Circle Forward FAQs

Below are some of the frequently asked questions about our methodology and practices. If you have a question that you don’t see here, please fill out a contact form and we’ll get back to you.


What is governance?

There is no single definition of governance. We often use a definition adapted from Mark Hufty’s Governance Analytical Framework:

Every culture (in a family, a business, government, etc.) produces governance — the processes of interaction and decision-making and the systems by which decisions are implemented. Governance is how we set up systems to live our values and leads to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions. Governance systems give form to the culture’s power relationships. It becomes the rules for who makes the rules and how.

In our practice, we envision governance as systems designed for complexity, healing, well-being, equity, and regeneration. These systems are grounded in mutual consent and care. They honor our relationship to ourselves, our ancestors, future generations, and all life.

Learn more about governance here.

What’s the difference between “governance” and “government”?

Above, we use an adapted version of Mark Hufty’s description to explain governance. In his description, all types of social systems produce governance by the process of decision-making and leadership.

Government, on the other hand, is a formal governance entity whose sole responsibility and authority is to make binding decisions in a given geopolitical system (like a state) by establishing laws.

What is collaborative governance?

Collaborative governance is, “community and public policy decision making processes and structures that enable participants to work together, to enhance their communities and shape sustainable public policy decisions, across the boundaries of the non-profit, business, government, and grassroots sectors.”

When working across sectors, individuals and organizations often do not have authority to direct each other’s roles or actions. Trust is the primary currency. Power dynamics do exist; so, norms, structures, and agreements are developed to distribute power more equitably.

Using practices and tools for collaborative governance, we can achieve equity, inclusion, and forward momentum on systemic issues that no one can address alone, like climate change, community wellness, or food security.


What is Network Governance?

While collaborative governance refers to working across sectors in a systems approach, network governance refers to an underlying structure and ways of operating. Increasingly, multi-stakeholder collaborative initiatives are adopting network governance.

Networks are naturally non-hierarchical. In practice, network structures make it possible for anyone to connect with anyone else. This allows participants to:

  • Break out of silos and expand collaboration
  • Build connections for systems change
  • Connect to new people and resources
  • Produce and spread innovation
  • Increase reach and influence

Networks will need to match the complexity of the system we are shifting.  

Leaders can use our Network Governance Design Canvas to explore the eight areas of governance design in a network or organization.

Is this like Sociocracy, Holacracy, Teal Organizations, or Prosocial, which also address governance?

Circle Forward appreciates and accesses skills, practices, and tools from all of these frameworks – and more. Our practice of consent-based governance originated in sociocracy as introduced to us by John Buck.

And, racial equity and liberation movements are disrupting cultural norms, internalized beliefs, and patterns of colonization that have been dominant for generations. Pro-black and Indigenous ways of working, embodiment practices, and disability justice, for example, are awakening deeper liberatory possibilities and imagination for governance.

If your network is making choices about governance practices, what matters is that governance is fit for your context. Your network’s culture will shape how governance is understood, practiced, and shared. A guiding principle in network governance is “just enough structure.” We encourage people to use what works from these methods, including practices and tools as the need arises, and leave the rest.

What do you mean by “networks” or a “network structure”? Why are network structures important in system change?

Most organizations have hierarchies, what we think of as branching structures. The branching structures in our organizations tend to create silos and restrict information flow across branches. Networks, instead, have multi-directional paths of connection.

Networks can operate at any level, within or across individuals, organizations, ad hoc groups, governmental organizations, for-profit businesses, and nonprofits. They can also be known as a coalition, alliance, collective impact, or collaborative.

Network structures are important in system change because they mirror the the interconnected and multi-directional nature of systems. They enable more adaptability and flow of relationships and resources. Once people and organizations are connected in a network structure, they can step in and out of roles more fluidly and orient their work more coherently within a larger whole. As connections increase the whole grows to be much more than the sum of the parts..

Learn more about network structures, or for a visual, watch our video on mycelium networks.


What is The Consent Principle?

The legal definition of consent is, “When a person voluntarily and willfully agrees to undertake an action that another person suggests.” Types of consent include implied consent, express consent, informed consent, and unanimous consent.

In collaborative network governance, where trust is the currency, consent is foundational.

