Do-acracy vs. Democracy?

May 14, 2014 3 Comments

In a number of the social change networks that I am supporting there is very active and interesting conversation, and experimentation, going on around what I would call the process-action tension.  As I have written elsewhere, I see this as a bit of a false and often unhelpful dichotomy, and I have certainly seen and been part of networks that have gotten bogged down in some version of analysis paralysis and never-ending consensus building. Increasingly there is a leaning towards getting out there sooner than later and trying things, learning from experiments and actions, readjusting, etc., which is all well and good.  At the same time, I see it as part of my role to raise questions about how the embrace of “do-acracy” might have unintended consequences around long-term alignment as well as sustained and truly systemic impact.

To be clear, I appreciate and am often personally relieved by a proclivity towards nimbleness in otherwise complex multi-stakeholder change efforts.  And I also know that there are times and places to slow it down, especially around discussions of power, inclusion, and equity.  As my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker has said, the rush to solution, while by-passing deeper conversations about history and the nature of existing problems, can often be a privileged move that reinforces existing power arrangements.  In other cases, what is missed is sufficient relationship and trust-building as a foundation for more diffuse yet aligned efforts. Another larger looming problem I see is a further erosion of democracy when we do not engage in collective spaces, make an effort to hold the whole systemic picture, and understand our individualized efforts in a larger interconnected context.

So how do we balance the best of nimble do-acracy with collective deliberation and governance?  One strategy is to be clear about when, where, and with whom it is important to have collective conversation, alignment and agreement. Some areas include:

  • Alignment around big goals and long-term success
  • Explorations of existing power dynamics and structural arrangements and how these must be addressed as part of/central to the change effort
  • Agreement about the systemic diversity that must be included in the overall effort and strategies for authentic engagement (simply being “open” is not enough)
  • Understanding of what already exists and has been tried
  • Agreement about key roles and resources needed to support the collective effort and address inequities in the process, and how these will be filled/provided
  • Agreement about how learning and progress will be captured and fed back into the larger collective effort

What do you think?  How do you go slow and fast, to go farther faster?


  • GibranX says:

    This is a great inquiry Curtis. I’m ever more biased towards learning by doing, and I’m all about whoever is ready to start, should definitely be encouraged to start.

    And yet I am not blind to the ways in which this approach can tend to replicate what was before by continuing to privilege those who are already privileged.

    I’m seeking ways to build in the kind of reflection and application you are talking about within the actual doing of the thing.

    The U-Process seems to hold some promise as it demands for us to pause long enough to dive down the U, but does not let us go back up without a prototype in hand.

  • Miriam Messinger says:

    I wonder if we couldn’t use the draw toward action to push people where they are least likely to take action. That is, encourage rapid pairing with someone you would be least likely to work with and figure out an action step together (in twos or 2 x many). This could hold multiple layers of learning through the doing, with the potential to build trust (or not) and address issues of power (or not) in the doing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *