It’s funny really. One of the key points of the agile methodologies and the manifesto is heavy collaboration, with the best being face-to-face collaboration. But one of the things I see happening in teams all of the time is, how can I say this delicately, over collaboration.

In other words, the teams, ahem, talk too much. There, I said it ;-) And I’m referring to open-ended discussion that takes too long if ever to narrow down towards a decision. Folks seem to be talking to hear themselves talk. Often it’s not everyone, with a few heavy talkers dominating discussions and the rest seemingly along for the ride. So it can be quite unbalanced.

In facilitation terms, there are two types of discussions going on when a team is trying to make a decision. There are divergent conversations, where options and ideas are getting put on the table. This is the brainstorming side of the discussion. And then there are convergent discussions, where the team is narrowing down options in order to make a decision. 

You need to allow for a reasonable amount of divergent discussion, so every feels ‘heard’. But at the same time, you need to facilitate a direction change from divergence to convergence as soon as you can. This is where the team refocuses and makes a decision—whether it is on design & architecture, how or who to fix a bug, how large a user story is, or what is the most important result of their retrospective.

I’ve been working on a series of posts (or articles) on facilitation techniques and this is the third in the series. Here I want to introduce everyone to one of my favorites. I like it because it’s a fast way to generate whole-team conversation around an issue—orchestrating divergence and convergence cycles. It’s called a Fist-of-Five and I’ll refer to it as FoFive going forward. Let’s explore this tool in a bit more detail.

The Basics

Here’s a basic example of a Fist of Five in practice:

A group of us went to a Toyota dealership to test drive the latest Camry. There were four of us, so we sort of crammed our way into the car and went off to do the test drive. Each person took a turn at the wheel during the test, the drive lasting for at least 30 minutes.

We were an eclectic mix. One of us is a grandfather and the other a college student. One of us has several dogs and is new to driving, while the other is a salesman who is on the road five days a week. Still, we get along tremendously.

At the end of the test drive the car salesman asked the group – how do you all like the car? So I perked up to help. I suggest using a FoFive as a means of quickly gathering our impressions and pro/con feedback. To set it all up, I formulated the following question:

We are all going to ‘vote’ on our impressions of the Camry using our fingers – or a 1 – 5 scale:

  • A (1) is equivalent to your hating the car. It was the worst drive you’ve ever had;
  • A (5) is equivalent to your wanting to buy the car immediately. You love it. It is a perfect fit for you and your needs;
  • And a (3) is somewhere in the ‘middle’ of those two dimensions. You like it. It has strengths, but a few weaknesses from your perspective. You probably need to “think about” purchasing it;
  • Oh and a (2) and (4) are somewhere between the above scaling – you decide how to do the “fitting” and what the conditions are.

Now think about the scale and your answer. Oh and BTW, if you’re a low number, we’re going to ask you “what would it take (specifically) to get your number higher? So be prepared for that question.

So now, 1-2-3, everyone show their votes (fists – hands – fingers) and we’ll talk about the results. And one final important point, if you vote a ‘1’, please be careful with your finger selection ;-)

Clearly depending on your situation or the decision being made, the question context changes, but the dynamics are roughly the same. You vote, then discuss the outcomes, then re-vote if you think the discussions will drive a different outcome. Often the numbers converge and a decision can be easily made from the narrowing options.

The Key to the FoFive is the Question

The key to the FoFive is the framing of the question. I like to make the dimensions very wide so it allows for lots of space for folks to fit their view into the scale. So I’ll use exaggerated words like love/hate, always/never, etc. for the boundary cases of ‘1’ and ‘5’. Then I split the difference for ‘3’, but give it a somewhat positive skew. I usually try to set it up so that:

  • 1-2 are very low and unattractive votes
  • 3-4 are leaning towards positive
  • 5 is the perfect case

So for example, if the question was – How are we all feeling about the Sprint meeting our Sprint Goal? Then would be intently listening to the 1’s and 2’s to see what they had to say. And most importantly, their follow-up answers to the question – what would it take for you to go higher?

In actuality I find very little information from the numbers themselves. They’re just numbers. I hope you see the most important thing is the conversations that result and the data you gather by listening intently and actively to the team.

Other Dynamics

A frequent challenge within agile teams is getting every member of your team talking…equally. The FoFive is excellent at fostering an environment of discussion amongst everyone. And if the folks don’t speak up, as a facilitator, the numbers give you a chance to pull them in by asking for specifics ‘behind’ their numbers.

Normally I’ll go to the ‘edges’ to drive the discussion—oscillating between the high and low numbers to tease out the edge discussion points. I’m, also looking to drive differences of opinion and questions from the group at-large, perhaps generating clarifying questions and respectful dissent or differing views. The technique is quite good at fostering this.

A common question is, do you always need to drive to an agreement or decision, for example, to a singular number? First, it depends on the question. For example, if the question is – are we ready for the upcoming release? Then driving to a yes or no is the goal. The range of numbers must drive to a singular position across members of the team and then for the entire team.

But in some cases, having a ‘range’ is fine; as is having outliers. The key is to agree on:

  1. What actions are you going to take (as a team) to address the concerns?
  2. And how much runway do you need until the next FoFive on this topic/question?

In the end, the FoFive is a technique for “moving forward” as a team. Instead if over divergent discussions, it helps focus and converge the team towards action.

Places where I’ve used FoF

As I’ve said, one of the strengths to the technique, at least in my view, is the flexibility of it. I can hardly think of an agile team decision or conversation point where I haven’t used it to clarify something. Here are some examples of usage:

  1. Check on the readiness of a particular User Story to enter a Sprint or to exit the Sprint;
  2. Check the state of a Sprint and likelihood of meeting the Sprint Goal;
  3. Gather feedback on the metrics the team is keeping track of;
  4. Gather feedback on the ‘quality’ of the Product Backlog and/or Backlog Grooming sessions;
  5. Checking the state of a release and the likelihood of meeting the Release Goals;
  6. Gather retrospective feedback for any meeting; quick, concise, drawing out feedback;
  7. Check on the teams’ comfort or willingness to commit to a Sprint Goal, or a Release Goal as described by the Product Owner;
  8. Perform a health check for a Retrospective. Did everyone get a chance to talk? Was it a ‘safe’ environment? Did the team prioritize the most urgent actions/issues effectively? Are there action plans?

And this list isn’t exhaustive. If you’ve used the technique in other situations, please share them by commenting to the post.

Wrapping Up

Ok, so how did you like this blog post? A ‘1’ means it sucked and a ‘5’ means it was the best thing you’ve read this year. A ‘3’ is somewhere between the two, i.e. it was good, but not great. You might refer someone else to the post. And you figure out ‘2’ and ‘4’ given the dimensions we just set.

So, 1-2-3…vote! Ah, I see there are quite a few 1’s and 2’s out there. There’s also a couple of 5’s. I’d say the average looks like a 2.5 right now. But that doesn’t tell me so much. I’d like the folks who voted 1’s and 2’s to tell me what would it take to get your vote higher? What specifically could I have changed in writing the article?

Oh wow, that gives me some challenging work ahead. But thanks for that feedback. Hey, you 3’s and 4’s, what did you like about the article? What should I stick with or keep? And do you have any reactions to what the 1’s and 2’s said?

Hey you 5’s. I’m feeling a bit “beat up” at the moment. Give me a ray of sunshine if you would…please.

Ah, now we can close the post. In a perfect world I might call for a re-vote, but I’ve got lots of ideas for changes. Thanks everyone.

Stay agile my friends,