Sarah Devereaux

How good is your team at collective decision making?

17 Dec 2021   |   Collaboration

Sarah Devereaux

How good is your team at collective decision making?

17 Dec 2021   |   Collaboration

Digital work reveals a lot of things under the surface of how we work. It reveals how bad we are at meetings, how little we understand about productivity, and how much most leaders are lacking in human skills.

But it also showed us how bad we are at making decisions.

Sarah Devereaux came on the show to tell us about Murmur and a better way to make decisions.


Collective decision making isn’t about being perfect

Sarah said, “If the question is how do we make this thing that we’re trying to experiment with, that we’re trying to execute on, safe to try instead of how do we make it perfect, then the threshold, that level of tolerance for trying something new, for experimenting with a different kind of approach is a lot lower.”

We put a lot of pressure on trying to make the right decision, but it really comes down to creating a safe environment. Will this decision harm anyone? Is it safe to try?

Most decisions a team makes are not permanent. The better the team can get about how to make their own decisions and policies, the better they will do when it matters a lot more.


It’s also not about making everyone happy

Sarah told us that great collective decision making isn’t about consensus. The goal isn’t to find a solution that makes everyone happy (or the decision that everyone hates equally). Instead, Sarah recommends consent-based decision making. This means that even if everyone doesn’t agree, they still consent to the decision and are convinced that it will not cause harm and is safe to try.

Sarah said that the ideal size of a team to make great decisions is between 2 and 12, but stressed for smaller teams if possible.


The incredible effects of great decisions

The most common way to implement this kind of decision making is in creating working agreements, or policies. Using consent to create this kind of documentation means that everyone has buy in and is able to influence the outcome.

We discussed the confidence that new hires would get if they walked onto a team that already had multiple agreements in place, and the path to those decisions was clearly laid out. You don’t have to spend the first 6 months figuring out the rules and whose toes you shouldn’t step on. Teams that make great decisions together create a fantastic atmosphere.





Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today, our guest is Sarah Devereaux. She does marketing and customer success stuff at Murmur. We’ll learn more about that in a little bit. She’s also a leadership coach there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.


We’re excited to jump in and learn about what Murmur is and what you do there and all sorts of stuff. But first off, let’s do our check-in question, our CAPTCHA question, to prove you are a human. Your question is, what is a future hobby you would like to start?

Let’s see. That’s a great question. I feel like I’m often so busy. Thinking about hobbies feels like such a luxury. That’s most of our lives right now.


In a dream world, imagine you could just magically start it.

Actually, my family and I are finally heading back to Michigan after 10 years on the west coast and in Colorado. We have a lovely little plot of land. I’m excited to start actually gardening for real. We’re going to try to grow a solid 50% plus of our own food. So we’ll see how that works. I’ve never actually gardened before. So, it’s an ambitious goal/hobby.


That is a lot. I love the homestead type stuff. We do maple syrup at our place.

Wow, amazing.


I tried to harvest acorns this year. They have spoiled so that didn’t work. But all that kind of stuff I like. Gardening I’m terrible at, but everything else I like.

No idea if I’m good or not. But we’ll find out. Yeah, we have some hickory nut trees. I’ve never successfully done anything with them. But there’s a lot of them.


It’s always a lot of work when you get into it. And it’s like this is worth it. I will make this work. Anyway, you’re a human. That qualifies. Thanks for taking the test. Let’s jump into things. I know we’re going to be talking about Murmur a little bit. So why don’t you just tell us a little bit about what it is and introduce that to everyone?

Yeah, absolutely. Murmur is a SaaS startup. We are really focusing on how to help people work more effectively together through the power of what we’re calling agreements. So if you’ve done sociocracy before, if you’ve looked at holacracy before or participatory governance in any way, you’re probably familiar with the concept of agreements. But basically, in the way that a lot of us work, especially in digital land, work is really relationships between people and coordinating action, and figuring out how we’re going to make progress together. So we really believe that the basis of that is agreeing on how to move forward, how to collaborate, how to communicate, what types of tools stacks we’re going to use, just getting people on the same page and keeping them there through a very, what we think at least, is an inclusive and very participatory process.


