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The parachute mind and other ways to improve group decision-making

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So much of agile teams’ successes depend on collaborative decision-making. Take for example refining the backlog. That is a collaborative decision-making process where the development team, the architecture owner, and the product owner choose the relevant details of each user story. The retrospective is another collaborative undertaking where the team explores and decides how to improve their way of working. Solution modelling, user story estimation, story mapping, and big room planning are more examples of similar processes. The list goes on and on.

If decision-making should be truly collaborative during these processes, how can we encourage everyone to contribute? What can we do to make this work?

First, we need a model that gives us an overview of how group decision-making works. Sam Kaner’s dynamics of group decision-making is a great starting place. The model is split into three parts.

Source: “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner (2007)

Part 1: In the beginning, all ideas are welcome during divergent conversations. We begin with a question or unsolved challenge. As we explore the topic, we easily get to familiar options and opinions. The tricky part is moving past the familiar and uncovering new and fresh perspectives and ideas.

Part 2: Then, with a suite of diverse perspectives and options we enter the groan zone. That is exactly what it sounds like: uncomfortable, awkward, and seemingly dysfunctional. Questions arise. How do we move on? What’s the best idea? Are we stuck? This is the uncomfortable space of moving from “now-we-have-all-these-great-ideas” to, “how-do-we-decide-which-one-to-move-forward-with?” Misunderstanding and miscommunication are normal, natural aspects of the collaborative process. The groan zone is a healthy, unavoidable consequence of the diversity that exists in any group.

Part 3: Eventually, we steer towards the finish line in the convergent stage. This is where we condense the large number of ideas and options to one final decision that we move forward with.

Divergent thinking: ways to keep an open mind

Source: “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner (2007)

The parachute mind (it works best when open)
When starting the divergent stage, think of parachutes. They work best when fully open. The same goes for our minds in the stage of the process which can be easier said than done. Below are some practices that will help you keep your ‘parachute’ open.

Cognitive empathy
Cognitive empathy is the ability to empathize with how others on your team think. Approaching divergent thinking by embracing the fact that we all think differently and that there is no right or wrong way to think about the problem we are solving is a big step in the direction of keeping an open mind. There are a number of short games that illustrate cognitive empathy. One of them is “this is not a stick”.

This is not a stick
To play “this is not a stick” game you need a stick (or something similar, like a broom shaft) and a group of people (between 3-8). Someone starts the game by performing an action with the stick, say pretending to throw a javelin, and says: “this is not a stick, this is a ______”. The other people in the group then has to guess what the stick is. When someone guesses “javelin”, the stick is handed to the next person in the circle and they perform a new action, say, pretending to be fishing, while saying: “this is not a stick, this is a _______”. Playing the game for 8-10 minutes typically allows everyone to go at least twice.

Not only does the “this is a not a stick” game underline the importance of cognitive empathy, it also shows how the group the natural progression in the divergent stage of first coming across familiar options, like javelin and fishing pole, only to move to newer, more diverse perspectives when you build on each other’s ideas.

Yes, and!
Speaking of building off each other’s ideas, the “yes, and!” mindset is a great way to do that. This technique is borrowed from improv theatre where the performers continue each other’s sentences by saying: “yes, and!” The opposite of “yes, and!” is either “no!” (as in, that idea will never work) or the more subversive: “yes, but”. Saying “yes, but” means you cancel out whatever was said before the but and replace it with your own idea or opinion. Take the example of your co-worker, Bob, who presents his idea of selling yellow t-shirts. You know this will never work, so you start your sentence with: “Yes, I like that idea, but we know our customers prefer blue t-shirts”. You have effectively closed down Bob’s idea and replaced it with your own. That is the opposite of a parachute mind.

Using “yes, and!” a different response could be: “Yes, I like the idea of yellow t-shirts, and we can bundle them at a discounted price with our popular blue t-shirts to test the market’s appetite for yellow shirts.”

50 bad ideas
This last technique seems odd at first, and it can really help your team if they are stuck at the “familiar options” state in divergent thinking. Sometimes, you need sheer volume to move on to the newer, more diverse perspectives. Setting yourselves the goal of coming up with “50 bad ideas” can allow you to consider more ideas and move forward.

