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Book Review: Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making

Posted by Nick Oostvogels on Jul 06, 2009 |
'Facilitator's guide to participatory decision-making' is written by Sam Kaner and colleagues of Community at Work.

As the biggest part of my job is to make sure that teams work effectively together, I was looking for literature about how to guide teams in making group decisions. Team commitment is an important factor in agile software development, which can be strengthened by giving teams the room to make decisions as a group. A team facilitator can guide and coach them where appropriate.

One of the responsibilities of self-organizing teams is to take decisions that respect everyone's opinion. This book has some great examples in coaching the team to navigate through difficult discussions so they can maintain their speed without endangering their success by suspending or ignoring critical issues.

The book is built around a model called 'the Diamond of Participatory Decision-Making'.

The diamond is a schematic representation of the different stages in time through which a team has to move in order to develop a solution that is satisfactory to all.


Five different stages are described:

Business as usual

The team comes up with obvious solutions to the problem. They refrain from taking risks or being ambitious.

A facilitator should pay attention to the quality and quantity of each person's participation. If not everyone supports the proposal, the facilitator can help the team to break out of the business as usual zone and move into the divergent zone.

Divergent zone

In contrary to the business as usual zone, feelings are different in the divergent zone. People can be playful, curious, nervous, ...

The facilitator has to help the team in expressing their divergent points of view by using brainstorming or go-arounds. He has to help each person to express their thoughts clearly by using mirroring or paraphrasing. Everyone should feel comfortable expressing their point of view.

Groan zone

Once the team has expressed all points of view, often conflicts come forward due to not understanding each other's perspectives. It feels uncomfortable and stressful. People don't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore. The task of a facilitator is not to prevent teams from entering the groan zone, but to support people in their effort to understand each other's perspectives. He has to assure the team that by going through this painful stage, they will eventually be able solve the problem as a group. The team can start on working on a shared framework of understanding which will lead them to the convergent zone.

Convergent zone

Now that everyone has a shared framework of understanding, discussions go smoother. Everyone gets the feeling that they are making progress again. People are enthusiastic and committed. The facilitator should let the team use their renewed energy to the fullest and get out of their way. Nonetheless he should guard that every proposal is one that covers everyone's interests.

Closure zone

Finally, a decision has to be made. The facilitator has to guide the team in making that decision. It has to be clear to everyone what the decision embodies and how it is supported by all. An agreement scale can help to poll the support of a decision.

This book goes into detail of each stage and hands out useful techniques that can be used to guide the team.

A lot of these techniques are widely used and not new, but in combination with the diamond model, I believe they can be used more effectively.

Examples are brainstorming, go-arounds, chart writing techniques, listing ideas, break-ups in small groups, fishbowls, individual writing and many more. I personally tried polling during a sprint retrospective. My goal was to get an idea of how the team felt about the project in general. We used the secret ballot method. First, we create a scale from 1 to 5 where one gets the definition "I hate this project" and five being "This is the best project ever". Then every team member writes down one number of the scale on a piece of paper, folds it and throws it in a hat. By registering the number of votes for every number on the scale, we got a pretty good idea about the general feeling about the project so far. Great about this method is the confidentiality. No-one is influenced by the choices of others or different levels in corporate hierarchy.

Summary

A great book that I would recommend to everyone who's interested in group facilitation. The diamond model gave me a handy mental reference model to use in guiding teams through difficult topics. The list of techniques is a useful piece of reference material that you can use when preparing for a challenging team meeting. In an agile project, a lot of these techniques can be used during retrospectives where problem areas often surface. In a lean organization for example a facilitator can use these techniques when creating an A3 continuous improvement plan. One small negative point for me is the page size of the book, which I believe is close to A4. Not really pocket size :-)

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