Good. We will dive into some of the specifics in a bit, but let’s zoom out a little bit here. When we talk about the digital workplace, a lot of times we talk about how some of these digital changes we’re making reveal stuff underneath the surface that we weren’t prepared to deal with. And I think this is a great example of that, in that when you start doing more digital work, even just like working from home, having less of an oversight of that manager relationship that’s just telling you what to do all the time, you start to see some things. And one of those is how we make decisions together, collectively making decisions. So walk us through your experience with that, even just your own personal experience in the corporate world and where you are now.

Yeah, so decision making, I was just talking with someone about decision making at Google. I spent 14 years there before joining Murmur. And I feel like we were just constantly trying to reinvent how we made decisions. It’s something that I think everybody struggles with. You want to make the right decision. You want to make the complete decision. At Murmur, one of the things that really attracted me to the product in the first place was that it was all about experiments. And yes, making a decision, but making a decision to try something instead of making a decision to definitively do something. And there’s something very different about the way that that feels. If the question is how do we make this thing that we’re trying to experiment with, that we’re trying to execute on, safe to try instead of how do we make it perfect, then the threshold, that level of tolerance for trying something new, for experimenting with a different kind of approach is a lot lower.

I think that’s a good thing. I watched as Google, just as an example, grew from 6,000 people when I started to over 140,000 when I left, and that ship got really big and it got really slow. Trying to turn the ship just got harder and harder and harder. So trying to make a lot of these centralized cross functional decisions, we create almost this false sense of importance around it where it’s like, well, we can’t experiment because there’s just so many people. The reality is that that’s just not true. We can try stuff, move more quickly, look for those initial signals that something’s working and something’s not, but the kicker is that you have to be willing to change it when you find out that something’s not working. You have to be willing to put your hand up and say, you know what? My idea didn’t pan out. And that’s okay. It’s okay to change something after you’ve tried it for two weeks, a month, three months. It’s a lot harder when you’re putting in place a multi-year project that you don’t want to change before it’s had time to spread its wings.

The last thing I’ll say on this is that I think that team involvement, true involvement, not just checking the box, so and so has seen this, but have they actually contributed to it is really important. Murmur is really focused on consent-based decision making. So again, it’s not about consensus. It’s not about making everybody happy or crafting this perfect way forward. It’s about is what we’re proposing safe to try within the timeframe that we’re proposing to try it. And something might be safe to try for somebody when they’re looking at a two-week or maybe even two-month timeframe, but it wouldn’t be safe to try for them if we’re looking at two years.


Unpack that a little bit more, the difference between consensus and consent?

Yeah, so consensus is really about getting everybody to be happy is the way that we typically think about it. I’ll be totally honest. I’m not sure if that’s actually in the definition, probably not. But it’s really the way that we implement consensus-based decision making in business is we’re trying to get everybody to be happy with everything, to feel comfortable. You’ll often hear that when a facilitator is facilitating a consensus-based process, they’ll say, “Well, how does everyone feel? Does everyone feel comfortable?” The idea behind consent is not about feeling comfortable. We actually want you and we think there’s value in feeling uncomfortable. It’s really more about are we within your range of tolerance? Is this safe to try? Not is it the perfect solution, not is it something that, again, you feel comfortable with or that you’re happy about, but is this something that you feel that the team could experiment with, learn from, which is really, again, the purpose of doing a lot of this stuff. What can you learn about making things better? Then is it something that is not going to cause irreparable harm to the team?

So oftentimes, we have a little objection consent modal within Murmur. It’s part of the Murmur method process. And one of the things that we do is we have this little objection test. And if somebody objects to a proposal, the first question that they’re asked is, okay, well, is it something that’s going to cause harm? Is it harm that will be difficult to recover from or probably pretty easy to recover from? Is it harm that’s going to be immediate or is it going to be really far into the future? So consent is about can you get on board with giving this a shot, not you necessarily agree and feel good about everything that’s being proposed.


Yeah, that’s good. Let’s get into the idea of who makes the decision, and specifically, you brought the idea of equity. I feel like for the most part, when you look at how organizations have made decisions, it always comes back to whoever is that highest paid person in the room or whatever that you have to make that call. And sometimes that’s the person forcing the decision on other people. And other times, it’s everyone else abdicating and saying, “I’m not going to make the call. You make it.” So tell us about a better approach to decision making, rather than just saying, hey, one person is going to make the call on this.

