One of the competencies within the Agile Coaching Growth wheel is Facilitation, this is one of the core stances of an Agile Coach. When I first became a ScrumMaster it was the first stance that I worked on developing, as I was going to be facilitating retrospectives and product workshops. This was new for me and there was an obvious need for me to do this as a ScrumMaster to better serve my team and the business.
Facilitation is a process of guiding a group or team through interactions that help them create meaningful outcomes. As a facilitator you are neutral to those outcomes, your focus is on creating the right environment for group participation and guiding the process.
Facilitation is a profession in itself, with professional bodies such as the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). The competencies within the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel relating to facilitation are ‘facilitation mindset’ and ‘facilitation skills’.
Being a Facilitator you maintain neutrality of the content being discussed, create a collaborative space, and encourage full participation of all members of the group.
There is an self awareness needed to be a great facilitator to enable you to develop and maintain an open, reflective, positive and flexible mindset this allows you to honour the group while remaining true to who you are.
Belief in the Group
You also need to Believe in the group, holding the idea that they are creative, resourceful and whole and, with the right focus, have the answers to meet the outcome for themselves without external support.
Being a Facilitator, you design and deliver sessions that focus on what is essential for the group. You help the group be accountable for what they say they will do and their plan, and leave responsibility with them for action. You will be skilled in working through several different group situations.
Planning and Design
You partner with the client to agree on mutual commitment and develop an approach to meet the client’s needs. You co-create with the client to discover needs, establish roles, and create designs to achieve intended outcomes over one or multiple sessions.
Guiding the Process
You create an appropriate environment, atmosphere and logistics to support the purpose of the session(s). You set the stage to achieve outcomes. You evoke insights from the group, explore underlying issues and assist in reflection. You navigate conflict by explaining its value, bringing awareness and exploring assumptions. You achieve group consensus with the ability to adapt according to the group’s needs to meet the agreed outcome.
You use various techniques that foster open participation considering client culture, diversity and participants who have different approaches to learning and ways of processing information. You draw out participants with various approaches to learning and ways of processing information. Encourage creative thinking and stimulate group energy. You use skills such as building rapport, listening, reflecting, questioning, observing and giving feedback.
Designing a Facilitated Event
Before facilitating any workshop, it is important to prepare, understand the current situation of the team or group, and the desired outcome. Once you have that, it’s about designing the workshop in a way that takes them on a journey that allows divergent thinking around the topic. And ultimately allows the group to converge towards a new state.
Figure 1 shows the diamond of participatory decision making, adapted from Sam Kaner (2014), which also highlights the groan zone in the middle, where the group tries to integrate multiple frames of reference.
Figure 1, Diamond of Participatory Decision Making
It is important to allow exploration in a divergent zone, in a way that everybody gets to participate. The aim is to create a mutual understanding of all the participants’ perspectives so that you can navigate the groan zone. This allows the solutions that emerge to be inclusive of everybody’s wisdom. Finally, as the group converges, the facilitator will try to create shared responsibility for the outcomes.
This fell into place for me when I read the book Game Storming, Gray (2010). As a facilitator, you are creating games for your team. I realized that in most facilitated workshops you go through this diverge and converge sequence multiple times, each time taking the group from a current state to a new state. The new state just becomes the current state for the next game you play with them.
It may be that for a workshop you will have multiple games as multiple aspects of the topic need to be explored, or new topics emerge. In large workshops, you may even have sub-groups playing different games simultaneously as they explore different aspects of the topic, before bringing back their findings to the whole group. Let’s look at an example of this.
Example Design for a Retrospective
Figure 2 shows a plan for a team’s retrospective. The team had already agreed on a theme of wanting to explore how they could improve quality. So, I designed a retrospective around the five-step process described in the book Agile Retrospectives, Derby (2006). Effectively designing the retrospective so that the team would diverge and converge as several games are strung together.
Figure 2, Example Retrospective Plan
Tips for new Facilitators
- Once you understand the objective and context, make time to plan any workshop you facilitate. As a new facilitator, the time for designing the session will take at least as long as running it.
- Until you get a feel for it, you will probably try to squeeze too much in. Less is more. You must give plenty of space for all voices to be heard and all opinions to be synthesized by the group.
- Most workshops will need the group to diverge and converge multiple times, so if your retrospective just has one game to gather information, you may be missing something.
- Try to avoid any points where you rely on the first person who speaks, as you miss out on the collective wisdom of the rest of the group.
- Create ownership. Only touch the pen or sticky notes to hand them to the participants. As a facilitator you fade to the back of the workshop, stepping in to move the process along. Suggest a working agreement along the lines of “you say it, you write it”
- Ask for feedback from the group. This can be as simple as a feedback wall that participants add stickies to as they leave the session.
- Inspect and adapt. After each facilitated event, take time to reflect. Conduct an after-action review; reflect on what happened. What did you learn about yourself as a facilitator? And what it means for future sessions?
Derby, E., Larsen, D. (2006). Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. The Pragmatic Programmer.
Gray, D., Brown, S., Macanufo, J. (2010). Game Storming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers. O’Reilly.
Kerner, S. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons.