I like to think of myself as a decisive person. Whilst one of my friends spends agonizing amounts of time looking at every dish on a restaurant’s menu before making a choice, I have already made my mind up on what I want to have before I have even walked through the door. Sure, ordering food is not something that could be considered a risky decision, unless of course if you suffer from allergies (which my friend does not!). But even when it comes to more important decisions, I am usually confident in making a choice and quickly make up my mind.
However, I used to crumble, get frustrated, and fall victim to groupthink the moment whenever I was part of making a group decision. As a developer, I have been in many team meetings and Scrum events where discussions seemed to go off into different tangents, where it felt like we were just repeating ourselves and wasting time. And in the end, most of us would just agree to some half-baked solution that none of us really believed in… anything to get out of the room!
Source image: https://corporater.com/resources/avoiding-groupthink/
There are times that reaching a decision can be straightforward. Especially if it concerns a simple problem and the decision carries low risk and impact.
However, trying to reach a decision when tackling a complex problem with a group of people often feels different. Having multiple people involved in the decision-making journey, each with their own perspectives, needs, and concerns is usually a challenge.
Over time, I have learned that it is natural to have discomfort in group interactions, especially with Scrum Teams who are solving complex problems. The diversity of a group of people offers a great opportunity to tap into a wider range of creativity and innovation, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and clashes. I have experienced how the journey from exploring a group’s different perspectives and ideas (divergent thinking) to a shared understanding and conclusion (convergent thinking) can be a rollercoaster with confusion, frustration, and misalignment. I have learned that this is not because the teams I have worked in are dysfunctional, but because this is a natural part of group dynamics.
In his model ‘Diamond of Participatory Decision Making’, Sam Kaner describes the period of misunderstanding and confusion as the Groan Zone.
Adapted image based on A Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making – Sam Kaner
Ignoring the Groan Zone and rushing a decision when facilitating group interactions can lead to weak outcomes. Weak outcomes are like when me and my colleagues crumbled under pressure and would, for example, agree to a Sprint Goal that we did not believe in, causing a low level of commitment and engagement with the work in the Sprint.
To reach a strong outcome with a group of people, an outcome that everyone supports and is committed to, it can be helpful to for a group to go through the Groan Zone. This is likely to feel uncomfortable and frustrating for everyone involved, but it is important to understand that this is perfectly natural.
Good facilitation in the Groan Zone involves helping the team move through the stage of divergence to come to a shared understanding of the different options without passing judgment. This can be done with facilitation techniques that help with building empathy, encouraging active listening, and exploring different perspectives. It is important to create a healthy space in which people feel free to ask questions, challenge ideas and discuss options. One thing that I have found very valuable is to ask the rest of the Scrum Team to think about how the Scrum values may help them navigate through the Groan Zone.
One example that a team came up with for this was as follows:
Openness: Be open to actively exploring each other’s perspectives, needs, and concerns. Be open to listening actively!
Courage: Have the courage to contribute your own ideas and suggestions and to do the right thing. Avoid groupthink!
Commitment: Appreciate that with complex problems, a period of confusion can be natural in group decision-making. Commit to working towards a shared understanding of the problem, the different options, and craft decisions collaboratively. Commit to going through the process!
Focus: Let bias towards your own ideas go. Focus on the problem to be solved!
Respect: Respect the different speeds of thought and thought processes that people have. Respect diversity!
As well as leveraging the Scrum values, there are many, many facilitation techniques that I, and others that I have worked with, have used to navigate through the Groan Zone. A few of our go-to ones include heard, seen, and respected; graphic recording and visualization; empathy mapping; affinity mapping; and 1-2-4-all. However, for me, good facilitation is not really about the techniques, but about taking the right approach to help a group of people get to a strong outcome, which may include helping a group move through the Groan Zone to shared understanding.
I would love to hear about situations where you have encountered the Groan Zone and how you navigated through it!