Yeah, so this consent-based approach in terms of the inclusion element, everybody has an equal opportunity to be able to ask questions, to make suggestions, and to say whether or not I consent or object. If the proposal doesn’t pass the consent object that that decision stage of the process, then the proposal doesn’t move forward. So the proposer has the responsibility to get everyone to a point where they can say, “Yes, this is safe to try.” Salaries, hierarchy, none of that plays into the way that Murmur works. We’re actually trying to figure out what are some of the ways that we can configure the system and customize the system so that if you do have, let’s say, like a psychologically unsafe environment that you’re operating in or you do have a highly hierarchical and bureaucratic decision making structure, what can we do within the tool to help pull that apart a little bit to help dismantle it so that everybody does have that voice?

Right now, you can see who’s making comments, who’s asking questions, making suggestions, etc. So if you do have a highly political environment, there’s still some ability to be able to manipulate the outcome based on the people and how they’re participating with each other. So a lot of the responsibility for Murmur working falls on the participants and really bringing their best intents to the table. We’re experimenting with a lot of our early beta testers. I’m like, okay, so let’s say that you didn’t have the good psychological safe environment that you have currently. What would you like to see Murmur do differently in order to facilitate that?


In a lot of ways, I feel like Murmur is for people who really want to do this well and already have a bias towards wanting to do that. I want to get into this idea because you’re building a product, but you’re also trying to influence people, which is a very noble act.

Just for fun.


Yeah, just for fun. This came up when we were doing some reviews of other tools of noticing this tool has a certain bias, and they are very upfront and open with that bias. Yours would be more towards consent-based decisions and towards equitable decision making and this process that you have. At what point do you feel like the tool can influence the culture? And at what point do you feel like, because somebody could come in with a very hierarchical system, and say, “Hey, I want to use this tool for my stuff. I’m going to send this out. Everyone agreed to it.” And they can bend it to their will. I guess the culture can overtake most that way. So what’s been your approach as you work on the actual product side of it to acknowledge that and push those limits as far as you can?

Yeah, that’s such a good question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’ve been building in in-app nudges for folks and advice. And we’re starting to work on building out our Help Center and really talking about those opinions, I would say. We’re a highly opinionated tool around what we believe is the best way to make decisions for a team for people. The thing that I’ve noticed in working with our customers, so I’ll answer this in two parts. So one, what I’ve noticed, and one, what I think is going to happen next. So what I’ve noticed is that if there are issues within the culture, then Murmur shines an incredibly blinding light on those issues, because you can’t really escape them. Based on the way that the process works and how it is segmented into these different rounds leading up to that concentre object moment, there’s nowhere to hide. So the passive aggressive behavior, the power dynamics, all of it is very much in plain sight within the tool, as long as the team is participating.

Now, if the team is just not touching anything, so let’s say that you do have a situation like the one that you just described, where somebody goes in, and they’re like, “I’m just going to make a bunch of decisions. And you all have to agree to them.” I mean, technically, they don’t. What is that person going to do? Go and sit next to them at their computer and press the button that they agree? They don’t have to, but they could because Murmur is also a timed process. So if people don’t interact, if they don’t participate and contribute within the time that the tool allows, and there’s control over that, obviously, on the team side, then they would consent by default. But if all of your agreements are consenting by default, then basically all you’re doing is creating documents, which is not what Murmur is. Murmur is built on documentation, obviously. But it’s a process, not a document. And so if you’re just building documents, then just go build them in a document editor. The agreement piece of it, the consent piece of it just doesn’t even matter in that instance.

But what I’m noticing with our current customers is in toxic environments, that toxicity is just coming right up to the surface. And so I’ve actually got several teams right now that, even though this probably isn’t a scalable thing that we’ll do for the foreseeable future, I’m doing team coaching with them. I’m coaching their CEO. I’m coaching their chief people officer and sitting down and saying, “Hey, here’s why I think you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Talk to me a little bit about what you see in other parts of interaction and communication with your team. And what have you noticed in Murmur that’s either similar or different to some of the potentially unproductive behavior that you’re seeing in other parts of the business?” So shines that light, and it’s like, okay, we can either, and I’ve got some teams that are like, “Yeah, we want to fix this. This has really brought it to the forefront that, man, we have some team issues, and we need to actually work on us a little bit.” Murmur is not going to fix it. But it certainly highlights every single time you go into that tool, that there’s a culture problem that you need to work on.


Yeah, wow, that is a tough place to be. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing it and helping people realize those things. When it comes to this collective decision making, you talked about being at Google, being at a big place. At some level, it sounds like, okay, these big decisions, that’s something once we have a legal team in or once we have an established HR team in, we need to make these decisions. But at what point in the team, I’m just thinking about smaller teams that are there, is it important to establish these decisions? And at what point can you still just kind of flow with it for a while?

