Jerry Koch-Gonzales on the Collaboration Superpowers podcast

What’s special about Jerry Koch-Gonzalez’s meetings is that they are sociocratic. How often have you been part of a call where one person in the group hardly had any chance to speak? Their ideas and experiences are lost for the group if we don’t make sure everyone can speak. “No one ignored” is the essence of Sociocracy and it ensures both effectiveness and equivalence of voices in a meeting.

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 Original transcript

Lisette: Great. And we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today I have something a little different for everybody. Today on the line I have Jerry Koch Gonzalez. Jerry, you’re in Amherst, Massachusetts in the U.S. And you are the CEO of the Sociocracy Consulting Group. So that’s very interesting. We’re going to get into that. So welcome. And I want to start with the first question, which is what does your virtual office look like. What do you need to get your work done?

Jerry: With the Sociocracy Consulting Group, our virtual office is Zoom. We meet on Zoom. The core group of us is eight people. We’re scattered in three countries. And we are also related to our parent or sister organization, the Sociocracy Group, which is more global, has two other divisions, so it’s even more scattered around the world. And most people work from their home offices or sometimes in some other place, some office building. But we all come together for our meetings on Zoom. Sociocracy Consulting Group is organized into five teams, the same eight people kind of just scattered with different focus. All those groups meet on Zoom. And we do online training classes. So a good part of our work is also done in this medium, through the Zoom software, which works really well because you can see everybody. It’s such a great improvement over phone conferencing. We see people, see their emotions, notice if they’re paying attention or not. And to be able to do breakout rooms. So we do a lot of meetings, a lot of decision-making, a lot of training through Zoom.

Lisette: Yeah, I have to say it is definitely my favorite videoconferencing tool. I’ve used everything that I know out there. And I’m not getting paid by Zoom to say this yet. Maybe [inaudible – 02:19] do an affiliate program soon. But it is by far the best. So the breakout rooms indeed are really fantastic. I’m going to ask you about the online training courses because I have questions about that. But I first want to talk to you about Sociocracy. Is there a two-minute definition? I know it’s a big topic. The quick version of what Sociocracy is, just for the context, for the listeners.

Jerry: Sociocracy is basically an approach to governance. The ocracy, like democracy, autocracy, governance. And socio, those who work together. So it’s governance by those who work together. And what that means in practice is that there are three core elements. We work in teams that we call circles. And those circles are linked to each other. If it’s a vertical organization so that there are layers, there would be a double link, like leader, top-down. But there would also be a delegate, bottom-up, so that all the circles are doubly linked. And with any circle, the decisions are made by consent, a little different than consensus and very different from voting. The trouble with voting is there are winners and losers. The challenge with consensus is sometimes just the inefficiency of trying to get to decisions.

So the core principle in Sociocracy is no one is ignored. Everyone has a voice. So we make decisions by consent in our teams. No one is ignored. We are double-linked with the other circles if it’s a vertical or more horizontal organization. So the voice can carry throughout the organization because of those links. So again, no one ignored. Sociocratic organizations, we’re always focused on what is the aim, what is the purpose of our organization. And all the decisions then are focused on serving that purpose. Key questions about whether you consent or object to policy that we’re trying to make, supports our work, is will this support our work towards the aim or not. That’s the key differentiator in making a decision. I could be really clear about the difference between an objection, for example, and a preference.

Lisette: Super interesting. How do your meetings look different than other people’s meetings? I’m sure you’ve attended some online meetings that are probably pretty different, and you think, “Oh, if we only ran them.” How are they different?

