

  • At the portfolio level, we introduce circles

Benefits

  • More ownership of team/circle direction and work
  • Executives tied into the same process the rest of the organization uses, with the associated benefits

Did I mention sociocracy probably isn’t for everyone? Because it’s definitely not. But it could be really cool to integrate elements of sociocracy in organizations where the culture is a good match.

Interested in more Mix-ins? Join Ron Quartel and I for a 3 day workshop on SAFe+FAST Agile. Combine the 2 to get max value from your agile transformation. It’s an opportunity to explore the latest scaled agile processes and practices with other agile innovators on May 15, 16, 17. ‪https://bit.ly/2HXCcKD ‬

8 Responses to SAFe Mix-in’s: Sociocracy

  1. Jack Caine says:

    Hey Tom. How about the role of Epic Owner at the Portfolio level? The Epic Owner is many times (mostly?) from the lower levels (e.g. Product Manager, Product Owner, System Architect, or even a developer). Wouldn’t SAFe provide the necessary structure intrinsically? Jack

    • Tom Perry says:

      Jack, Great point. Yes, I think that with the Epic Owner/Business Case Owner SAFe intrinsically provides the membership for what could be a sociocracy-style circle at the portfolio level. They certainly provide representation. What SAFe doesn’t have is explicit description for is how that group works together to come to consensus (although I suspect that is in development by SAI). I’ve helped organize the SAFe(ish) portfolio process at a couple of places and to be honest, it was largely ad hoc. My experience suggests that you tend to bump into a lot of pre-existing structures that force you to get creative at the portfolio level.

      I also wonder if an emphasis sociocracy would benefit from a more visible representation of that hierarchical relationship of the circles and the representation from each.

      Good food for thought. Thank you!

      • Jack Caine says:

        Tom…what about the WSJF work session and the portfolio kanban system…aren’t those the mechanisms for portfolio level consensus making through collaborative prioritization? 🙂

      • Tom Perry says:

        Yes, they are good tools for helping to achieve consensus. And perhaps (along with a well defined circle) that’s enough. I have no difficulty with the argument that SAFe already implicitly expresses sociocracy with the mechanisms it already has.

        But…there is a tiny little voice in my head asking, “Is there a well defined team or circle at the portfolio level the same way there is at the program and team level?” Maybe? If yes, then we’re good. If no, then I think we should.

        And perhaps…I missed an important element of sociocracy? In it’s default configuration, SAFe often doesn’t start off feeling very sociocratic to me (but it can get there). But I think maybe I’m guilty of being a romantic too. Regardless, it’s good to imagine what it might be like. I’m finding that these mix-in ideas are challenging the way I think about the framework.

        Thanks again!

  2. Jack Caine says:

    I would say “yes”…examples include LACE (Lean Agile Center of Excellence), Communities of Practice, and the Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) Team.

    If someone wants to implement SAFe or Scrum or any framework top down, its easy to do. If someone wants to implement them outward in each direction (top-down, bottom-up) at the same time, that can be done also.

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