Have you ever had the experience where it seemed everyone agreed with a proposed approach or a decision at a meeting, only to find out afterward as you start implementation that there are serious reservations, lukewarm commitment, or worse sabotage of the effort? Me too. It feels confusing, disheartening, and frustrating.
Often in people’s minds and hearts, there is a range of “yes” and “no,” but if given only a binary choice (yes or no), the depth of support or lack of support is not surfaced.
By not making this spectrum transparent, we short change our decision-making processes, diminish commitment and fail to surface important discontent or blind spots that need to be addressed before implementation.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
For more than a decade, I’ve used a tool to strengthen the strategic thinking and decision-making of the leaders, teams, and organizations I support. The results have always been illuminating for all involved because it eliminates misassumptions about the level of support and commitment for a proposed approach or decision, as well as creating the opportunity for important refinement to address fatal flaws.
The tool is the Gradients of Agreement, developed by Sam Kaner and offered in his book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. I’ve adapted Sam’s model over the years, tweaking the language to meet the decision-making culture of specific clients. One client wanted “Heck Yeah!” for wholehearted endorsement and another client wanted “When Hell Freezes Over” to indicate blocking a proposed approach. Using language that resonates and is clear for the group involved in the decision-making fosters engagement and a higher level of transparency about individual thinking.
Using the Gradients of Agreement during a strategic planning engagement enabled the executive leadership team to garner a +90% wholehearted support for a new vision for their organization after they refined the original vision that had yielded only 70% support. Getting the additional support was critical for engagement and successful implementation.
The Gradients of Agreement below shows a wider range of what people really mean when they give thumbs up or thumbs down. It is most useful for decision-making where there are diverse and competing interests or complex decisions that have impacts or risks to a business, operations, culture, etc.
Personally, I most often do not include the “Mixed Feelings” or what would be considered the neutral option, as I feel it’s important that everyone participating offers his/her true level of yes or no.
|Agree with Minor Reservations||Agree with Major Reservations||Mixed Feelings||Don’t Like but Won’t Block||Formal Disagreement||
“I love it.”
|“I like it and can live with it.”||
“I can live with it but want my reservations addressed.”
“I can go either way.”
“I want my disagreement noted, but I’ll support it.”
“I don’t want to stop anyone else, but I don’t want to implement it.”
“I veto this proposal.”
How to use the Gradients of Agreement
Step 1. Draw the diagram above on a flip chart, using the column headings you select. Either write the definitions below the column titles or print out the diagram and distribute it to the participants so that you can all be on the same page about what each level of agreement or disagreement means.
Step 2. Articulate the proposed approach or decision so that everyone is crystal clear in thinking about what they are deciding on.
Step 3. Have individuals mark or place a sticker where they are in relation to a proposed decision. Do this silently and quickly.
Step 4. Collectively, review the chart and see what level of support is currently present. Explore both support and lack of support indicated by the group. The discussion should center around the following questions depending on your results:
- What about the proposed approach helped you decide affirmatively?
- What about the proposed approach impeded your support or a greater level of support?
- What reservations do you have – minor or major – that we should discuss?
- What needs to be present to garner a higher level of support from you?
You may have noticed, that none of the questions ask “Why did you vote that way?” or start with “Why.” “Why” is a justifying question and requires an individual to defend their decision. Use inquiry over advocacy in your discussions to understand the underlying reasons for support or lack of support.
Step 5. Redraft the proposal as appropriate based on the discussions and then take another poll of the level of support for the new proposed approach. You can use a different color marker or sticker to show the progression of change in the level of agreement. How many rounds of polling, discussion, and redrafting you need will depends on the quality of the proposed approach, the complexity of the decision, the dynamics of the group, and your agreement about how much support is needed to move forward.
Interpreting the results of your polling and what to do next.
The following provides guidance to help you interpret your results using the Gradients of Agreement:
Enthusiastic Support looks like: About 80% or more of the individuals are endorsing or agreeing with minor reservations, only 20% or less have mixed feelings, and there are no individuals not liking or blocking. Move forward, you are good to go.
Lukewarm Support looks like: About 50% of individuals are endorsing or agreeing with minor reservations and 50% or so have mixed feelings. You could move forward but it would be better to have some further discussion to understand the mixed feelings and see how the proposal or decision could be tweaked to garner greater support.
Ambiguous Support looks like: About 40% of individuals are endorsing or agreeing with reservations, 50% or more have mixed feelings, and 10% don’t like the proposal or have a formal disagreement but won’t block. Do not move forward. There needs to be more discussion to understand the mixed feelings and lack of support, refine the proposal or decision, and re-poll the group.
Meager Support looks like: About 40% are endorsing or agreeing with reservations, about 40% have mixed feelings, and 20% or more don’t like the proposal, have a formal disagreement, or are blocking it. Do not move forward. There needs to be more discussion to understand the mixed feelings and lack of support, refine the proposal or decision, and re-poll the group.
Increasing the transparency of your critical thinking creates greater shared understanding, better decision-making and greater commitment for the outcomes.
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