actually doing do-ocracy

the nuances and stumbling blocks of getting stuff done in a big community

Our house owned several frying pans, but there was one pan in our house that many people loved. We loved it so much that it kept traveling between our three kitchens, frustrating anyone that tried to find it. “Maybe we should buy another one!” someone suggested. A 40-comment slack thread ensued. People wanted the pan to be nonstick. People also wanted it to be non-toxic. People had different opinions about what was safely non-toxic. People had opinions about sizes, and whether we wanted to buy a saucepan as well. Several slack votes and weeks later, our second beloved pan finally arrived.

Many community homes run non-hierarchically, meaning no-one is in charge and the group makes decisions together. This can be awesome and empowering, but sometimes it falls into the tedious trap of needing consensus for any small change, which takes forever to get anything done. Houses often utilize do-ocracy to solve this challenge, but using do-ocracy is not always rainbows and butterflies. This piece will briefly introduce what do-ocracy is and then discuss some of its nuances through the lens of wanting to mitigate conflict while also getting lots of great house contributions done!

A do-ocratic action is one that residents can make without needing to talk to anyone first -- you can come up with an idea, and then just do it. Buying a new spatula, labeling light switches, and assembling a shelf to hold the house’s board games are all likely to help a community, and they’re more likely to happen if the idea-haver can act while they’re still excited. Since people probably wouldn’t like it if a housemate got rid of all their furniture or spent a thousand dollars on a painting, most houses define a change that qualifies for do-ocracy as:

  1. easily reversible
  2. costing less than $50 (some houses use a different number, but this is the one I see most commonly)

When someone makes a change, they post about it on Slack. If people don’t like the change, then it can be iterated upon or undone entirely. In the worst case the house loses $50. This occasional loss of money is often worth it because do-ocracy empowers so many house improvements to happen!

I’ve lived for a while in a house where do-ocratic actions happen regularly -- often at least once a week! Someone bought an extra laundry hamper for the laundry room for when someone else’s clothes were in the way. Someone bought a shade cloth for the backyard. Someone rearranged the furniture in the living room for a week to see if we liked it better.

But despite all these benefits, do-ocractic actions can sometimes lead to conflict. Often this happens when someone doesn’t like an action that was taken, and/or when people disagree on how do-ocracy works. For example, after a planning discussion for our “multipurpose” room had been going on for some time, someone moved furniture there from another floor, which was upsetting for someone who wanted to plan more as a group before taking action. Another example is when someone bought soil for gardening and was upset when another housemate used it and left little room for their own plant plans.

I don’t think the solution to these conflicts is writing out an intricate document of rules for do-ocracy, but I want to share these possible sources of conflict here to help people communicate about these nuances when they’re relevant.

what does “easily reversible” mean?

There are a lot of different ways to define “easily reversible”, partially because things that are easy for one person might not feel easy for another. For example:

All of these things are theoretically reversible -- a couch can be moved, seeds can be replanted, and holes can be filled up -- but people have different skills, knowledge, and quantity of free time.

If you want anyone to be able to reverse something, “easily reversible” might be narrower in scope, but if only the do-er needs to be able to reverse something then almost anything could be fair game. Which brings us to another question…

who’s responsible for reversing?

Is the do-er responsible? Is someone who objected to the action responsible? My own opinion is that if an action is simply being undone, then it’s the do-er’s responsibility to restore the house to the way it was before. But when objections look more like “do it this other way instead” instead of “put it back to the way it was before” I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the do-er to fulfill everyone’s requests.

how quickly should actions be reversed?

At what point should something be reversed? This one is tricky because it will probably depend a lot on what the action was. If I fill the living room with balloons, it would be reasonable for someone to ask me to reverse that immediately. If I put a painting on the wall, maybe it’s worth waiting a week to see what people think.

what merits a reversal?

Each community might have a different sense of how much disagreement merits a reversal. It’s probably fine to keep something if just one person vaguely doesn’t like it. If a few people really don’t like something, or if everyone feels pretty meh about it, then maybe it’s worth undoing. I generally like using fist to five to gauge people’s opinions to see if something is worth carrying forward. Fist to five is great because it allows people to share a range of opinions with a single emoji, which makes it easier for people to provide feedback, and I generally believe that more feedback between housemates is usually good.

what’s the role of feedback in do-ocracy?

