With a group of people discussing a specific issue, there is often a decision to be made at the end. We encounter these situations not only regularly in our private lives (What are we having for dinner tonight? Where are we going on vacation?), but especially in our work environment. In every company and in every team, there are more or less significant decisions to be made on a daily basis that can decisively influence the course and success of a project. In this blog series, we explore why it’s especially important in agile development teams to address how decisions are made.

Since Scrum has established itself as the leading project management method in the field of software development, the principle of personal responsibility plays a major role here. Agile teams operate in a self-organized manner and must make decisions on their own responsibility at high frequency:

  • Do we want to implement the project for this potential customer or does he or the project not meet the company’s criteria?
  • Which of the tasks have a high priority and which can be implemented at a later date?
  • What is the scope of the tasks?
  • How many items can we implement in the next sprint?
  • How can we work more effectively?

There are often many different factors to consider when choosing an appropriate method:

  • Complexity of the issue
  • Scope and possible consequences of the decision
  • Preliminary knowledge of the participants in the discussion
  • Other persons and teams who will be affected by the decision
  • Urgency of the issue

In agile teams, decisions often have to be made not only in multiplicity, but also under uncertainty or insecurity. Often, probabilities for the occurrence of certain consequences that a decision entails cannot be estimated reliably or at all.

In order to simplify the decision-making process and prevent possible complications, it makes sense to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the different methods and evaluate which method is the most purposeful for the respective topic. We have compiled our experience and present the most common methods and their applicability in agile teams in this series.

The Individual Decision

In the case of an (authoritarian) individual decision, one or more responsible person(s) make a decision. Opinions of others may (but do not have to) be sought before the decision is made.

How does it work?

  1. Decision maker reviews the situation.
  2. Decision maker decides what to do.
  3. Decision maker communicates the decision (and the reasoning, if any) to all those who will execute it.
Pros Cons
Decisions can be made very quickly. The decision-making process can lead to a feeling of lack of transparency or a great need for communication.
There are no long discussions prior to a decision. Lack of acceptance for the decision in the group/company can lead to resentment, rejection and non-implementation.
Often, the decision makers have a great deal of background knowledge and can thus make factual, informed decisions. Those affected by the decision may feel neglected.
In hierarchical structures or even in small groups with open communication, there is a high acceptance of the decision. Those affected may be skeptical of the decision.

The Majority Decision

The majority decision is the classic among the voting methods: A group votes on an issue and the option with the most votes wins.

Most democratic elections are based on the principle of majority voting; in Switzerland, some decisions are also made by majority vote (“Volksabstimmung”).

How does it work?

  1. An issue is discussed and possible solutions are presented.
  2. All eligible voters are allowed to make a favored choice - this can be done secretly/covertly but also publicly, e.g. by raising their hand.
  3. After counting the votes, there is either a winner or the process is repeated (e.g. in case of a tie) or there is a run-off between the first-place winners.
Pros Cons
Everyone is allowed to voice an opinion. Everyone is allowed to participate - even with little or no knowledge of the topic.
The method is quick to perform and brings a fast result. Only the opinion of the majority is taken into account; at worst, minorities are not heard.
Opinions are rather easy to query (e.g. by raising hands). Convincing the voters becomes more important than finding the best solution - it is not the best solution that wins, but that of the majority.
Many people can be involved and thus feel they have a stake in the decision. Decisions may be made hastily and are black and white, “in-betweens” are not considered.

Implementation in agile practice

In an agile environment, the individual decision can only be applied to a limited extent - in general, the Scrum Master should always try to include the entire team in the decision-making process, as this principle forms the basis of agile working. The majority decision is also difficult to implement due to the often limited size of Scrum teams. Standoff situations can easily occur here, which can have a negative impact on the collaboration within the team.

“In my experience, especially in larger teams, decision-making can take a very long time due to lengthy discussions. In individual cases, it can then be considered whether a solution should be predefined by individual decision. However, this should always remain an exception in the Scrum process, because there are much more qualified decision methods for the Scrum framework than the single and majority decisions presented here.” - Lukas, Scrum Master

In part 2 of our blog series, you will find out how these methods work and what use they find in agile teams!

If you want to learn more about Scrum and agile teamwork, have a look at the following articles:
Scandio Report - Scrum Edition
Why every agile project should think about a Proxy Product Owner