Gradients of agreement for democratic decision-making

By Hannah Love

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Hannah Love (biography)

How does your team make decisions? Do you vote? Does the loudest voice usually win? Does everyone on the team generally feel heard? Does your team have a charter to provide guidance? Or maybe there is often just silence and the team assumes agreement?

The next time your team makes a decision, here is something new you can try! Kaner (2014) proposes using a gradients of agreement scale. The gradients of agreement, also known as the consensus spectrum, provides an alternative to yes/no decision-making by allowing everyone to mark their response along a continuum, as shown in the figure below.

What are the gradients of agreement and the benefits of using them?

This is a tool to support democratic decision-making. The gradients of agreement has a scale with numbers (1-8) and short descriptions. When someone on the team suggests an action, individuals respond by stating their position along the gradient. One end of the scale is “whole-hearted endorsement” (1) of the action that was proposed, and the other end (8) is “veto!”

Benefits to using a gradient to make decisions include:

  • The tool provides an opportunity to practice diversity, equity, and inclusion because everyone on the team has an opportunity to provide specific feedback on their position. (Pro tip: including more voices is also an important step in innovation and knowledge creation.)
  • The loudest voice doesn’t necessarily win because everyone’s voice is equally valued.
  • The person with the most power can see and be informed by everyone’s opinion.
  • Teams often mistake silence as consensus. Using a gradient ensures the variety of opinions in the room are seen and considered by everyone else.
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The gradients of agreement scale (Kaner 2014, p. 278)

How to make the decision

Before you begin, decide as a team: what level of agreement is necessary to move the group forward?

And determine: what steps will the team take when you have lukewarm or ambiguous agreement?

It’s easy to move forward when there is enthusiastic support. However, that’s not always the case. For example, you’ll probably never have enthusiastic support when you are finalizing or trimming a budget.

Enthusiastic support is important when…

  • There are high stakes, and the decision is important
  • There is a long-term impact
  • There is a tough problem
  • There is high investment (including monetary and stakeholder buy-in)
  • You need to empower group members.

In many situations, lukewarm support is all you need. Kaner (2014) wrote that lukewarm support is okay when….

  • There are low stakes
  • There is a short-term impact
  • The decision is generally simple
  • There is low investment (in monetary and stakeholder buy-in)
  • The team only needs low autonomy, meaning not everyone needs to feel empowered.

What do you do when you have outliers or ambiguous support? It’s likely your team is still in what Kaner (2014) describes as the groan zone, which is also the subject of a blog post by Carrie Kappel. (Pro tip: this is also the point where a facilitator is helpful because they can ask different questions to help the team get through the groan zone.)

If you don’t have the necessary level of support that you agreed on ahead of time, ask questions and really listen to the outliers. Perhaps they see something you missed. After the outliers have shared, re-vote. It’s likely that your team will need to engage in a process of discussion and sharing their level of agreement two to five times to reach the desired level of agreement.

How to use the gradients

Using a gradient is easy: it’s adjustable to use in different settings, and it’s adaptable to many platforms (eg., in-person meetings, Zoom polls, and other virtual platforms).

The simplest way to use the gradients of agreement is to ask team members to show their level of agreement by holding up a number (1-8) with their hand(s). This works best when everyone shows their number at the same time.

Another way to use the gradients is in Zoom polls. You can preload the gradient responses even if you don’t know the question or proposition (just use a “?” mark for the question prompt). When team members vote via a Zoom poll, responses are anonymous, and results are automatically tabulated. You can also launch the same Zoom poll over and over again if you need to vote more than once.

Finally, I like to use sticky notes! In virtual meetings there are many platforms that use virtual sticky notes such as Padlet, Miro and Jamboards. It’s easy to create a gradient ahead of time, and then ask team members to move an electronic sticky note along the gradient. When you use sticky notes, you can choose whether or not to make votes anonymous by asking (or not) people to write their name on the sticky note. In person, draw a gradient on a white board or large sheet of paper and pass out sticky notes.

Variations

There are a lot of variations to this scale and there don’t need to be 8 points! Below are two options, but the possibilities are endless.

Option 1:

  1. I really like it
  2. I like it well enough
  3. I will support it until I learn more
  4. Mixed feelings
  5. I prefer something different
  6. I just don’t like it

Option 2:

For a lot of decisions, you don’t have to “love it” – you just have to “live with it”.

  1. Love it
  2. Like it
  3. Live with it
  4. Loathe it

Conclusion

The next time your team makes a decision, consider perspectives beyond yes/no decision-making because a “yes” vote might not mean “whole-hearted endorsement.” Just be sure to decide ahead of time: what does agreement look like on your team? And determine: what steps will your team take when you have lukewarm or ambiguous agreement?

