Streamlining Design Discussions Using the Decider Protocol

Alex J. Champandard on October 10, 2007

What percentage of meetings do you come out of thinking “that was extremely useful”? Whether they’re about design or technology, meetings are often a waste of time! If only it was easier to allow everyone to participate while keeping the discussion down to a minimum… That’s where the decider protocol comes in.

Last week you learned about the ScaryIdea protocol as a good way to spark creative problem-solving. This article continues explaining principles of The Core Protocols, specifically those improving the efficiency of decision making in meetings.

The Problem with Meetings

Most meetings are not moderated, have poorly defined agendas, and don’t have a well defined time slot. This results in:

  • Unnecessary explanations when everyone already agrees.

  • Off-topic threads of conversation that just don’t end.

  • Rants and arguments that take over the whole meeting.

… and no doubt many more. Each team tends to find its own special ways to “conduct” meetings!

Tools for Efficient Decisions

The Core

Of course, having agendas, time-boxed meeting, and good moderators always helps. But another solution for smaller meetings, and generally helping efficiency in any discussion, is to use the decider protocol.

The decider protocol achieves the following:

  • Provides a high-bandwidth medium to allow everyone to share their thoughts about an idea at the same time.

  • Prevents endless discussions about bad ideas, by the rules, these are ditched immediately.

  • Provides formal ways for minorities to voice their concerns and try to improve the current idea.

  • Prevents redundant justifications about ideas that everbody already approves of.

Doesn’t this sound too good to be true? Actually, most of The Core does until you try it — but it does work!

The Decider Protocol

When done right, the decider protocol feels like a game of rock, paper, scissor! Here’s how it works:

  1. One person introduces a decision by saying: “I propose…” then briefly describing the idea without justifications.

  2. The same person then counts to three out loud. Everyone puts their closed fist in front of them.

  3. On three, everyone votes by either putting their thumbs up, down or keeping their hand flat.

Assuming you have a situation with 7 people or fewer, you do the following to resolve the votes:

  • Any thumbs down acts as a veto. If less than one third (⅓) are thumbs down, the person making the proposal may ask “What’s necessary to get you in?” After the explanation, anyone may take over with another better proposal that takes the feedback into acount.

  • If there’s a majority of thumbs up and the rest are flat hands, the proposal is accepted without any further discussion. Everyone present is responsible for enforcing the decision henceforth.

  • Otherwise, with hands mostly flat out, the proposal is not accepted for lack of support (it’s a sign of apathy, so there must be a better idea). Anyone can make a different counter proposal if necessary to keep it going.

While the process seems a bit childish at first, you quickly get used to the efficiency of the process.

Thumbs Up, Hand Flat, Thumbs Down

Image 1: Demonstrating the decider protocol.

Applications & Extensions

The decider protocol is particularly useful in small teams, during meetings or informal discussions. Once you start applying it, it becomes second nature. Then, you can extend the protocol with the following ideas:

Complete Veto
Voting with double thumbs down shoots down any proposal without discussion. This should be used primarily when you have another better idea to follow up with. Refusing discussion without in many situations is a breach of Core Commitments, and the person should be expected to “check out” of the meeting.
No Explanations!
Another idea is to ban all explanations before proposals. A reflex people have is to spend minutes justifying their idea for fear of it being shot down. It’s more efficient to test approval rates first, then make refinements with specific discussions afterwards rather than doing a generic explanation upfront.
Decider-Driven Meetings
Once your team gets the hang of the protocol and the previous suggestion, try running entire meetings using Decider only! So the flow of the meeting would be proposal after proposal, each being refined by team members. This is quite a drastic change, and has to be experienced to be believed.
Decider in Large Teams
The secret to making unanimous decisions in large teams is to create expert sub-teams of 4 to solve specific problems. Only people who care should be involved in these small groups. This prevents having too many people in meetings, and keeps the team moving forward rather than discussing endlessly.

Time to Practice

Dog Behaviors

Screenshot 2: Simple behaviors for a dog simulation.

Last week, you proposed some high-level design ideas for a work-in-progress simulation game here at Now, it’s time to make decisions about how to approach the implementation on the low-level…

I PROPOSE to implement the simulation as a series of two week iterations (starting and ending on Wednesdays), getting incrementally more complex:

  1. In the first post, I’ll establish the goals for the iteration and start a discussion about the specific design.

  2. In the second post, I’ll summarize your design suggestions and explain how I’ll approach the problem.

  3. In the third post, I’ll showcase the actual implementation in detail, and the cycle starts again…

Feel free to reply below using the ASCII equivalent of the hand signals: ++, == or --. Of course, don’t hesitate to make your own proposals about the implementation.

Next-Generation Decider Podcast

Here are two related podcasts from Jim & Michele McCarthy, discussing the process of applying decider in large teams.

Podcast: The McCarthy Show, Episode 39 — Next-Gen Decider

In summary, the Decider Protocol helps teams move at the fastest possible speed while making decisions, even if this means that some people feel uncomfortable with the speed! Decider helps put emotions aside and allows actionable progress on key issues.

Next week, you’ll learn about another essential Core Protocol that improves the quality of feedback.

Discussion 1 Comments

mihaic on October 12th, 2007


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