Jerry: I think the central piece that distinguishes how we meet is the use of rounds. We go around. [crosstalk – 05:07] good for that because you can see all the people in the boxes and you can go, “Okay, next, next, next, next.” The decision-making process has multiple levels. You have a proposal and you have a clarifying questions round, making sure that everybody on the team understands the proposal. So that’s a round. Then you have the quick reaction. What do you think of this proposal? Like it, not? What are the pros and cons of it? That’s a quick reaction, five sentences or less. What’s working for you about this? [inaudible – 05:43] challenges in this proposal? And then the consent round. Again, do I object? Do I consent? If I object, why? And if there are objections, then we do another round. Okay, what do we do with this objection? And see if we get some creative solution out of that. So it’s a lot of rounds because rounds support equivalence. Everybody’s voice matters, and that’s what rounds do. And we do that in our meetings just repeatedly, [go through – 06:11] all the decisions and things that we need to do, including the beginning and closing of a meeting. We have an opening round at the beginning of the meeting. It’s just how are you arriving at this meeting. Anything in your life that you want to share so that you’re more present? Anything about this meeting in particular that raises either excitement or worry or whatever, tension? And we do a closing round in which we evaluate the meeting. What went well in terms of our product, in terms of our process? And that aspect of evaluating meetings is another very key part of Sociocracy, the structure and circles, the decision-making by consent, and feedback to people [inaudible – 06:50].

Lisette: Oh, I love it. So often, what I hear about online meetings is that one of the main challenges is that there’s somebody that takes over. There’s somebody who just talks too much. In fact, I have a special card for people who take over because it happens so much, which is the ELMO card, which stands for, “Enough, let’s move on.” So it sounds like your methodology… And that’s for people who go on and on and on and everybody is like, “I get it. I want to move on.” But it sounds like with your methodology with these rounds during meetings, you wouldn’t even have a need for something like that because it would just move on to the next person.

Jerry: It just moves on. I think you onboard a culture of efficiency. So it takes a little while for people to get it. But once you’ve been through a couple of meetings and you understand, “Okay, I just wait for my turn to speak. Here’s my turn to speak. No one is going to jump on me. No one is going to interrupt me.”

Lisette: Ah, so you know that there’s time for you. If you need to say something, there’s no need to butt in like I just did with you. Sorry about that. Sharing a bad example right away. But that I can rest easy knowing that my voice will be heard. I just need to wait for when my turn is to speak.

Jerry: Right. In the Zoom context, a facilitator is saying, “Okay, next Lisette and then Jerry.” When Lisette finishes speaking, then the facilitator says, “Jerry,” and then [inaudible – 08:20]. So you’re always calling the two people. They’re getting ready. They’re unmuting if they need to because maybe they have background noise. So we’re working through that process. You always know who’s going to be speaking. There’s always time for you to speak. We know what we’re speaking about because a facilitator is given the clear context for that round. What are we doing here? We’re doing a consent round, or are we doing a quick reaction round or clarifying questions? Or we’re just doing an open-space round, reflecting on some issue that we’re considering.

Lisette: Do you have the same facilitator each time or does it change?

Jerry: There’s a particular process for selecting people into roles in Sociocracy. We don’t vote for somebody, and we don’t have volunteers. We do a process of decision-making. And again, this is done in the rounds. So we’ll name what are the qualifications, qualities that we’re looking for in someone who’s going to be a facilitator. Usually, it’s well-organized. You can listen to people, can synthesize those kinds of things, the qualities of a facilitator. We’ve done this enough so that we don’t repeat that step. But for people who are doing a new role [inaudible – 09:37] what are the qualities of [inaudible] looking for in that role. And then everyone writes down usually on their own piece of paper or mentally who they nominate in the group for the facilitator.

And we have tables. We use tables. We also use Google Drive a lot because we keep our minutes on Google Drive. We keep our minutes live. So we write a table for the selection process right there with all the people in the group, and they write in who they’re nominating. And then we do a round. Okay, Lisette, you nominated George because… Tell us why. Jerry, you nominated Susan. Tell us why. So we go around the circle, and everybody says who they nominated and why. Then facilitator says having heard what you heard, are you moved to change your nomination? And we do our change round. Once the second round has come, the facilitator usually will say, “Okay, having heard what I heard, I propose George to be the facilitator,” and we do a consent round. And that usually completes it. If there’s an objection, then we work through to see if there’s a way to turn the no into a yes or perhaps go through another, propose somebody else.

So that’s how we select people to do roles like facilitation using rounds. And the facilitator role will have a term. So it could be six months. It could be a year, two years for that particular team. And they have a facilitator [inaudible – 11:13] somebody else, it’s another interesting thing. In Sociocracy, the leader and the facilitator can be two different people. It could be the same person but it could be two different people because sometimes the person who is good at leading and getting things done and moving people to get things done is not necessarily a skillful person at running meetings.

