Facilitating Participatory Decision-Making Part 1

Agile Coaches Need Participatory Decision Making Skills

I have to admit, I always thought I understood exactly what Participatory Decision-Making (PDM) meant. I also prided myself on my facilitation skills – on dot voting, silent writing, fist of five and the Roman vote. It seems that what I understood was just the tip of the iceberg for participatory decision-making or PDM.

Facilitators that understand and master PDM techniques will help foster an environment of safety and inclusiveness, better decisions and outcomes and ultimately high-performing teams.

What is the Difference?

What I didn’t appreciate was the levels. I thought of PDM as primarily focused on silent writing and dot voting. These are great for example when helping an agile team make a simple decision like where to go for lunch. Coaches and Scrum Masters will typically apply some of these techniques to the Scrum Retrospective. But it is precisely the retrospective where we see these simple techniques begin to fall short.

Have you attended or led a Scrum Retrospective where the participants didn’t have any new ideas? Or they said they had nothing more to contribute? Or there were clear “elephants in the room” but no one wanted to bring them up or discuss them?

What I have come to appreciate is that Participatory Decision-Making is about bringing a group through a process of identifying a challenge, gathering diverse perspectives, building a framework of understanding, developing a solution which is inclusive and as beneficial as possible, and then gaining consensus and closure on that solution.

An excellent reference for this is the wonderful book by Sam Kaner, the Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. This book inspired me to learn more and to improve my skills in this area.

What are the Benefits of Participatory Decision-Making?

Before we get into the mechanics of PDM, let’s talk about the value of this approach. Why would facilitators make an investment in this technique? Here are some key benefits:

  • Shared Responsibility vs Someone Else’s Decision – In most organizations, managers tend to make the decisions and teams need to just implement them. This leads to less effective decisions.
  • Decisions stick; shared responsibility – Decisions made through this process tend to stick and everyone feels a shared responsibility.
  • Teams act more empowered – When teams are given the responsibility to make decisions, they tend to act more empowered in other areas.
  • Deeper, more creative thinking and solutions – Decisions made through this process tend to lead to more deep thinking that results in better, more effective solutions.
  • All voices are heard and Solutions tend to be more inclusive – Solutions developed tend to address more stakeholder needs.

Why Doesn’t This Flow Naturally?

One might be tempted to think that group conversations would naturally lead to good discussion, effective analysis, and creative solutions. The group moves in a clear linear flow between topics and decisions, as shown in the diagram below.

Effective Group Decision-Making

Rarely do group conversations actually work this way! Here are some of the reasons.

  • This process also requires brainpower and emotional labor. Group decision-making can be slow and uncomfortable, so some teams tap out rather than persisting. Jeannel King does a great job of explaining the “Groan Zone” in this video, Where Teams Get Stuck – The Diamond of Participation.
  • Without good facilitation, fast-thinkers and articulate speakers dominate the discussion and other opinions are missed.
  • Group think can prevail and differences of opinion are not valued.
  • This process requires us to set aside pride of authorship or our own strong beliefs and accept (or at least empathize with) the positions and beliefs held by others.

Recommendations for Facilitators to Improve in Participatory Decision-Making

Facilitators need to be observers of the group process. The content of discussion is important, but for the coach or facilitator, the process of how the decision is being made is much more important. They should not get lost in the specifics or influence the group too much with their own beliefs and opinions. Rather, the facilitator needs to think about how the group health and behavior.

The diagram below from Kaner’s book shows the group process.

Sam Kaner Diamond of Participation - Facilitating Participatory Decision-Making Part 1

In our next installment of this discussion, we walk through Kaner’s diagram and explain how the facilitator can lead discussions effectively to those decision points.


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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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