Speaking up when something changes and people in the house don’t like it is an important and healthy part of do-ocracy. If people have a hard time giving or receiving feedback, then do-ocractic actions are no longer easily reversible! Feedback allows for creative collaboration and helps people learn more about each other. But feedback can also be challenging, both giving and receiving. (side note: if anyone can recommend a feedback workshop, I’d love to hear about it!)

Receiving a lot of feedback can be overwhelming, and I think this is often because people see all feedback as something that must be addressed, when sometimes it’s just an offering of helpful information. It’s important for the person giving feedback to be clear if they are requesting a change. e.g. “I prefer this brand of spatula but that one’s also fine” or as critical as “keeping passwords in Slack is not secure and it is imperative that we remove them immediately”. Being clear about when change isn’t needed puts less burden on the do-er -- and the easier it feels to do do-ocracy, the more awesome things will get done!

when should feedback be solicited?

Sometimes people post on Slack before their change is made, in case anyone wants to get involved or has a specific reason that they don't want something done - potentially saving the need to reverse things. This sometimes results in great collaborations, but sometimes non-blocking comments can slow people down.

Do-ocracy is great because it lets people work in the moment that they feel inspired, so what can we do to keep people moving? Two big things that help are (1) being really clear when feedback is nonblocking, and (2) doing things even when you get some non-blocking feedback, and encouraging this in others.

I think it’s always important that feedback is solicited soon after a change is made, if not before. Several of the conflicts I’ve seen have been related to not enough communication about what was going on. But whether or not feedback is  invited before, during, or after the do-ocratic action depends on the type of action and the people involved. As we’ve gotten to know each other better, folks at our house have a better sense of what kinds of changes people might want input on ahead of time.

some other notes that might help with feedback

You should be 10x more concerned about people not doing things than people doing the wrong things. In a healthy community, people do overwhelmingly good things.

A community where 100 things happen and 90 of them are good is a healthier community than one where 10 things happen and all 10 are good. You should focus more on upside of the 90 good things than downside of the 10 bad things.
-- supernuclear post on group decision-making

uneven power in contributing to do-ocracy

I’m not sure how this fits into the rest of the post, but I’ve been thinking about how people with less time have less influence on changes made in the house. They have less time to set up the spaces how they like, less time to make proposals, and less time to give feedback on proposals. Especially if some people in a house have lots of free time to contribute, it can seem like things are changing too much and too quickly for those with less time, and it can become overwhelming or impossible to provide feedback on everything.

This isn’t only relevant for time, but also mental energy, physical ability, knowledge of how things in community houses work, and a number of other things.

Perhaps in these situations, changes can happen more gradually (though I tend to bias towards doing), or residents can put in extra effort to solicit ideas and feedback from the people who are more busy. I also imagine that the more people feel psychologically safe to try things, the easier it will be for people to contribute in their spare moments.

I’m curious if other people have ideas around this!


Living with 10+ other people is very different than living with 0-2 other people. It will almost always result in much less control over one’s surroundings, and therefore requires more flexibility. But for many, it’s so very worth it. Houses are constantly changing in beautiful and exciting ways, and active contributions can help residents feel connected to each other.

How to Nurture a Living and Evolving Doocracy, a post written by Zarinah, discusses trust and communication in a way I really love:

Doocracy without communication becomes ‘Tyranny of the Proactive’

for smooth and respectful doocractic processes to occur, the group needs to have a good degree of trust in each other (by trust, here I mean social buy in — for example — ‘even though this action might not have been how I would have done things, or my preference, I am happy that someone has done this, and respect how they have done it’). It also thrives when members believe that each person is trying to do the best thing by the group, and not trying to use doocracy to make self-serving decisions. Doocracy is centered around respecting the work from those who do it.

The two most important ingredients of a healthy do-ocracy are trust and communication. Trust can only be built over time through giving people the benefit of the doubt, sharing intentions proactively, knowing that there are lots of ways people think about do-ocracy, and working together over time to converge on a shared model of what it means.

Sometimes I think about how we’re like researchers exploring ways to make decisions in non-hierarchical communities. It’s exciting work, and I look forward to seeing what else we’ll learn!