Do you have examples where the gradients of agreement tool has been or would be helpful in your teamwork? Are there other useful tools that you use? If you are new to this idea, will you use the gradients of agreement with your team? Put your level of agreement, using the 1-8 scale shown in the figure above, as a comment on this blog post.

To find out more:

You can hear Hannah Love describe this tool in an Interreach (Interdisciplinary Integration Research Careers Hub) webinar at https://youtu.be/ZkEIB2vNzGA.

References:
Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Third edition, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, California, United States of America.

Bethany Prykucki from University of Michigan Extension office (2018) provides some additional tips about how to put the gradients of agreement into practice. (Online): https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/gradients_of_agreement_can_help_move_groups_forward

Biography: Hannah Love PhD is a team scientist and professional facilitator. She works full-time doing team science consulting and facilitation with Divergent Science LLC (https://teamdivergentscience.com/), which she co-founded with Ellen Fisher. Hannah has 12-years of facilitation experience including experience in higher education facilitation, water conflict facilitation, and science facilitation, and since 2015 she has been designing team science trainings, retreats, and workshops for scientific teams. She is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.

8 thoughts on “Gradients of agreement for democratic decision-making”

  1. These are interesting techniques. Is there any research on how the numbers tend to fall out?

    For example, in Australian referendums, which only have a choice between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, people usually vote ‘no’ (only 8 out of 44 referendums have been passed so far). On the other hand, in face-to-face meetings, I understand that voting ‘yes’ is more common, which has more to do with group dynamics, I believe.

    With the nuanced options suggested above, is there evidence about how (overall) people are likely to vote? For example, avoiding the extremes?

    Reply
    • Hello Cathy, I’ve never heard of anything, but I give my “whole hearted endorsement” for anyone who wants to do the research, and I’d volunteer to help with the study!

      Reply
  2. Interesting approach – I assume this model assumes all have an equal voice, and as such I’m wondering how it accounts for the variety of expertise and experience across the group? One of the key principles of exploring complex real world problems is a nuanced understanding of context…

    Reply
    • Hello Daniel, very interesting point!  I don’t know if the model assumes an equal voice. However, I know this model assumes everyone participated in the entire process.  In Kaner’s book on facilitation, the “Gradients of Agreement” is at the very end, and so if we assume that everyone is engaged and invested in the entire process then we could also assume that they have been working towards understanding the nuances.  

      Reply
  3. Hello Vladimir, 

    Thank you so much for your comment.  I think modified versions of the gradient can be used everywhere from family gatherings to transdisciplinary teams!  In the example, the specialists might need the more detailed 8-point scale because some members might want to “abstain” if they don’t have the disciplinary knowledge.  The students solving the municipal management problem might want their team to make a clear decision, and so they use a 4-point scale.  I think the important part is to modify the scale to the group/classroom/team.  

    When I am facilitating, there are a lot of things I think about when I ask teams to make a decision.  Here are a few examples: 
    1.)  Where are we in the process?  Is the team still in the groan zone?  If they are trying to vote too soon, I’ll consider using a scale that demonstrates different opinions so everyone will keep collaborating/talking   
    2.)  Are there outliers?  Will voting convince the outlier to go with the flow or will it turn them off for the remainder of the meeting. 
    3.)  Who is in the room?  Will graduate students prefer an anonymous vote, has everyone been present the whole time, and should the community partner(s)/external collaborators/consultants vote?  

    While there are a lot of things swirling around in my head to answer your questions, it’s typically not that hard to develop and modify the scale because (as we have read on a lot of previous posts): there is trust.  Facilitation is about creating an inclusive process.  By the time a team is voting, there is a trusting relationship.  When there is trust, if the team doesn’t like the scale they will let me know.  Then we pivot and try again.     

    Thank you, Hannah Love   

    Reply
  4. Dear Hannah,
    Let’s pay attention to two real situations.
    The first situation: within the framework of a specialized seminar, a group of students from different faculties solves the problem of improving the efficiency of municipal management.
    The second situation: a group of specialists from different disciplines solves the problem of designing a thermonuclear reactor.
    Is the “Gradients of agreement for democratic decision-making” applicable for both situations? Taking into account the specifics of these situations, how do you assess the idea of developing a scale of facilitation: from facilitating the interaction of group members to facilitating the interaction of disciplinary knowledge? In this case, it will be possible to cover the entire spectrum of facilitation: from subjective aspects to objective aspects.

    Reply

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