Lisette: That totally makes sense. How long does it take somebody to learn how to facilitate a meeting in this way?

Jerry: Gee, that depends upon where they’re starting from.

Lisette: Starting from scratch. Say for me, I’ve never done this before. How would I approach this? What would I do if I wanted to learn more? It probably should be the last question. But where does somebody start?

Jerry: Yes, the Sociocracy Consulting Group runs two online classes. One is called the foundations of Sociocracy, which goes through some simulations, explanations, and practices to learn the things we’ve just been talking about. And then there is a follow-up class called Facilitating Sociocracy. There you get to practice all the situations and simulations of what do we do in this context, what do we do if this comes up. So it’s a very practical, hands-on process.

I have another project which I do separately called Sociocracy for all, and that is coming from a more nonprofit perspective. We’re just trying to bring Sociocracy to as many people as we can. And in that project, we also do an online class. It’s called the Sociocracy Leadership Training. And that is like a pop-up organization since it’s kind of hard sometimes to learn Sociocracy just by going through a workshop or just reading a book. It’s so much easier to learn by doing. So we create a real organization that lasts for 9-10 weeks. We populate three or four different circles with the people who are in the class, and they have real work to do, which means they have to go through selecting a leader or delegate or secretary, their facilitator so they go through the selection processes. They go through decision-making about how they want to do their work, and then they also carry out their work. So they’re getting some training, they’re learning by doing, and what they produce in those circles is more information about Sociocracy. So they have to learn it in order to pass it on.

So those are ways of learning. We also do in-person workshops from time to time in different places. And there’s lots of stuff online. You can go to my YouTube channel, the Jerry Koch Gonzalez channel. And you’ll see a whole bunch of videos. Those are mostly produced by Sociocracy for All. So you can watch those. You can go to the website or Bunch of information in those places.

Lisette: So there’s tons of information out there if people want to learn how to do this. There’s no excuse, people. If you want to learn how, the Internet makes it hard to ignore.

             I want to ask about your online training courses because I also give online workshops. In fact, I’m here in Sweden today. For most people that are watching the video, that have seen the other videos, this is a very different background than what I normally have. I don’t normally have deer on my wall. For those who are listening, there’s a deer head hanging on the back wall. But I’m actually here because I offer to give a training course online. And the company opted to fly me to Stockholm instead to give it in person because they were so skeptical about the online training. And I thought it’s your choice. It’s better online. If you want to learn how to work online, should do it online. With your online training courses, do you find that people are challenged by the fact that it’s online?

Jerry: Because of the way Zoom works and you see everybody, it’s almost like you’re in person. There’s a really good quality about that. So you can really see each other, feel for how people are reacting to what’s going on, notice when somebody raises their hand. You can visually see a lot. So that’s really helpful. We do international. Our online courses are international. One of the challenges is just keeping time zones right.

Lisette: Totally.

Jerry: Here we go. We’re in the U.S. We’re about to go fairly soon into changing from standard time to daylight savings time. Well, what does that mean to Western Australia where they don’t change their time zone but Eastern Australia, they do? And Europe has got a different time when they switch over. People everywhere just have different time zones, and that’s one thing you have to really pay attention to.

Lisette: Indeed. Europe changes two weeks before or after the U.S., I remember. I know twice a year, for those two weeks in between when it’s daylight savings, all my meetings, I have to triple-check everything. It’s just confusing. Indeed, time zones are always confusing.

But indeed you find people that are opposed to turning their video on. I hear that a lot from people. It seems really personal somehow to turn your video on, although I feel like showing up in person is far more personal than being on video. But do you have that challenge as well?

Jerry: The people who are coming to us are wanting to learn Sociocracy, so that’s not a problem because they are seekers. I think it might be different in a context where you’re dealing with who are not seekers, who don’t necessarily want to but feel like they have to for some reason. There’s a difference between the phone conferencing and the videoconferencing. Right now, I can’t be shuffling my papers. I can’t be going over there and getting more food to eat because you’re seeing me. I mean I can but it’s like, “Oh, there goes Jerry. He’s going off.” But if it was a phone conferencing and you couldn’t see me like in the old days, I could be doing anything while the meeting is just going on and on and on. And when meetings were fairly meaningless, the phone conferencing was kind of nice because okay, I showed up. I did my duty. But I didn’t have to pay attention because I could do other, more important things. I could put on mute [inaudible – 17:54] vacuum, anything.

