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The agile team: How to overcome bias and groupthink in meetings

It always feels good to walk away from meetings believing that you have team consensus. But if only a few people speak up during your meetings, do you really have enough data to make good decisions? Probably not. It isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s a matter of human nature.

In any kind of meeting or group discussion, some people will be more expressive than others. When that happens, you run a high risk that the other people present will start to agree with the most vocal few. This is called groupthink: a tendency for people to conform or agree with the wider group. The intentions behind this phenomenon aren’t always bad or negative; but it does lead to suboptimal data.

There are a few simple changes you can make to your agile meetings and processes to avoid groupthink. All it takes is a little empathy, an understanding of human nature, and the adoption of a handful of digital tools.

What is groupthink, and how does it affect agile teams?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines groupthink as, “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.” Basically, it’s when people ignore their own beliefs or objections in favour of agreeing with the group.

Sometimes people do this because they feel social pressure and don’t want to appear to be negative or ruin the team’s excitement over an idea. Other times, people don’t speak up because they perceive some kind of power dynamic in the group, so disagreeing may feel threatening. In most cases, the reason is probably a lot more simple. A dominant speaker might be so loud and insistent that people either give in to them or give up trying to disagree with them.

No matter how it happens, groupthink is a form of bias.

groupthink vs non-groupthink

If everyone is sticking to one story, you have no idea of any hidden blind spots or issues that could impede your project’s progress. Even the strongest scrum master, product owner, or meeting facilitator may not be able to prevent groupthink from happening during a meeting. That’s why it’s important to reconsider our approach to scrums, sprint planning, and overall project management and delivery.

Inclusive agile is asynchronous (and sometimes anonymous, too)

There are loads of reasons why people might not be comfortable speaking in front of a group. Like we mentioned, there could be some perception around power dynamics and hierarchy. Or it could be an individual thing.

Some people might be shy or introverted. Other people might need more time to process information and form an opinion. And then there are the flat out logistical reasons why live meetings and discussions aren’t always ideal, like when team members are working in different time zones.

Giving team members ample time to formulate their opinion and respond and a safe space to provide their input are the keys to creating a more inclusive and participatory team. It also helps you collect better quality data.

How do you create a more inclusive agile team culture? The solution is two-fold:

  1. Embrace asynchronous communication
  2. Allow team members to contribute anonymously sometimes

Think of asynchronous communication as the thread that ties the team together between meetings. It’s important that next steps and decisions are logged in one central place that’s visible to all team members. It helps everyone know what’s going on and avoid confusion.

It’s also no surprise that asynchronous communication can cut back on your overall meeting volume while still giving you and your team the inputs and information you need to do your work.

Here are some meetings that would be better off as asynchronous communications:

  • Daily scrums and project status updates: You know what’s better than kicking off a scrum meeting? Automating it. You can set up workflow automations and integrations to kick off a daily or weekly reminder to team members to post a status update to the group. P.S. We’ve got something exciting in the works revolving around daily standups. Sign up here to be the first to know about upcoming features.
  • Quick polls and surveys: Rather than pull people away from their work, you can launch polls or surveys to get real-time feedback, like gauging team sentiment and checking in on how everyone is progressing towards goals.
  • Planning Poker: Not everyone is going to have the same answer to questions like how long it might take to build a feature. Allowing team members to place story point estimates privately without influence from others helps you objectively learn where there are similarities and, more importantly, disparities.

Asynchronous communications give team members time and space to be truthful with their responses. Moving some of your team check-ins and fact-finding questions online also reduces overall meeting burnout. The biggest benefit to moving to a combined asynchronous communication and live meeting approach is that project owners and managers can spend more of their meeting time actually getting to the bottom of core questions and concerns.

Planning poker meetings are the perfect example. Let’s say you ask your team to submit their estimates before you all meet. You can instantly learn from the poll results which areas are the most contentious or dissimilar. Rather than spending your meeting running down a long list of features and estimates, you can then focus only on addressing the results that showed the biggest disparity.

Tools for unbiased, groupthink-free agile teams and events

You’re probably no stranger to collaboration software like Slack and Microsoft Teams. They’re terrific tools for asynchronous communication with your team. You can host daily scrum or status check-ins by posting messages in project-related channels and team members can respond with their updates when they’re able. Running a quick poll or survey within these tools can be as easy as adding your favourite survey or poll integration.

Naturally developers and engineers are going to need more specific tools to manage their processes. Aside from collaboration software, we know that GitHub is often at the foundation of the developer tool set. Part of the reason why we built ZenHub is to merge some of the best features of both of these tools. You can find more details in our GitHub Projects vs. ZenHub comparison post, but here are some insights into some features that we built to make agile team planning more inclusive, efficient, and accurate.

  • Roadmapping: Roadmaps provide a single window view into all the projects, issues, and work happening across teams. Progress bars make it visually simple to check whether work is tracking against estimates, and in-built predictive analytics help PMs automatically assess how long it might take teams to tackle milestones and story points in the future, based on their past velocity and performance.
  • Automated Workflows: ZenHub’s workflow automation allows you to do things like automate hand-offs of tasks between teams and signal a shift in priorities or needs, without having to add more meetings to your calendars. ZenHub uses your GitHub data to create real-time updates on the team’s performance (things like whether you’re completing story points, issues and pull requests) and the velocity or rate at which teams are accomplishing their work.
  • Planning Poker Estimation: Planning poker is our way of improving estimation accuracy while also allowing multiple team members to contribute to the process whether in real time or on their own time. Product owners and Scrum masters can use it to request estimates from individuals prior to sprint planning. You can even do this for multiple Issues simultaneously. ZenHub’s planning poker helps prevent groupthink by allowing team members to provide estimates privately, right in GitHub. Then the team comes together to discuss the Issues the team didn’t have consensus on.

Gathering people’s perspectives while avoiding groupthink can be tricky. It’s important not to default to meetings and group discussions alone. The advent of asynchronous communications and anonymous polling help to even the playing field so that everyone’s viewpoint can be heard. As a result, you’ll get better data and teams will be more invested in the work. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from making these simple changes.

Discover how top performing teams ship faster, improve communication, and cut down on unnecessary meetings with ZenHub. Download our free eBook: Project Management for Teams in GitHub.




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