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I felt hope draining out of the room

It was a defining moment in the workshop. We had reached a crunch point, and hope in the room that we could get through this was fading. 

I was running a two-day workshop with about fifty engineers and scientists, discussing the handover from their prime supplier. 

It was a complex, multi-million dollar project. The problem was that there was no confidence in a definite hand-over date. Expectations of critical faults in this vital piece of equipment caused some to push back handover further into the future. Push that date too far into the future and the project would miss a critical operational window, delaying commissioning of the service by another year.

I felt hope draining out of the room.

I have learned that such workshops can be like this. However well you are briefed as a facilitator, however prepared you are with session planning and tools, it’s the nature of such workshops to feel like a walk of faith. You can never be sure of the outcome.

That’s the point. A workshop is an intentional group conversation towards some goal. How you get there is often a surprise.

So, what did we do?

After the project sponsor had clarified the problem and challenged the room to come up with their best probable estimate, I tasked the tables, six in all, each to discuss for ten more minutes, and write down a single date on a large post-it with a flipchart marker.

After the ten minutes, I gathered each post-it, and wrote on the back its table.  The engagement in the room was tangible. None of the other tables knew what each had written. Would they be wildly different? What would emerge?

Then I placed the estimates on a flipchart at the front:

30th October

12th November

1st November

1st November

15th October

1st November

15th October

Hope returned. As a working assumption, everyone agreed we could now plan around delivery on 1st November. 

This was a variant of a planning approach called the Delphi Method. It has been around for a few decades. It is predicated on the empirical evidence that among a group of experts in any subject, the group consensus estimate is likely to be more accurate than any individual estimate. If repeated over several rounds, most times, the group will converge on a better estimate.

Delphi Method flow diagram
Image from Wikipedia Article: Creating User Czkssa

In the case of the workshop I was leading, we didn’t need any further iterations. The first and only round delivered an important breakthrough. We could now plan the individual work streams on that median assumption.

Planning poker within agile teams is similar. Yet, this experience made me re-evaluate the Delphi Method. There is a rational argument for it, but also a social one. It honours everyone in the panel or room. Everyone is heard. People are treated as experts. And it moves the conversation towards agreement rather than conflict.

Photo by Nick McMillan on Unsplash