Changing the World by Changing the Way We Make Decisions

Changing the World by Changing the Way We Make Decisions

Sociocracy, participatory decision-making creates systems that allow people to express full potential, says consultant

While there are countless ways to better the world, Decision Lab facilitator Nathanial Whitestone says changing how we make decisions is the most critical and profound change we could make.

Co-founding Decision Lab one year ago, Whitestone says the U.K.-based organization aims to accelerate better decision-making in organizations by introducing models that encourage participatory decision-making and improved communication flows.

“At every point we are able to fix things technologically,” says Whitestone. “The key for me is every person having control over the way they work . . . . You can’t fully express yourself, fully express the gifts you have in life, if you don’t have input on the design of how you express them.”

To transform companies into models that encourage broader decision-making and ownership over one’s work, Whitestone says it’s essential to create a governance system defined by key principles that hard-wires process into an organization so if there are changes in management, the model doesn’t evaporate.

A model Whitestone has seen work with small and large companies alike is sociocracy, also known as dynamic governance. Based on four principles, the model involves consent-based decision-making among circles, which act as semi-autonomous policy making and working groups comprised of departments or teams.

Each circle has its own aim and directs its work by performing all the functions of leading, doing and measuring its operations. The circles share at least two members; an operational leader from an upper circle and a representative from a lower circle to ensure greater feedback and self regulation.

Whitestone says a powerful testament to sociocracy — it's also the model used to govern Decision Lab — came when working with the organization Aptivate. The innovative and values-based organization that provides IT and participatory services for international development had slipped into the habit of decision-making by endurance, where board members stayed up late arguing about the best way forward. Any Aptivate board member not interested in a late night failed to have their voice heard.

The approach was resulting in exhausted board members, a lack of people wanting to serve on the board and declining staff engagement.

Working with Decision Lab, Aptivate began to implement sociocratic design to introduce formal decision-making processes based on consensus. Within three years, the company embraced a culture where everyone’s voices are heard, meetings end on time and, most importantly, people want to participate in board-level decision-making.

When some of Aptivate's most experienced managers left for positions at prominent development organizations like the World Bank and the International Aid Transparency Initiative, the team used its well-structured participatory decision-making process to collaborate effectively, learn necessary business skills and develop new work. Describing Aptivate's response as powerful, Whitestone commends the company for turning a loss into an opportunity.

“Six months after that happened the biggest problem was fitting all the work into their schedule and hiring quality people fast enough,” he says.

Whitestone says he’s seeing increasing uptake in organizational models like sociocracy and workplace democracy, demonstrating valuable new ways to organize. Combined with the development of broader community collaboration, like crowdsourcing, gives Whitestone hope that large-scale social change is possible.

“It makes it really clear that top down is not the only way,” he says. “I genuinely do believe that’s the biggest lever that needs to be pulled. That just needs to happen, everywhere.”

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Writer Bio

Camille Jensen's picture
Camille Jensen

Camille Jensen is an employee share ownership consultant with ESOP Builders, Canada’s largest provider of employee share ownership plans (ESOPs) for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Prior to joining ESOP Builders, Camille was a generative journalist and team member at Axiom News. She credits her time at Axiom as fundamental to her understanding that business is one of the best opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Camille is a B.C. Partner for Social Impact and volunteer with Okanagan Changemakers.

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