In decision-making practices, we often use the sociocracy definition: a consent-based decision is made when no one has any significant objections to it. Our colleague, Nate Whitestone, added, it’s when no one can identify a risk that the group cannot afford to take; the decision is good enough for now. An objection is supported by reasons that are understood by others, that would make it very difficult for a member to perform their role.

Individuals with objections are said to be outside of their range of tolerance. The group as a whole should receive an objection as a treasure in consent-based culture because it reveals blind spots that might lead to unintended consequences.

The Consent Principle in governance is a commitment to engagement and trust among participants who are impacted by decisions, to listen to each other and adapt when not in consent, while staying on track to make timely decisions. Creating options to resolve objections allows networks and groups to leverage all the benefits of their diversity, avoid potential pitfalls, and strengthen relationships — all while sustaining forward momentum.

Learn more about The Consent Principle.

What is range of tolerance and why does it matter?

A range of tolerance is the boundary of consent that someone can or cannot live with when it comes to a decision or conditions that affect them.

The range of tolerance framework comes out of ecosystems theory – a basic worldview that we are deeply interconnected. That sense of operating like an ecosystem is a valuable metaphor in collaborative networks and systems change.

When diverse members of an ecosystem are able to live within their range of tolerance, the whole ecosystem becomes more resilient and adaptive.  A culture of consent means the group has a commitment to include and adapt when a member is out of their range of tolerance.

Think of consent as a bell graph. At the top of the bell graph is a preferred scenario. As the line moves down the curve of the graph, the scenarios are less desirable but the individual can accept them. At one point, on each side of the graph, are the scenarios that someone cannot tolerate, or that they sense are outside their range of tolerance.

Alexis Flanagan, co-director of Resonance Network, describes how feelings – like a tightening in the chest, the hair standing on the back of her neck, a furrow in her brow, or rapid breathing – can be information to her that she is out of her range of tolerance. “Something is going on that is making invisible something that is really important to me or important to people and communities I care about.”

Once objections are identified, the group or network can create options to address the objection, find what is within their range of tolerance, honor the group’s diversity, and sustain forward momentum.

Finding the consent within a range of tolerance among all parts of the collaborative network contributes to resilience and responsiveness. In turn, we have opportunities to create greater impacts on our community, and the world.

Learn more about how The Consent Principle + Range of Tolerance allow networks to integrate diversity and operationalize equity.

What is an example of “range of tolerance”?

Think of range of tolerance as the changes in environment to a trout in a mountain stream. Some conditions can change, and the trout can survive. Dramatic shifts in temperatures, food scarcities, or a high level of toxins means the trout will not survive. These variations are the trout’s range of tolerance. If the trout cannot survive, it likely signals risks to the whole ecosystem.

Each organism within any ecosystem has a range of tolerance for things that they can live with, and things they can’t live with.

For a visual of the range of tolerance, check out our video, the Ecosystem of Consent.

What are the similarities and differences between “consent” and “consensus”?

Consensus is, “a general agreement.” We might also call it “unanimous consent.” Groups often practice consensus when they value people and want to include everyone’s voice.

Consensus decision-making has a long and rich history of facilitation practices for dialogue and deliberation, like those in Liberating Structures and available through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). Many of these practices can be brought forward into groups that operate with the Consent Principle.

While consensus has been an important standard practice in our society, the idea of “general agreement” doesn’t work in highly complex and dynamic networks. People may never agree but still find a way forward.

The link below shares more about the differences between how consensus and consent are often practiced.

Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, helped us clarify consent as an evolutionary breakthrough of consensus.

Those who have worked within consensus-oriented cultures often feel they have to be a part of every decision, while they micromanage folks to burnout, and perpetuate the illusion that we all have equal power without recognizing power dynamics.

In consent-based cultures we recognize we are never all going to have equal power or equal contributions to make, but our practices can produce equity , enabling each of us to get what we need to survive or succeed based on where we are and where we want to go.

Expanding beyond consensus to consent allows us to create conditions for equity, transparency and forward momentum.

Click here to the more detailed description of the difference between Consent and Consensus.

What if people can’t get to consent?