Lisette: It’s true, and people did.

Jerry: Yes, and people did. So with videoconferencing, you have to be present. You have to pay attention. And it also helps us be more effective and efficient because we don’t want to waste our time. So let’s [inaudible – 18:15].

Lisette: Indeed.

Jerry: [crosstalk – 18:18] more community. As you’re interviewing me, I get to see you. So we’re having a different kind of a relationship [inaudible – 18:28] voice over the phone, especially if we’ve never met before. So we have no history. And a lot of online meetings happen with people who don’t know each other.

Lisette: Indeed. You only have five senses. And when you take an entire sense away like sight, you lose so much, especially sight because humans are visual creatures. We want to see the other person. We react to being seen. So yeah, I agree. And I love the video function. It makes the meeting so much more fun to be able to see everybody. It opens up a whole, new form of office humor. You really get to know people in a different way indeed. People are much more engaged.

What are some of the main challenges that you face with this form of meeting facilitation?

Jerry: Technology is still a challenge because not everybody has got good bandwidth where they are. So when somebody’s voice starts crackling and the video pixels start going off etc., that kind of stuff is a challenge. Many people are not technologically savvy. So that can be a challenge, especially when we’re doing a training class. We’re getting people who’ve never used something like Google Drive. So how do I get on it? How do I find the folder? How do I find the documents? How do I write? The level of just getting up to speed with the technology poses an initial challenge to anybody who’s not familiar with those things. But the actual meeting process, facilitating a meeting online, in some ways, I find it easier because people are less likely to interrupt. When you’re in person and you’ve got a small group, people just cut each other off. They talk. But if you cut each other off in talk online, you really can’t hear what’s being said. When two or three people talk at the same time online, I cannot hear what’s being said. But when two or three people talk in person, I can still kind of make sense of what just happened and we can roll on. But online, you have to say, “Can you stop? And Lisette, now you take your turn because I really want to hear what you are saying.” So that’s one little difference that I actually appreciate about online meetings.

Lisette: That’s true. People are much more careful in terms of interruptions. I think a lot of people [wait – 21:16]. Some of the teams that I’m in, people will raise their hand when they want to speak just to indicate that they want to speak. But I like this format of really giving everybody a voice in a meeting, only because I’ve heard so often from people that what they struggle with in meetings is unengaged participants and strong personalities. Some people really give up because they’re being pushed out. And some people are vacuuming or making lunch while they’re on a call. In a video meeting, you can’t quite get away with that as much. So it sounds like a nice [inaudible – 21:51].

Jerry: The rounds are really important to them because you know when your turn is going to come up and everyone is going to get heard. When you don’t use the simple technology of rounds, then if you’re in person, people just burst in, people just cut each other off and just go, go, go – unless they’re being called upon by somebody. But even if you’re being called upon, what happens is that the people who have got a lot to say or want to push their point will speak and repeat themselves. They’ll speak three times to say the same thing as if repeating themselves would convince you. So they do that. Or the quiet people may not speak at all. If there are some people who jump in a lot, the quiet person might start talking. But if they pause for a moment, somebody else jumps in and they never get to finish what they were saying because they think while they talk, whereas some just [inaudible – 22:48] the motormouth, just go, go, go. So there is beauty in both kinds of people, but the online rounds really supports the big talkers to take their turn, speak less. For people who talk less frequently, who need more space in which to talk, have more sacred space in which to come forth. So it [inaudible – 23:11] way of saying. The rounds, especially online, helps equalize people’s voices.

Lisette: I would assume that this methodology would work very well across cultures. That is an assumption. But it seems that there are some cultures that are less likely to speak up. Or there are some cultures that are more likely to just talk, like the motormouth type. So I would assume that this really could come very well into play when we’re talking about facilitating [inaudible – 23:46] with different cultures. Is that your experience also?

