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June 9, 2012

Constellations and Deep Democracy

Constellations can be used as effectively with just one or two statements as well as with dozen, making it an effective tool for Deep Democracy.

One of the tools I picked up from Lyssa Adkins' book, Coaching Agile Teams, is called Constellation. (It really should be plural, Lyssa.) Briefly, the purpose of Constellations is to gain a better understanding of your team and their individual preferences, values, interests, or opinions.

Mechanically Constellations works like this: Put something in the middle of a big open room. Have everyone stand in a big circle around this object. Explain that you are going to read some statements. (Such as: "I like Scrum." "I get value out of our retros." "We should TDD more." "I think Agile will work for us." Etc.) Instruct the team to orient themselves closer or further away from this object after each statement is read to represent the extent to which they agree with that statement. If they agree, move in. If not, move out. Tell them to not over think it. Tell them to stand where their heart and head tells them to stand, not where they think they should stand. Then have the team observe the Constellation of people and discuss what it means. There are some considerations for how that discussion is facilitated, but that's a topic for another post.

The way it's described in the book is that the facilitator might want to read numerous statements. This is a great way for a team to get to know each other. I've done this exercise with about a dozen different teams. Now, I'm no longer surprised by what I find. A common surprise to the team is when they discover that their Product Owner doesn't like to run the demo but that someone else one the team has been dying to do it. Another: There's often an ah-ha moment when the team begins to understand that the quiet person just needs time to think before he speaks.

Anyway, I've done this lots and lots and have used 20 to 40 statements each time. Some of the resulting Constellations aren't interesting. I move on quickly and don't have discussion for those. Some are very revealing. I have a short discussion on the spot for those. Even the teams that are well established have interesting revelations using this technique. The number of questions and amount of discussion is bounded only by the team's willingness to continue standing.

Building on Michael Spayd's talk on Deep Democracy at Agile 2009, during the Atlanta Scrum Gathering in 2012, Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd led a Constellations exercise and only asked 2 questions.

They used the technique for Deep Democracy (Arnold Mindell). They were working with a large random group of people from the conference; I usually work with a team that has at least a little work history, and often a long history with each other. They facilitated the discussion carefully, more carefully than I would with a known group. Lyssa started with the inner ring and encouraged all voices to be heard, one ring at a time, an important aspect of Deep Democracy. Lyssa was careful to give voice to each ring in the Constellation and to set the ground rules: don't state that someone else's opinion is wrong or challenge someone else, use "I think" or "I feel" or "my opinion is", all opinions are valid, I will step in if you violate these rules, etc.

What I learned directly from Lyssa that I didn't get out of the book is that the Constellations technique can be useful with just one or two questions. In particular, it's useful when you have a specific narrow topic, even a controversial one -- when Deep Democracy is needed. This can provide a safe environment in which to speak and allows the facilitator to manage diverse opinions in a logical progression. It's also useful to reduce the number of questions as the size of the team grows (since it takes more time to allow more people to voice their opinion).

I would love to hear about your experiences with Constellations and Deep Democracy, together or separately. Are there other variations on this theme? Other ways to use this technique?

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