Participatory budgeting: Embrace conflict, say no to partial funding

Lieschen Gargano Quilling
4 min readDec 16, 2020

What is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a consensus building process through which a group of people in your organization (in our case the product and leadership teams) choose which Epics to fund, aka what work will get prioritized.

How do you run a participatory budgeting session?


Have a list of defined and sized Epics, including those in WIP and in backlog. We put them into a PB template in SAFe Collaborate (you could use any spreadsheet) for easy viewing, and included the amount needed to fully fund each epic based on size.


Figure out what the budget is for the coming PI, minus the percent allocated to tech debt, business as usual and emergent work. Take what you are left with and allocate it equally across all participants.

Ex: 100k starting budget — 10k tech debt, — 15k BAU, — 5k emergent =70k. If you have 7 participants that is 10k each to spend.

Build your spreadsheet:

Epics in Column A, and participants each getting a column for their allocation that would automatically spread the money evenly across participants and add their totals for them as we went.

Pitch the Epics:

Product managers get three minutes to pitch their Epics, reminding everyone why they are sized the way they are and what the value and urgency to our customers is.


Have everyone allocate their money on their own based on their current view.


At this point nothing, or at least very few Epics are likely to be fully funded, so now the fun begins! These are hard decisions to make so everyone will start coming up with reasons to partially fund several epics rather than narrowing. There are two choices, let it happen, or embrace conflict and say no to partial funding.

Embrace conflict and say no to partial funding of all the things

In many participatory budgeting scenarios people are passionate about the thing they have been working on, and otherwise want to trust others in the room to tell them what is important. They want to maintain good relationships with their peers and appease them by giving them budget for what they are passionate about.

As a participant, you own it to your colleagues not to do this. And in fact, you are harming your colleagues and your own prospects if you do. Here is why:

As an agilist, you are acutely aware of the effects of little’s law, the more work in process, the longer it takes to finish anything. This is no different when applied to strategic initiatives or any other type of work. When you choose to partially fund many epics, you are saying it is too hard to prioritize and in so doing, relinquishing your power and any value of doing the exercise in the first place. Well, either that or ignoring Little and hiking up your WIP. Either way, the budget is fixed, and someone is going to have to prioritize the backlog if you hope to get any value to customers near term. You’re here, it might as well be you.

Overcome the three major barriers to funding fewer epics


You must set the expectation that partial funding means no funding at all, and that the conversation goes on until fully funding fewer epics. This will create a sense of urgency and mental preparedness for what is being asked of the group.

Time allocation:

Allocate more time than you think if you want to have the right conversations and get to fewer fully funded epics. It takes time and energy to work up to hard conversations, so just as you need a purpose and sense of urgency, you also need realistic time boxes, and potentially a day or so between for thinking and digesting. I was recently part of a group that did the first timebox over four hours. It was exhausting, and it was not long enough. A follow up with expectations of getting to fully funded epics is needed. If you do not create that space, it is possible leadership will take the initial results into account and then go make the decision for you.

Conflict aversion:

People don’t like conflict, and they will often wait you out before diving into the hard conversations needed to get to a decision. If you know your group is like this, think about altering your facilitation plan. Can you group people to create a safer dynamic for those who struggle with difficult conversations? Can you turn it into a game with several rounds to work through that make it them against the clock instead of one another? Either way, know your people and plan accordingly to ensure you create a space that is safe for debate.

I can’t wait to hear how it goes!