“So, we’re here to look at this risk table we fill out for each user story. Do we really need this information and if so, do we need to document it?.” This is how the team discussion started, after a painful session in which the mentioned table relevance was questioned, yet still used. “Eh, well…” it started. “We’re not sure what we mean by one of the items in the table. I thought it meant x but I’m not sure.” Another team member pitches in: “No, it really is something else. And besides, only the testers use it.” Another team member replies “No, it’s a generic value, not something we consider per user story.”. Sigh. What was meant to be a short meeting about whether or not to gather and document this information turned into a definitional discussion, going down a never ending road.

What is going on here? The team keeps searching for more information and doesn’t dare to make a decision based on imperfect information.

Group decision making is remarkably different from individual decision making. Though I did not take the effort to dive deeply into the literature, we know that all kinds of social factors influence the decisions we make, and the process used to come to these decisions. Groupthink, peer pressure, social desirability, the focus on shared information and other group biases make for different outcomes than when an individual is looking at the same problem. One of the things that make it difficult to make a decision in a group is that there is no explicit method or technique agreed upon in advance. So whenever there is uncertainty the focus shifts to removing as much of this uncertainty as possible, to the point that everyone feels and knows that it is not possible to remove any more uncertainty. And still no decision is going to be made, people are starting to talk in circles and the energy in the discussion plummets to sub-zero. Drained the team decides to postpone the decision and come back to the subject another time. The effect: time wasted, energy wasted, demotivated team members.

So, if you as a coach, or manager, encounter this behavior in a team, what should you do? I’ll share what works for me. With the same team I performed an exercise to estimate a complete product backlog, consisting of newly added epics. There were about 20 items to discuss and estimate in terms of size (effort). If we would discuss each item plenary in the team, as was done in the example above, this would be a very lengthy session with a low probability to complete the exercise in time and with a satisfactory result. So, we agreed to use a different technique: magic or silent estimation. This estimation technique follows a few steps. First the Product Owner gave a short pitch for every epic, so that the context and goal of every epic was clear. Then each team member received a few epics, printed out on paper. Individually, in a round-robin fashion, the team members assigned a size to their epics, sharing the number by calling it out loud. This was the only type of talking allowed! Decisions were made in their heads, individually. When all were done, the next step was to look at the result. Again, in a round-robin fashion, team members checked the result and if they disagreed with a specific size, they could alter an estimate. Again, in silence, individually, and only one alternation per turn. This continued until there was enough consensus. This left a few items that were altered multiple times, and there were then shortly discussed by the team. I asked them after hearing all arguments to choose an estimate, and then asked all if they agreed. Only if all did we continued. We finished the exercise in less than an hour and left with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

I think two characteristics of this exercise are key in helping the team get to decisions, even with imperfect information (these epics were quite high level wishes). First, team members were forced to think about the items themselves. They were not influenced by the social factors I mentioned earlier before coming to a decision. Second, up front I shared the technique we were going to use. Everyone knew beforehand how and when a decision would be made, which prevented the behavior to search for more and more information. Decision making was quick, based on focused thinking by each team member, leading to a result the whole team stood behind.

So, whenever you encounter indecisiveness in a team, think about how social biases may play a role and how to mitigate them. For instance by using a technique like I described above.

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