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Friends & fist-to-five

Making lightning-fast decisions about where to eat dinner

The trouble with being an easygoing person with similar friends is that it’s really hard to make group decisions.

In general, the best outcome for making a decision with friends is selecting the option that maximizes the overall enjoyment of the group. This is dead simple when everyone can clearly communicate their preferences, and the expressed preferences can then be aggregated together for each option and compared to find the optimal choice.

(It’s also a straightforward decision when one person takes charge and bulldozes over everyone else’s feelings, but that luckily doesn’t happen when you surround yourself with open-minded and lovely people.)

In reality, human communication is slow and never perfectly clear. Having each person in a group comprehensively articulate their utility functions for something as simple as “Where should we go for dinner?” is an exercise in agony. The decision space is so large that it would take forever to enumerate the feelings of every single person for every single restaurant. It also ignores the reality that people often don’t even know their own preferences. “Just say what you want” fails so often as a decision-making approach, even for the smallest group size of 2 people, that there is an entire class of mediocre jokes about boyfriends or husbands complaining about how their girlfriend/wife can’t decide on what to eat.

So instead, because hungry humans want to make a decision quickly, and because being thorough about each person’s food opinions is useless anyway, one person will usually toss out a suggestion. The group will deliberate to evaluate if it’s acceptable. If not, the group evaluates another proposal, and so on and so forth, until a decision is reached.

This strategy comes with its own set of problems. The biggest downside is that we interpret the proposals and other comments as revealing hidden preferences. The interpretation might be totally off base because human language is squishy and hard.

Finding a better way

Here’s a common scenario in my friend group:

  • S offers up two options for dinner: “Thai or burgers?”
  • K says that she has just eaten burgers recently, so Thai sounds good.
  • Everyone else in the group thinks that means K wants Thai and definitely doesn’t want burgers, even though K was picking out of the two suggested options. K might feel completely neutral about both options and only have a slight degree of preference towards Thai.

We often fall into the trap of assuming the person who suggests a decision strongly prefers that choice. Then everyone else doesn’t want to ruin the fun and we end up choosing that option, even though no one was truly excited about it!

And so passed years and years of confused decision-making with me and my friends. Who knows how many of these suboptimal outcomes we chose, where everyone felt bland neutrality to the final choice. Or worse, maybe some people felt they had to self-sacrifice their own preferred choice to an impression of supporting the “greater good” of the group’s decision.

It only changed in 2018 when my college roommates were visiting me when I was living in Tokyo and we stumbled on a better way. The four of us were planning a two-day adventure to Izu Oshima, one of the islands a few hours ferry-ride from Tokyo. We struggled to commit to activities on the island, circling endlessly on whether we should do this or that. No one wanted to say no to any of the ideas and be the party pooper. One person finally said, with exasperation, “Let’s just all choose a number from 1 to 5 based on how excited we are about this activity, and we’ll do it if anyone is a 4 or 5.” Everyone stuck out three fingers (neutral), and we were instantly able to make the decision.

izu-onsen We did decide on visiting Hama no Yu onsen, where you can soak in the hot spring with direct views of the ocean.
I’ve used this technique to unblock group decisions ever since. And only recently did I learn that this actually has a name: Fist-to-Five consensus decision-making.

How to use fist-to-five to make decisions

The way you do fist-to-five is simple:

  • Someone in the group proposes a suggestion.
  • Everyone silently thinks about their opinion and simultaneously holds out a hand rating the suggestion from 1-5. 1 means “definite no” and 5 means “definite yes”.
  • The resulting votes decide on what the group does. If the group says no, then another proposal is put forward.

The group decision criteria are easy to remember:

  • If everyone is a 3 (neutral), this is a no. If anyone is a 1 or 2, it’s definitely a no.
  • If one person is a 4 or 5 and everyone else are 3s, this is a yes.
  • Discussion only happens if there is a mix of nos (1-2s) and yeses (4-5s).

fingers-decision A single negative vote (2) can quickly settle a decision if everyone else is neutral.

When discussion is required, the people who made “yes” and “no” choices can have a more nuanced conversation with each other (ex. “I’m a 4 while you’re a 1, so let’s not do it”). The people with differing opinions can also debate with a higher degree of comfort, secure in the knowledge that the rest of the group (3s) genuinely doesn’t mind either way.

The key part of our modified version of fist-to-five is that an all-neutral outcome (3s) means that the group rejects the proposed option. This strategy breaks the stalemate that my group is often stuck in, where everyone is trying to choose what they think everyone else wants.

Using fist-to-five elsewhere

Fist-to-five decision-making really shines in low-stakes social situations. A group of friends is already bought in to the overall goal of choosing a delicious dinner spot where everyone will have a nice time eating together. A simplified expression of preference makes it much easier to reach a satisfying decision for everyone. And a neutral vote really does represent willingness to go with the group’s consensus–there are few incentives for toxic intergroup dynamics, like members skewing their vote to appease others or coalition blocs that vote together.

I’m curious to hear how the decision-making strategy plays out in more high-stakes or professional settings. There are examples of fist-to-five being used in business meetings or group housing decisions. In these situations, the proposed benefits concentrate on speed of reaching a decision and quick identification of conflicts. As the blog post from collaboration meeting software company Hugo states, “rather than debate hypotheticals or convince people who are already on board with an idea, Fist to Five puts out in the open whether or not there are objections so they can be dealt with swiftly.”

I have a lot of hesitation to apply fist-to-five in more formal settings precisely because I think that debating hypotheticals is often necessary. At work, designing for edge cases and failure scenarios can often be key in preventing catastrophic incidents. When living with a group of people, an individual might be fine with one singular decision to paint one wall but not be happy with a series of distinct decisions which add up to the entire house painted different colors. Each of these decisions are not made in isolation but fit into a larger constellation of choices that may have real costs, like accumulating tech debt in a software organization or building up resentment within a group of roommates. Putting it to a quick hand-vote can remove space for people to express concerns and hesitations.

What are your thoughts? Send me a note if you’ve used fist-to-five at work or in other settings!

This article was last updated on 12/19/2022. v1 is 1,215 words and took 2.5 hours to write and edit.

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