Yeah, this is such a funny question, also a great question, because I don’t think I have a perfect answer to it. We started asking this question very soon after I joined the team at the beginning of the year. Who is our ideal target customer? What stage are they at? How many people are they at? How long has this company been around? Is there anything to do with the industry that they’re in? Who’s the best champion within the company? And what we’ve noticed is that there’s not so much of a demographic when it comes to Murmur’s ideal customer, but there’s definitely what I would call a psychographic.


I thought you were going to say that. It was in my head.

There’s a mindset that our ideal person comes to the tool with, which is, I want to build better. I want to build a better team. I want to make work more wonderful. I see that there is a place for me to improve, for me to learn, and for us to do this better than what I’ve seen in the past. And I think that when that happens really depends on the team itself. So I’ll give you a couple of just examples, archetypes of what we’ve seen so far. Your listeners can make a determination of their own perhaps if it’s a good fit for them. We’ve had teams all the way from two up into the thousands who have come into Murmur during our beta test. For those two-person teams, we’ve had a couple of teams that have come in who have been cofounders, and they’ve been serial founders. So this is not their first rodeo. This is their second, third, I think one of our teams, even this is one of their fourth companies. And they’ve come in and said, “We know how important it is for us to have agreement as a founding team for how the company gets built out, both in terms of culture and in terms of scaling.”

And one of the teams even that came in with just the cofounder was like, “Onboarding, recruiting and onboarding for a new team that’s this small has always been a struggle for me. And I don’t just want to invite my friends again or people that I’ve worked with before.” This particular founder was incredibly committed to diversity and to bringing in different perspectives than he had brought to his companies previously. He’s like, “My network is lacking.” And so he saw Murmur as a way to really be explicit about how work will get done at this new company, and what he believed and what his cofounder believed, and to show what that culture might feel like for a prospective employee. And then several of those very small teams, anywhere from two to six, have told us that bringing on new people and being able to onboard quickly in a situation where as a very early stage startup, you’re just doing so much stuff, right? Everything’s so incredibly busy. They’ve said that Murmur has just been invaluable on being able to onboard their folks quickly to get them to a baseline of here’s how we do work. Here’s how work gets done at this company, all the way from norms, cultural type stuff, communication norms, etc, to more individual like processes. So client intake, for instance, or client communication, that’s been a big one that we’ve seen some of those very early startups really focus in on for agreements.

And then on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had hundreds, and like I said, thousands of person organizations that have also come in. And it’s been a good time for them to do it. So it just I think depends on do you want to build from the ground up? Or are you at a stage where you’ve established enough, you’ve worked through enough of the kinks that now you’re ready to document? My bias as a member of a highly opinionated tool is that I think starting from the ground is a better place to be in. What I’ve noticed in those 1,000-person teams is that they’re making really good progress. But they are struggling to break bad habits. So because they’ve started later, they’ve allowed those bad habits to form, and so it’s been a little bit more of an uphill, I would say, battle to get into a rhythm with the tool versus some of those smaller teams that are just starting out.


Yeah, and just imagining the confidence you can come in when you are on boarded into a team that says, “Hey, take your first day or whatever, and just read through all of our agreements that we have and give us some questions about it.” You can see that they have thought about all these things that goes through and then you know how to act in a meeting. You know how to act when you’re doing reviews and retrospectives. You know what’s expected. That’s a great level of confidence.

Yeah, and I think that the one step above that that I would just offer is that the reason that I feel like there is more than just documenting, it’s not just documenting that stuff, and then having people be able to read it. But it’s this knowledge that this wasn’t just created in a vacuum. This wasn’t just created by the CEO and the chief people officer sitting in a room deciding the fate of everybody else. This was a consent-based co-created policy that I have the ability, now that I’m a member of this team, to be able to influence in the future. So even for these 1,000-person organizations, because obviously, you’re not going to go through a full consent-based decision making process with 1,000 or more people. That would be utter chaos and very miserable for everyone. It’s really more, one of the things that we… I get excited about that. So I’m getting ahead of myself. My mouth is getting ahead of my brain.

