PM Articles > Geof Lory > Decide and Conquer

Decide and Conquer

by Geof Lory

The first two articles in this series on speed covered the importance of a sustainable pace to avoid the tyranny of the urgent and having a clear, common and compelling goal. In the next few articles I will turn my focus to the project environment and what can be done to prepare and activate it for speed.

Projects are not conducted in a vacuum. Every project is executed in an environment that includes the social structure of the organization, the cultural norms of the people, and the processes and procedures that will govern and constrain the project. It is always convenient to identify and blame the limitations of the organization, the implication being that factors outside our control are at fault, absolving us of any culpability. While organizational limitations may play a considerable part in project success, more often than not it is the internal environment of the team itself—which is within our control—that holds back optimal performance. To quote Pogo, "We have met the enemy and it is us."

Teams are made up of people who are unique in so many ways. Organizing those diverse people to work together efficiently is daunting. But if our team is going to do its best work, we need to turn our attention inward and look at what we can do to leverage that diversity and channel it properly. We need to focus our attention on what we can deliberately do to improve the way we work and behave together. The stakes are too high to just leave this to time and luck, both of which are in limited supply on every project.

In the mid-90s, Jim and Michele McCarthy left Microsoft and founded The McCarthy Show with the explicit intent of uncovering repeatable methods that encourage results-oriented behaviors in teams, especially software teams. By conducting their BootCamps and observing team behaviors, they developed a set of defined interpersonal conventions, eventually refining them into what they have branded as The Core Protocols, now on version 3.03. (Both Jim and Michele come from the software industry, so they couldn't help the version numbering.)

The Core Protocols are a set of agreed upon methods for people to engage with each other efficiently and productively, minimizing the noise of miscommunication and avoiding the interference that complicates the intention of the communication. In addition, the clarity that comes from the elimination of unnecessary confusion allows for every team member to bring the best of themselves to the team without fear. In short, they are designed to speed the creation of teamwork and maximize its productivity.

You might be thinking that The Core Protocols must be complicated to live up to such a large claim, but they're actually a lot easier done than said. Some are even amazing in their simplicity. I actually wrote about one of The Core Protocols, "The Perfection Game," in a prior article. I have used this approach in everything from remodeling my house to parent teacher conferences to team retrospectives. It is a simple way to create a safe environment for positive improvement and feedback.

Another one of The Core Protocols I use is The Decider Protocol. As its name states, this is a method to clearly, quickly and responsibly make decisions as a group. This protocol is particularly useful on self-organizing teams of peers where consensus is important. Typically, the time it takes to create consensus through lengthy discussions and little action often thwarts the willingness or ability to achieve the common agreement necessary for true collaboration.

The Decider Protocol replaces non-productive discussion with results-driven, action-oriented behaviors. You can use this protocol to surface the things blocking the team and identify the team's paralyzing, unarticulated conflicts. On any team where there are many Decisions In Process, and there is a desire to make decisions at the Latest Responsible Moment, The Decider Protocol will substantially increase team results. It embraces and channels the natural conflict of decision making into results and action. It is also quicker and more accurate than traditional hierarchical structures, democratic voting systems, voting by behavior, or blind obedience to perceived orders.

Here's how it works. For any decision that is under consideration:

  1. The proposer says, "I propose…" and offers a concise, actionable proposal to the team
  2. The proposer then says, "1, 2, 3."
  3. All team members vote simultaneously, and silently, using hand signals.
    1. "Yes" voters raise their arms or signal thumbs up
    2. "No" voters lower their arms or signal thumbs down
    3. "Support it" voters move their arms up midway or show a flat hand

The definitions of "Yes" and "No" are pretty straightforward; I am in favor or I cannot comply, respectively. "Support it" means I can live with this proposal even though I have some reservations. I may not be a champion for this proposal but I do commit not to sabotage it.

This may just sound like a modified version of the Yea, Nay, Abstain voting from Robert's Rules of Order, but here's the difference. As opposed to voting where a majority rules, in The Decider Protocol any single "No" vote prevents action until that "No" vote is switched to "Support it" or "Yes". This means that any and every person has veto power! At first this sounds like a guarantee for a perpetual stalemate, but on a team that is committed to a clear, common, and compelling goal, a stalemate is unacceptable. The focus on collective action over continual discussion becomes the governance.

In all cases, The Decider Protocol leads to one of these conclusions:

  • Affirmative decision, which means immediate and universal acceptance of the proposal and the associated action or result
  • Efficient negotiation, which results in more and generally more refined proposals emerging during the team's inclusion effort
  • Safety checking, which leads to an immediate, clear, and universally accepted rejection of an idea too many people think is misguided

In the usual case (i.e. when only a small minority of the team votes "No" on the proposal), the immediate question becomes, "What do the outliers actually require in order to put aside resistance and to proceed in effective collaboration?" The proposer seeks specific information from only the "No" voters by asking, "What's it going to take to bring you in?"

If the group has too many "No" voters, or mostly "Support it" voters, the proposal is deemed too weak and is dropped.

Think about the time saved! The team avoids needless discussion where everyone reiterates their opinions. A simple show of hands quickly lets you know where the group sits, and subsequent discussion is focused on movement to an acceptable action-oriented solution or just dropping the proposal. In practice, the responsibility that comes with being able to block any proposal with your single "No" is not taken lightly, especially since you know the ensuing question will uncover the thoughtfulness of your vote.

The Decider Protocol creates efficient decision making, distributes accountability, exposes resistance, identifies crucial elements blocking success, and facilitates concrete expression of the group's united intention. Sounds like a pretty good recipe for creating great, fast-moving teams.

One word of caution: this simple method is predicated on some core values and principles that create a safe environment where everyone can speak freely and represent a dissenting voice. In the next article we'll explore ways to build that base within the team. Until then, try The Decider Protocol and The Perfection Game. In addition to speeding things up, they may provide some insights into the safety of your team.

Either way, I'd be interested in hearing from you.

Related Links
Are your meetings running as well as you think they are? Find out. While you're at it, create a safe environment for this kind of decision making by Establishing Meeting Ground Rules with the team.

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