I first heard about Fist of Five voting back in 2006 from my colleague Nate who went to an event and returned gushing about the facilitation techniques he learned from a talk delivered by Jean Tabaka. Little did I know at that time that Jean would later become a friend and mentor through my many years at Rally Software. All of us who were at Rally owe everything we know about facilitation to Jean and though she sadly passed away tragically early back in 2016 she lives on through the many she touched over the years.
For those not familiar with Fist of Five voting here is a brief synopsis. Let’s say that we’re trying to reach consensus on a quarterly plan a proposal might be:
This is our plan. We all approve it. We are confident that it is the best plan we could come up with at this moment in time. Any more time we spend would be less valuable than starting work.
Next we vote on the proposal using the five fingers of one hand. The facilitator uses their favorite technique to make sure that everyone votes at the same time so that we don’t defer to the authority in the room (a problem in some organizations). The number of fingers we show indicates the degree of consensus:
5: Wild, unbridled support 4: I think itʼs a great idea 3: I can live with that and support it
2: I have some reservations to talk about
1: I am opposed
We used Fist of Five often at Rally. It meshed well with our culture. From the top-down we aligned to a servant leadership model so a consensus based decision making technique was a natural fit and our core values ensured nobody took advantage of the power granted to them.
For many who adopt this simple technique it becomes not just a tool but a symbolic shift to a whole new way of decision making.
However, consensus based decision making does have its limitations. As Frederick Laloux points out in his excellent Reinventing Organizations consensus based decision making
[can often] degenerate into a collective tyranny of the ego. Anybody has the power to block the group if his whims and wishes are not incorporated; now it’s not only the boss, but everybody, who has the power over others (albeit only the power to paralyze). Attempting to accommodate everyone's wishes, however trivial, often turns into an agonizing pursuit; in the end, it’s not rare that most people stop caring, pleading for someone to please make a decision, whatever it turns out to be.
Does this sound familiar? Are you finding that every time you try to use Fist of Five on your team it is always the same people blocking consensus and effectively grabbing power? If so, then a change needs to be made. Either you need to change the composition of the team or you need to change the way you make decisions.
Laloux talks about a different type of decision making that he has observed in organizations he calls Evolutionary-Teal. Known by someone as the “advice process” it works like this:
In principle, any person in the organization can make any decision. But before doing so, that person must seek advice from all parties and people with expertise on the matter. The bigger the decision, the wider the net must be cast. The agony of putting all decisions to consensus is avoided and everybody with a stake has been given a voice.
Can we repurpose five finger voting to work with an advice process?
It might be confusing to change too much but with a small adjustment we can make it work. We use the Fist of Five first to indicate how much we like a proposal. However, one or two fingers no longer blocks decision making. You can still use one (carefully chosen) finger to indicate your dislike for as proposal but with the advice process this does not block moving forward. If the proposal is popular we then vote with our other hand about whether or not the proposer has considered the input of all concerned parties. Thumbs up would signal yes and thumbs down would signal no.