The thing that I really get excited about, from a scaling perspective, is we are working on functionality that will allow people to, let’s say, make an agreement, make a decision at that top level of leadership perhaps if you have more of a hierarchical or even just structured management structure internally. So, you could have a group of people making that decision, and then you would send it to the rest of the organization and have them acknowledge that they understand that, yes, this is the vacation policy, or yes, this is the parental leave policy, and I understand that I am governed by that policy. And I have the ability to give feedback. And so if after three months, you as the decision making body for the vacation policy, let’s say, take a look at all the feedback and you are thinking, “Wow, this is working great. This was so good. We did such a good job,” and everybody’s feedback is complete garbage, then that’s a really good signal to you like, oh, we’re a little out of touch with what the people actually want. How do we iterate on this? And you’ve got all of that input from everybody right there specifically tied to that agreement as opposed to more vaguely interpreted from your annual employment employee experience survey.


And even seeing that history behind the decisions that are there.

Yes, exactly.


A lot of times, you’re just saying, “Hey, here’s our PTO policy.”

Yeah, it’s empowering.


But you don’t know that that’s gone under ten revisions in the last year. And we’ve been trying and experimenting with a lot of different stuff. And so you know that that’s going on.

This company is willing to change, and they’re willing to listen to me. That’s very motivating and empowering for folks, especially for new folks in this remote world that we all find ourselves in, which I personally love. We can talk about that on another one. But yeah, I think especially in this remote world where you don’t have that in-person always ability to find your place and find your voice, being able to see, wow, they care about what I have to say and they’re willing to change things based on what I have to say, that’s a big deal.


Yeah, for sure. You talked about 1,000 people is too chaotic to make a single decision. Two people is enough. Is there that sweet spot, do you feel like, when the chaos is still worth it to add in more people?

Yeah. So we have very tentatively, because we’re still super early and very much learning what works and what doesn’t, so this may change because everything changes. But right now we’re thinking 2 to 12 is what we’re noticing with, yeah, I would say ideally under 10. I’m noticing that once folks get to 10, 11, 12, we’re pushing the envelope a little bit. But I would say 2 to 12 is very doable for folks that are fully participating in the agreement making consent process.


I think that seems right to be able to actually feel like you’re participating in and not just a voice off to the sidelines. I’m just wondering what’s going on with this, too. Sarah, it’s been great to have you on the show. We’re hitting the end of our time. There’s a lot more to get through.

Wow, that was so fast.


I love Murmur. I’ve used it myself in some of my teams. And like you said, it reveals a lot of things about my own team that we need to work. I wasn’t getting the kind of feedback that I wanted to. I was really trying to drive and push these things through. So it made me step back and be not just like, oh, people need to speak up more, but then to really introspect and realize, okay, why is this not going on? And why is this not working? So I definitely would encourage people to check it out and see what’s going on. If they want to do that, where should they go?

Yeah, is the best place to go. You can join the waitlist. Also we have just the little intercom button down in the right-hand corner. So if joining the waitlist isn’t quite where you’re at yet and you’ve got a question, that’s where you can reach the team. But yeah, we’re always happy to chat through and share more about what we’re up to and how it might work for folks.


Yeah, it’s definitely an important topic. If you’re trying to build out a digital workplace and you don’t have a clear way to make decisions, you have to start here. You can’t go anywhere until you know how to move forward. Think about this. Think about how you want to collectively decide things and move forward with it. Again, it’s documentation, but it’s much more than that, too, and building that out. Sarah, thanks so much for being on the show and coming on and being a guest and we look forward to staying in touch.

Thanks, Neil. Appreciate it.


Sarah spends her time thinking about how to make work wonderful at Murmur, a SaaS startup that helps teams co-create policies, processes and work agreements that clarify their ways of working. After 14 years leading teams in the Learning and Leadership Development space at Google, she became obsessed with finding ways to make work (and life!) better for everyone. Murmur’s focus on psychological safety, trust, inclusion, and learning fit the bill perfectly.

Some of her more notable Google roles included: Head of Executive Development Programs, Head of Strategic Initiatives for The Google School for Leaders, and Global Lead of the g2g (Googlers-to-Googlers) program. Sarah also runs her own leadership and career coaching business, Third Coast Coaching. She’s been coaching and facilitating for more than a decade on a variety of topics, including: resilience, wellbeing, innovation, self-awareness, leadership, complexity theory, systems thinking, and more.

Originally from the great state of Michigan, Sarah now lives in Colorado with her family. She is passionate about protecting the environment, lifting diverse perspectives, and battling burnout.

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