Jerry: Yes. There are still challenges. If you’re really working with people who are very reticent to speak up or who are in some traditional power over hierarchical context where speaking up is sort of dangerous and scary because the boss is listening. So how do you speak there? Those things do create tensions. People who tend to be interrupting the way they speak of the culture is the kind of the move fast and interrupt a lot. Those folks can have a challenge in getting used to the system. But overall, for me, creating the context where everybody’s voice matters equalizes the cultures, not just the individuals but the cultures, creates more space for everyone.

The largest sociocratic organization in the world [does not meet virtually – 24:50]. They are the Children’s Parliament of India. At the village level, 30 kids from a particular neighborhood will sit together and they’ll go through their meeting and decision-making and selecting people for their roles. Some of those kids are not literate. But they’re able to function in a sociocratic manner in those meetings, taking their turns and doing their work. And that also has levels from the neighborhood to the village to the regional level. So there are multiple levels in that context as well.

Lisette: Super interesting. I’m wondering how did you get into this yourself. What was your stepping stone into doing this?

Jerry: For whatever reason exactly, I’ve always been interested in sense of equality. I’m Cuban. I was born in Cuba, came to the U.S. when I was eight years old. [inaudible – 26:01]. And I think there’s a bit of that of just having perspective coming from another culture. If you’re only in one culture, sometimes that can limit your sense of perspective. But I got to hear two versions of history, the Cuban version, pre-Castro, and the U.S. version. [inaudible – 26:19] match. So you have to think about those things. In a number of different other ways in my life, I was middle-class in Cuba, more working class in the U.S. [inaudible – 26:30] reflecting on that. So all the issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, all the things that help give perspective, I’ve gone through a lot of those questions. So it’s been important for me to support the sense of equality, the sense of everyone having a voice, everybody’s voice mattering. I became a social justice activist. And in that work, what we did was training. It was three things that we cared about in this particular group that I was part of [inaudible – 27:02] society back in the ‘70s, 1970s, 1980s. And that one was community. Our relationships with each other matter. One was direction action, so taking action for the things that you care about in the style of the civil rights movement in the U.S. [inaudible – 27:20] those kinds of things. And training, that you have to do [inaudible – 27:28] development. If you’re going to protest, you have to know how to talk to the police, how to talk to the media, how to organize things in a non-violent way, how to run meetings. So then that’s the piece that got me here, how to run meetings. I was very interested in that. I was teaching consensus. I live now in a cooperative housing community here in Amherst. I’ve been living here for 22 years. [inaudible – 27:57] housing community ran by consensus for the first 18 years. And then we switched to Sociocracy. So what happened is that part of my experience living in this cooperative housing community is that it was really hard to make decisions because we live here and everything affects everybody. Everybody was trying to make decisions altogether, which meant it was just a lot of people trying to make decision. That’s one challenge. Then some people weren’t at those meetings or weren’t part of the little group that developed a proposal. And somebody would show up at a meeting after a lot of work had been done and say, “Oh, I don’t like that.” And that was it, [inaudible – 28:39] decision. You’d create a task group to try to work out the differences. And three months later, the task group would start meeting and you wouldn’t even know that it had stopped meeting and nothing happened. So it’s turned out that the way we were using consensus – I dearly love the idea of consensus – became very conservative, meaning it was very hard to change, very hard to make different choices over time. People would stop even generating proposals because what for. Oh, I want to put out a proposal to renovate the basement of our community building. Well, do I want to put a year and a half of my life into that question? That’s not a very interesting question to spend a year and a half of my life with. So no, forget it.

Then I encountered Sociocracy. First I learned it from the Zen Peacemakers [inaudible – 29:40]. And we were exchanging some information. And I went, “Oh, I like this model.” And I was also a trainer. I am a trainer in nonviolent communication. So the link between nonviolent communication and Sociocracy, there was something happening there and something happening [inaudible – 29:58] housing communities. So suddenly, all of these three things that I cared about, [inaudible – 30:02] housing, nonviolent communication, and Sociocracy were all connected with people who cared about all three. And it was like, “Okay, I’m in.” And [crosstalk – 30:13] and helped our community transition to making decisions by Sociocracy, and it’s been great because now it is much more distributed leadership, which is again something that can happen online. You’ve got all your different teams working online to make decisions. So we’ve got distributed leadership, more power in the small groups to get things done within the limitations that we give each group. If you can make decisions up to this point on this issue, within that point, you’re free. Go, do it. So we’ve become more efficient, less troubled by issues, and more time to enjoy the [inaudible – 30:55] with each other.

