NB. Throughout this blog, I use a variety of terms such as meeting, event, and workshop ostensibly as synonyms. Whilst this is a Professional Scrum leaning piece, facilitation is not an art solely associated with Scrum, and therefore the language I use isn’t either. Please consider these interchangeable terms to mean a collection of individuals gathering to discuss a topic with a desired outcome.
Many new Scrum Masters need help to gain facilitation skills to leverage the potential of diverse perspectives within their team. By improving facilitation, it should also help to improve the interactions within Scrum events and also improve participatory decision making. The purpose of this blog post is to dispel some myths around facilitation, namely what it is and who does it. It will also provide some top tips to immediately improve your facilitation skillset.
So, what is facilitation?
Facilitation is the art of creating an environment for information exchange or creation. It’s the combination of preparatory work, in-event guidance and post event wrap-up that goes far beyond being the person who sends the calendar invites and initiates a workshop. Like many things in life, facilitation doesn’t escape the iceberg effect — 10% is visible effort and 90% is hidden. As all good facilitators will tell you, the success of a workshop is not determined solely before, during or after it, but rather the holistic execution of bringing everyone together and achieving the intended outcome. Facilitation is not something that just anyone can do — fundamentally, it’s a deeply human activity that has its own associated skillset that is honed through experience. Think of a facilitator like a gardener. They till the earth, prepare the environment ready for growth, and actively engage with it throughout its lifecycle. Does this gardener sound like a Scrum Master to you? Is the Scrum Master always the facilitator? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be — it could be a Developer, Product Owner or anyone who frequently collaborates with teams.
Who is the facilitator?
By default, it’s common industry practice to think of Scrum Masters as the mandatory facilitator of Scrum events, otherwise, what would they do with their time? I’m being sarcastic of course, but have you ever considered who is the best person to facilitate discussions, meetings, and events in your team? It comes down to the fact that anyone can be a facilitator if they have the skills and nature to do so. These skills cover a few areas: emotional intelligence — reading the room and modelling the right culture; innovative design — scaffolding conversations and outcome generation through the right activity at the right time; and finally, creating accountability from within — making actions and solutions transparent. A facilitator missing any of these key skills is like a dog missing a leg. Could it hobble on and ‘get there’? Maybe, but if a Product Owner is the (product) value maximiser, then consider the facilitator to be the (event) value maximiser. Not everyone can, or should, step into the facilitator role.
What is the skillset of a facilitator?
For a facilitator to be successful they need to have a certain skillset (if you’ve ever seen the movie Taken, you’ll know that Liam Neeson would agree with me!). Earlier I mentioned three key areas for a facilitator to master, emotional intelligence, innovative design and creating accountability, but really they break into separate principles which I’ll discuss below (based heavily on Sean Blair’s work).
Participatory — This comes down to the culture the facilitator has created, or at least contributes to. Participation is key for event facilitation because it’s the diversity of voices and opinions that holds value in decision-making. Is everyone sharing the responsibility for outcomes? Or is participation being forced upon unwitting participants.
Purposeful Facilitation — Without focus, a meeting can fast become irrelevant and wasteful. Be mindful of the reason why people are gathering together and also the intended objective. This doesn’t mean military style agenda execution, but focusing reasoned discussion around the purposeful goal.
Process — The techniques and activities that encourage participation and do not exclude valuable voices. How will you do this as a facilitator? This principle is not randomly achieved, but rather intentionally planned for.
Transparency — The combination of visibility, accessibility and understanding. Unless everyone is able to walk out of the meeting with the same understanding of what occurred or was agreed, then arguably there is a problem with transparency. Fundamentally, a facilitator supports shared understanding and mutually agreeable conclusions.
Healthy Facilitation — This is the safe space where conflicting opinions and voices can be raised respectfully, delivered by empathetic discussion and a foundation of trust.
Top 5 facilitation Tips
1. Ensure the desired outcomes of the workshop are clear, both to you and the participants.
However obvious it may be to you, it probably isn’t to others, so seek the purpose, agree the boundaries and communicate them effectively.
Top tip: start each event by saying ‘This event will be successful if we…’ — create a measurable Sprint Goal, forecast our three-monthly plan, answer this question etc. This is interaction contracting and helps to respectfully re-focus discussion when it deviates from the purpose.
2. Be strict with the invite list so that you’re confident the right people are in the room.
There is a tendency to default a meeting invite to ‘everyone who could possibly have something to say’. That’s a bad idea. Invite bloat is a real problem and more voices can often add to the obscurity and make the outcome harder to achieve.
Top tip: work with the team to make sure you’ve invited the minimum amount of people to be successful. Who is the decision maker? Who are the voices that need to be consulted? Can progress be made with who we’ve got?
3. Mitigate contentious issues by raising them in advance.
When people are surprised with a topic, often it is human nature to become defensive if they haven’t had chance to consider their point of view.
Top tip: share talking points, invite list and as much information as possible in advance to increase the likelihood that people have considered the workshop and aren’t arriving blind.
4. Plan the workshop activities based on the purpose.
This is perhaps the biggest mistake many facilitators make; overcomplicating activities to make facilitation look shiny can obfuscate the true reason you’re all together. If you’re solving a problem, try liberating structures, if you’re forecasting, try pyramid planning, if you’re innovating, try rainbow rooms. A facilitator has a toolkit of activities that match the purpose, and using the wrong one is akin to using the wrong tool to fix an engine.
Top tip: Training from the Back of the Room is great, but more modern approaches to facilitation like metacognition, scaffolded differentiation and experiential investigation are great evolutions.
5. Work with the attendees to own actions and follow up.
A common failure from many meetings is that it’s unclear where to go next. Facilitation is an opportunity to breathe empiricism into a typically stagnant inspection opportunity. A good facilitator works to create initial transparency of the current state and discuss next steps, but unless the future actions are identified you aren’t going to move forward.
Top tip: As the meeting progresses, sticky every action mentioned and hang it on the wall. With time to spare (please, don’t rush this bit) order the actions like a mini-Product Backlog. What is the most impactful? What do we need to do right now? Who will be accountable for following through?
When it comes to Professional Scrum, these facilitation principles and top tips are underpinned and supported by the Scrum values and empirical process feedback loop. A facilitator constantly probes the situation based on evolving dynamics and adapts based on observation. Due to the fact that a facilitator can absolutely still be a participant in the event, I want to revisit a question I asked earlier — is the facilitator always the Scrum Master? You decide.