It works by writing down 50 bad ideas on individual post-it notes. Often it doesn’t take more than 5-7 minutes and it can loosen up the group with some laughs. When done, the group is often energized and has opened up their horizon and can move on to brainstorming newer, more diverse perspectives related to the challenge you are solving.

The groan zone: ways to grit it out

Source: “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner (2007)

In the groan zone, you can use several practices from divergent thinking as well: the parachute mind, cognitive empathy, and “yes, and!” In addition to those practices, there are a number of techniques to help you grit your way through the groan zone.

Active listening
There are three ways to listen: listening to yourself (“I feel like pizza tonight”), listening to others (“I see…”), and listening to others and taking their context into perspective (“It’s okay. I know you were just trying to help”).

Source: http://www.mtbunnies.com/

To move successfully through the groan zone and safely make it to the convergent stage, we need to do our best to stay at level 2, and ideally at level 3.

Emotional intelligence
This state is often uncomfortable, awkward, and seemingly dysfunctional. Questions arise and doubt starts to creep in. How do we move on? How do we find the best idea? Can we even agree on what’s best? Just like misunderstanding and miscommunication are normal aspects of the collaborative process, so are our emotions.

The key is not to ignore and suppress the emotions as they arise in the group, but to deal with them in an intelligent way. So how do we do that?

Source: “Working with Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman (1998)
Image source: https://positivepsychology.com/emotional-intelligence-frameworks/

Daniel Goleman’s competency framework can help us navigate how to deal with emotions in an intelligent way -as they arise inside ourselves, and as they arise inside the group. It starts with emotional self-awareness and self-management. Once we have dealt with our own emotions, we can focus on the emotions in the group setting (social awareness) and then manage the group emotions in an intelligent way (relationship management), safely guiding us to the last stage.

Convergent thinking: ways to get to the decision

Source: “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner (2007)

We are almost there. So close to the finish line. To get there we need a way to ‘boil down’ our great ideas discussed in the groan zone.

Clustering ideas
Clustering is a really simple way of narrowing down your ideas and options. The technique is exactly what it sounds like: you cluster together the sticky-notes with similar ideas and then give that group a meaningful name.

Some teams prefer to cluster ideas in silence to avoid influencing each other (group think bias). Others prefer to cluster in collaboration and conversation. The choice is yours. Experiment and use what works for your team.

Plotting ideas
Plotting ideas allows you to rank your ideas based on dimensions that are important to your team and context. Let’s say you create a 2x2 grid with these dimensions: “alignment with our team mission (low/high)” and “implementation effort (low/high).” When you plot your ideas into that grid, it will quickly become apparent which ones are highly aligned to your team mission and are low-effort to implement. These are the ideas you pursue first.

Again, some teams prefer to plot the ideas in silence to avoid influencing each other (group think bias), while others prefer to plot in collaboration and conversation. The choice is yours. Experiment and use what works for your team.

Dot voting
The final technique is called dot voting.

Dot voting is a way to ensure that everyone on the team has a say in the final decision. By giving all the team members three votes (represented by three sticky dots) and asking them to place them on the three ideas they most like, we create a fair, transparent, and balanced way of getting to the final decision. If you have a lot of similar ideas, dot voting works even better when you cluster the ideas first.

Dot voting is always done in silence. When finished, one team member tallies the scores, and you can move forward with the winning idea.

Posted by Klaus Boedker on: November 11, 2020 10:15 PM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Dear Klaus Boedker
This reflection is very interesting
Thanks for sharing
I liked the approach proposed by Sam Kaner and some facilitation techniques

“The mind is like a parachute… It only works if we keep it open.” - Albert Einstein

This is a great article on group decision making and I'll definitely come back to this having found myself in a few of these corners. Do, did the "group" writing this article get into the groan zone? Thank you all.

very helpful, thanks

Thanks for sharing

Thank you for the feedback!

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

This is great Klaus - all good concepts - at least half that I hadn't seen before - there's always something new to help improve our outcomes! I'll have to look up Sam Kaner's book.

Great read, thank you for posting! A parachute mindset - it works best when opened.

Klaus - one of the better articles I've read here. Taking the audience through an organized journey to self-identify their path forward has been highly valuable especially since Covid has made us all (generally speaking) remote. Using tools such as Miro or Mural have greatly helped these workshops.

Thanks for the information in the article I could definitely leverage some of this going forward.

Great Share ....!

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