If you are practicing the Consent Principle and can’t find consent:

  • Ask whether there is a clear and shared purpose. Without shared purpose it may be impossible to find consent. Groups can clarify the purpose that brings them together; or they can reconfigure themselves to work toward different goals.
  • Ask, “What can we do that is good enough for now?” A common obstacle is a perfect solution. Instead, can your network decide to try something for a period of time and then evaluate?
  • Ask if the group has clear practices and procedures for constructive conflict. Groups need systems leadership skills and tools to foster reflection and generative conversations, that give and receive feedback, that tolerate uncertainty, and that let go of preconceived solutions and plans, so new ideas can emerge.
  • Ask if there is a realistic expectation about the time it might take to find consent. A popular African proverb says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Going together is not the fast option. You may need to question your assumptions and cultural habits around urgency.

Learn more about finding consent when people can’t consent.

Consent + Governance

Why is consent a keystone principle for collaborative governance?

Designing network governance systems means addressing an interconnected set of design issues. Governance is not about what we do, it’s about how we do everything. When we practice consent within governance, we ensure we value multiple sources of wisdom in service to the whole. 

To help social innovators and systems change agents reshape governance systems in line with core values, Circle Forward developed the Network Governance Design Canvas, which shows how eight spheres of network governance are interconnected and interdependent. 

The sphere of decision-making is key to navigating the other seven spheres because first people need to decide how they will decide, and then can make decisions about every other design issue.

how we work

What kind of clients does Circle Forward work with?

We support networks, organizations, groups of people, and individuals who solve social problems that are too large or complex for any one entity to solve alone. Our services range from shoulder-to-shoulder support to free online resources.

We help networks with:

  • Virtual or in-person facilitation
  • Collaborative governance co-design
  • Learning and facilitating consent-based decision-making
  • Strategic direction and systems mapping
  • Visualizing and co-designing an adaptive structure
  • Coaching and mentoring for network managers

For more information on our services, please see our services page.

If you’re interested in having a conversation about one of our services, please fill out a contact form and we’ll respond quickly.

Why does Circle Forward focus on governance as a leverage for systems change?

At Circle Forward, we envision a renaissance of sovereign people who acknowledge their interdependence and govern by consent in systems designed for complexity, healing, regeneration, well-being, equity, and future generations.

Changing systems means changing governance systems.

Collaborative networks focusing on a common agenda can use governance tools and platforms to harness their collective wisdom, and find pathways forward together.

When people work collaboratively across sectors and from different parts of the system, with practices that create equity among all voices — then, real innovation and change can happen!

Individuals and organizations that serve as “bridges” and “connectors” create the conditions to address complex issues; we see and do things together that we could not see or do when siloed.

We believe that resourcing and cultivating these social-ecological collaborative networks at every scale may be our best opportunity to guide democracy into an increasingly complex future, and shift systems at the scale and pace of change we need.

What is Circle Forward’s experience with Collective Impact initiatives?

A collective Impact is, “a network of community members, organizations and institutions who advance equity by learning together, aligning, and integrating their actions to achieve population and systems level change.”

Circle Forward has partnered with Collective Impact initiatives to support them in co-designing their collaborative governance systems and practices, strategic assessments, systems visualization and mapping, consent-based leadership development, evaluation systems design and more.

How do you work with clients and how much does it cost to work with Circle Forward?

We work with a variety of organizations and networks. Our clients range from organizations with 10 people to 100+. And, each organization is at different stages of growth. Our pricing depends on all of these factors.

We provide consultation, facilitation, coaching, and learning experiences for building a Culture of Consent. We typically work in multi-racial teams of at least two, though sometimes a team may be only BIPOC.

It’s important we make our work available to anyone who needs it. To start a conversation around cost, please fill out our contact form.

Together, we can talk about capacity and organizational budget to support your coalition with your network governance.

Are there conditions or situations where Circle Forward would not recommend consent-based governance?

Organizations or networks that are looking for a step-by-step plan for transforming systems or addressing a complex problem are likely not a great fit for our services. Systems change is not linear.

Also, groups with leaders who want to send staff to a single workshop in the hopes that it will transform their decision-making practices. There are no “10 Easy Steps to Consent-based Collaborative Governance”. This system requires learning experiences, practice in the use of multiple tools and group buy-in on the work, rather than one person trying to make this change alone.

Is there anything that Circle Forward does not help with?

Circle Forward does not support organizations with movement building, funding or communications. But we may be able to refer you to people in our network who are doing great work in these areas.

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