Imagine you need to set the future technical direction of a large Engineering organization. How do you capture the input from all of your Architect Engineers and Engineering Directors and quickly transform it into a visual format that would increase confidence in technical decisions? At Procore, we evolved the Fist of Five Protocol consensus polling technique into an Alignment Record that produces a visual consensus heatmap.

What is an Alignment Record?

An alignment record is a polling tool that captures degrees of alignment or agreement on key topics across stakeholders. The results look like a heatmap of the group’s sentiment using red, yellow and green. We devised this tool when facilitating alignment between dozens of architects and engineering directors reviewing our architecture vision.

Benefits

  • Increase confidence in technical design decisions
  • Decrease potential for rework by eliminating later discovery of misalignment by key stakeholders
  • Understand whether an idea garners passionate or only mediocre support
  • Uncover where you are not aligned on topics quickly and visually
  • Scale the “fist of five” technique explained later in this article
  • Record peoples’ sentiment regarding a list of decisions for later reference

Format

The format of an alignment record is a spreadsheet with the following setup. Columns A and B list the Questions or statements for which you seek alignment as well as any notes participants want to share. Next, overall alignment is averaged in column C. Participants enter their names at the top of subsequent columns, which replace the “insert name” placeholders. Below their names are several rows where they select 1–5 using the “fist of five” scale explained next.

The Fist of Five Protocol

Fist of five is a tool that is used to poll for consensus. The idea is credited to Janet Danforth by Jean Tabaka in her book Collaboration Explained. Fist of Five is a rapid way for participants to indicate their degrees of agreement or disagreement on a given topic. At Procore, it’s common for us to use “fist of five” in smaller meetings when discussing an idea. We will do that using our fingers to represent this 1–5 scale:

Fist of Five Protocol

5 - I wildly support this idea.

4 - I support this idea.

3 - I don’t feel strongly about this. I’ll defer to the team.

2 - I need the following clarifications before I can support this (then go through the clarification needed).

1 - I don’t support this.

While this method works perfectly for small meetings, it’s not ideal for larger settings. If you have 30 people in the room, you might want a more scalable way to poll for consensus, hence the alignment record idea. You may also wish to create a record of your agreement, hence the document approach.

Anonymous or Not Anonymous?  

When you facilitate an alignment meeting, we encourage that each person enters their names in the first row so that it can serve as a record of their level of agreement. This also makes it easier to foster dialogue during the meeting when there are differing opinions. This, of course, assumes there is a level of psychological safety to the meeting.

How to Facilitate a Meeting Using this Structure

  1. Welcome people to the meeting, share the purpose of the meeting and on what you are trying to align.
  2. Present any relevant background information. You might couple an alignment record with a short presentation or a written document on which people comment.
  3. Share the outcome you are looking to get from the alignment exercise. For instance, explain that this activity aims to understand how each person feels about the proposed decisions.
  4. Next, ask people to silently read over the statements in column one of the alignment record in the shared spreadsheet. Encourage them to ask clarification questions.
  5. Then, ask each person to rate each statement, 1–5, in silence, using the file’s drop-down menus.
  6. Take a look at the Green, Yellow and Red colors that have emerged in the shared spreadsheet and look at the averaged column. First, point out the Green. This is the strong agreement that is present. Next, talk about the Yellows and Reds. Invite people to share comments about how they scored. Give space for people to speak up on their own without directly “calling on” them. When asking why someone scored low on an item, start by saying, “I’m curious about how you rated line number X. Would you like to share?”
  7. The goal is to drive meaningful conversation, not discuss solely the Greens. A prompt may be given intending to result in a low score to emphasize an area where everybody agrees there is a problem. Typically the most valuable conversations will happen when there is a high degree of variance between the individual scores, not merely a low, mid, or high average. Focus on these areas.
  8. Some like to have discussions about all of the low scoring areas since they might feel the need for agreement to gain confidence in their design decisions. You might also ask, “what other options can you see in order to move forward here?” Or, it could also be that you want to introduce the “disagree and commit” idea explained next.
  9. Disagree and commit. You might have a pulldown that enables the person to indicate “disagree and commit” for the cases where you need overall consensus, but the person feels strongly that their disagreement should be captured for the future.
  10. After every participant has finished selecting their answers, the facilitator of the session should run from top to bottom in the doc. Summarize what is present into a coherent and connected narrative about the group’s aligned outcome. Restating reestablishes the new common ground and reconnects all of the individual fragmented decisions discussed. This ensures that everybody understands the overall conclusions, and it serves as the basis for additional outwards communications.

Polling for Consensus is not Voting

This approach is technically not a voting mechanism. It is a mechanism to show degrees of alignment or misalignment. If you need to drive to an explicit decision, you can use a voting mechanism to do that. Majority rules can be a default approach for consensus-based decision making. However, this approach is not appropriate in some situations. Good handling of decision rules can be found in the book the Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner et al. In their book, the authors expand on decision rules including unanimous agreement, majority vote, person-in-charge decides without discussion, person-in-charge decides after discussion, “flip a coin” and delegation.

What Do You Think?

If you found this idea useful and have applied it to your company, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out to Vietor Davis or Heidi Helfand via LinkedIn.

References

Kaner, Sam. The Facilitator’s Guide for Participatory Decision Making. Jossey-Bass, 2014. See page 326 for a discussion of decision rules.

Tabaka, Jean. Collaboration Explained. Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders. Pearson, 2006. See page 80 for a discussion of Fist of Five.


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