Insights from Jury Duty

Not long ago, I was selected to participate on the jury for a civil case. Through the course of fulfilling my civic duty, I noticed a number of interesting similarities between the dynamics of jury deliberation and how we work through product definition. Specifically, I saw that many of the skills that make an effective jury foreman are also useful for leading a collaborative discovery session. In either situation, the members of the group must work together to arrive at an agreeable conclusion, based on the evidence given, navigating through differences of opinion and the questions that will arise along the way.

Focus on facts

During deliberation, a jury evaluates the evidence given during the case to form conclusions that lead to a verdict. It sounds relatively straight-forward on paper, but any time you put a bunch humans together in a room and tell them to agree on anything, you immediately have a lot more than facts to deal with. Our opinions, emotions, and experiences color everything we say and do.

Without a leader to pull the group’s focus back to the facts, the order of deliberation will tend toward entropy — a lot of chatter but no progress towards consensus. And the more the participants care about the result, the stronger the potential is for discord. So it is important that someone takes the responsibility of guiding the group through the emotions and differences of opinion to get back to the facts — the evidence — that the conclusions must be based on.

A few quick ways to cut back to the facts:

  • Ask the speaker to work backwards to an accepted fact from his or her conclusion.
  • Write down the conclusions everyone has agreed are true on the board.
  • Take a break. Start discussion up again focused on evidence relevent to the previous line of discussion.

Opportunity for all to speak

It’s important for everyone in a product definition work session (yes, and a jury) to have opportunity to share their perspective and feel like they had enough opportunity to talk. This was written in the instructions we received prior to being released for deliberation (the first part, at least). The rules for collaboration in the business world are not as well defined and it is all too easy to leave one or more people feeling left out.

To prevent that, the following are tactics for including everyone and providing them opportunity to speak:

  • Pause to request input from participants you haven’t heard from in a while before stating conclusions as accepted.
  • Use exercises that require full participation (e.g., have everyone sketch, then share in turn).
  • Keep others from interrupting the more reserved members of the group when they do speak up. Humor works well.
  • Make eye contact with everyone when they talk to show you’re listening.

Have a well-defined goal

It is important to have a well-defined goal in any meeting so that everyone understands when it is successful and complete. For a jury, the goal is to discern and agree upon a verdict and submit it to the court. Once that’s complete, the jury’s duty is complete and successful.

For our discovery sessions, our goals are typically artifacts that we need to have to progress toward more detailed estimation and, eventually, development. Those artifacts will probably include things like personas, context scenarios, sketches of key interfaces, and a product story map. The exact list will depend on what already exists. This defines the depth of our discovery goals.

We also try to loosely define a breadth of features that we intend to cover in the discovery session, but the exact features to be worked out aren’t always known ahead of the discovery session.

Direct toward the goal

Having a well-defined goal is good, but how do you keep the group’s progress aligned with the goal? First of all, as the meeting organizer, it’s up to you to put together activities that will lead toward those goals. Make sure that, as you progress through the activities, everyone understands how they relate and build towards the results everyone is looking for.

We typically write our goals on a marker board or on sticky notes and line them up on the wall so they’re always visible. Marking them off the list when they are complete also provides an opportunity to celebrate the small wins along the way to keep the group energized.