Lisette: And who doesn’t want that? Nobody wants to be bogged down in bureaucracy and strong personalities, indeed, indeed. It sounds like a cohousing situation. It’s the perfect place to practice something like that because where you live is so important and so personal also. And people care a lot about it.

Jerry: Yes, they do. And it’s an all-volunteer organization. [crosstalk – 31:26]. We have no outside manager. We run everything ourselves, including plowing the snow or collecting the money from [inaudible – 31:36] etc. So all that work is organized in teams of people who are responsible for certain areas and the individuals are responsible for certain tasks.

             When I discovered Sociocracy, then I very quickly started coming together with the other folks in the Sociocracy Consulting Group. We learned by working together, trying to generate our own consulting company, given that we all were in love with this idea. So we learned by working with ourselves.

Lisette: And then spreading that out to other people, which I think is awesome. Makes me want to learn this facilitation technique immediately to help all the online meetings. I must do six or seven hours’ worth of online meetings a day sometimes. Sometimes the whole day is spent just sitting in meetings and talking, talking, talking. I also have that feeling that nothing is getting done. I want to take action. I want to do something. So this sounds like a really great methodology.

             We’re coming to the end of our time, but I could talk to you forever about this. But I want to ask if somebody were to start, what’s the advice? We discussed this a little bit before and you gave some websites, which I’ll add to the show notes. But as a very first step, what would you advise?

Jerry: You don’t have to call it Sociocracy. There are ways to learn the whole thing of Sociocracy. You’ll put those in the show notes. That’s and You can go there and follow through with classes and materials. But the simplest thing I’d say for anybody who’s listening here is at any meeting, whether it’s in person or online, you can just say, “I’d like to hear from everybody on this. Can we do a round so we could hear from everybody?”

Lisette: Oh.

Jerry: Simplest little thing.

Lisette: Let’s do a round. I love it.

Jerry: [crosstalk – 33:35] everybody. This is an important issue. There are people who’ve been speaking and people who’ve been quiet. And I’m really curious about what everybody is thinking. Can we do a round?

Lisette: I like it. It also sounds really fun. It’s like going for a round of drinks. Let’s do a round [laughs]. It feels very lighthearted, and it feels quick somehow just to go around.

Jerry: You can give that other, additional piece. Let’s make [inaudible – 34:04] not to give everybody a big, long speech but five sentences or less, just a few sentences about where you are at with this issue or with this topic.

Lisette: I love it. A lot of my listeners are having some very painful online meetings. So I highly suggest they contact Jerry and they get involved and they at least learn some of these meeting facilitation tips because it sounds like you’re having some peaceful meetings. And I like the idea that everybody’s voice gets heard. I think that’s really important. Otherwise, the strongest personality wins, and that’s not fair because the strongest personality doesn’t always have the best ideas. They just have the strongest personality [laughs].

             So thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed learning about this. Is there anything I missed before we sign off?

Jerry: Just the last thought I had, some of the meetings are painful or intense. But when you are doing rounds, it also creates space for that. Some issues are tough to deal with, and people have feelings about them. So when you say peaceful meetings, they’re supportive meetings where [crosstalk – 35:22] things can get said and hard things can get said. So I don’t want to make it sound like this is all nice. It can be tough too. But what’s the container for dealing with tough stuff?

Lisette: Right, so that we don’t have yelling and people walking out and slamming doors. We can work through things and solve them as people. And I think we can do great things together when we solve these kinds of problems.

Jerry: And when you know you’re going to get listened to, you can sit there more calmly because you know that your turn will come. You know that people are listening to you, really listening to you when you talk. That’s a difference too.

Lisette: Indeed. Well, I have to say it all sounds awesome. Thank you so much. And until next time, everybody, be powerful.



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