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Facilitation Is an Underrated Skill

Josip O.7 min readOct 14, 2022Business & Life
Facilitation Is an Underrated Skill
Josip O.7 min read
Contents:
Meetings as usual scenario
What could have been done differently?
Scrum Master as a facilitator
What are possible collaboration pitfalls?
And finally - why should you have a good facilitator?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” - George Bernard Shaw

A good facilitator creates an inclusive atmosphere where the participants share a collective sense of ownership. They have the skill set that helps the team generate good ideas and navigate the conversation to reach business goals faster.

Meetings as usual scenario

Imagine this scenario:

You and your colleagues have to make a big and complex decision. Some of the processes implemented last year negatively impacted customer satisfaction. You schedule a 3-hour workshop. You believe it should be more than enough time to reach a consensus and assign concrete action points easily. After all, everybody in the group is highly skilled, highly intelligent, and an expert in their domain.

Most of the people join the conference room while several join remotely. You assume they have read the pre-workshop materials and they understand why they are invited.

Half an hour into the discussion, you discover that Sebastian and Maria do not understand the actual problem. Then Daniel points out that he has been trying to fix a similar issue in his department for months and goes into a 30-minute monologue explaining why the current approach does not work. Daniel is a great guy with 20 years of experience and has some good points, so you do not want to interrupt him. He seems confident about fixing problems in his department with your help and scaling improvements to the rest of the company.

Oliver, who joined the organization just half a year earlier, shares his experience with his previous employer, where they encountered similar roadblocks. Daniel and Oliver passionately debate and seem to conclude what to do next. Sebastian has a few objections, but it appears they are only related to his department and should not affect the overall outcome. You look at your watch and notice only 15 minutes left on the clock. Sara, who has joined the meeting remotely, comments that you haven’t included a particular market segment and still do not have enough data. Just as the timebox is running out, you ask Maria to make a report that should give you the data you need and catch up with Sara to confirm that you’ve got all angles covered.

You are happy that you have some experienced people like Daniel who can kick off an excellent discussion. You’re glad that you have hired Oliver because he brought to the table his valuable experience from his previous employer. Everybody has pointed out potential risks, so you covered that as well. You are under the impression this was one of the best meetings you had in a while. Your group has a plan in place.

You thought that your meeting was productive, but…

After about three weeks after that meeting, Sebastian calls you on the phone furious – he tries to explain that Oliver’s methods are causing chaos in his department and that customers are complaining even more now. You also received an email from Sara saying that Maria’s report did not help much. She did not get the report for the desired customer segment. So the word got out, and your boss heard things were not going well.

Then, you ask yourself, “How could this happen?” Finally, you watch the meeting recording to see if you have missed something. Although you think that the way you lead meetings is productive, you try to put your ego aside. After watching the recording, you come up with the following key observations that could have changed the course of the workshop:

  • A few “Yes, but....” during Daniel’s monologue were quickly crushed by Daniel’s (what you then considered to be) good arguments. You found that at least two of these arguments were only based on his experience and could not be applied to this situation.

  • Nobody noticed Sara raising her virtual hand three times.

  • After Sebastian commented that he had already tried something similar, Oliver simply waved his hand and stated he would ensure it works this time. He did not make much effort to understand Sebastian’s context.

  • Sara asked for “in-store customer data,” while Maria thought she said “customer data.”

  • Three people who joined remotely and two people in the conference room did not say a word.

  • You did not write anything down.

What could have been done differently?

Let’s make a few hypotheses why the workshop has not been as productive as it could be:

  • Sebastian seemed to give up his fight with Oliver fairly quickly, which was entirely out of his character. Could it be that this happened because he was unprepared for the meeting and lacked the confidence to confront?

  • It seemed that you were all aligned when the meeting was over. You assumed everybody knew what to do. Maria’s report for the desired customer segment proved you wrong. Did you even listen closely? You were so immersed in conversation with Daniel and Oliver that you could not have possibly noticed everything going on in the room.

  • You came to a conclusion too soon. Daniel set the workshop tone, and everybody followed. He is dominant and difficult to talk to if he is proven wrong, and some people do not want to fight him. Those five people not speaking up maybe had good ideas. But, they did not have enough space to verbalize them.

This story concludes that, although all the right ingredients for a successful workshop were in place, the final dish turned out to be inedible because of a few simple mistakes. When we cook food, we know cooking requires time and following a particular process, right? However, when we “cook” a good business decision, we expect ten people to reach a solid conclusion in just one or two hours. People and the decisions they have to make are usually much more complex than cooking.

Could this be due to taking communication for granted and assuming everyone knows how to communicate? People get easily offended when it is implied that they should work on their communication skills. The reality is that it is challenging to communicate. Even if only two people are involved, each should know the other’s context. They should understand each other’s point of view and want to come to a workable solution and potential compromise. Ken Liu put it very well: “Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” Communication does not just happen!

Communication

Scrum Master as a facilitator

One of the key responsibilities of the Scrum Master is the facilitator. I must note that facilitation is often confused with leading the meeting. Unlike a person leading a meeting, a good facilitator does not have a stake in the outcome - they bring communication structure, try to get the most out of each participant, and ensure that no idea goes unnoticed. Also, a facilitator shares a common understanding and helps the group come to a good future-proof inclusive solution.

There is a lot of talk in the agile community about Scrum Master being a coach. And don’t get me wrong – coaching skills are mandatory for Scrum Masters. But pure systemic coaching is also tough and requires lots of practice. Yet, compared to coaching, there is very little discussion about being a good facilitator. If I could teleport back in time to when I started my career as an Agile Coach, I would put much more emphasis on my facilitation skills.

The sad fact is that in reality, many Scrum Masters often facilitate only one Scrum event – the Retrospective. That is precisely why, when Scrum Master is on sick leave or holiday, even newly formed teams feel relatively comfortable conducting planning, daily meetings, and review. However, they feel really out of place when somebody needs to facilitate a retrospective.

Every Scrum Master knows that there are five stages of Retrospective:

  • Set the stage
  • Gather data
  • Generate insights
  • Decide what to do
  • Close the Retrospective

What are possible collaboration pitfalls?

They learn those stages on the first Scrum course they attend. Even if Scrum Master follows these steps mechanically, the team should reach better outcomes than open discussion when, usually, the loudest or most powerful participant does most of the talking. These five stages nicely correlate to Sam Kaner’s diamond participation model, as seen below.

Sam Kaner`s diamond model

Adaptation of Kaner’s diamond model of participation (Source: Carrie Kappel 2019)

Sam Kaner’s diamond model (as seen in the image above) tries to address some of the possible meeting pitfalls. My favorites include:

  • Not trying to find an inclusive solution (every person for themselves)

  • Going off-topic (too much divergent thinking)

  • Jumping to an early conclusion – not enough divergent thinking

  • Not suspending judgment in a divergent stage – some people present good ideas in a bad way

  • Lacking meeting structure (hint: try using meeting canvas)

  • Not honoring objections and/or not asking for suggestions

  • Confusing questions from team members as a provocation rather than an honest inquiry

  • Assuming that people understand each other if they are using similar wording

  • Trying to be a neutral facilitator and a participant in the meeting at the same time

  • Being frustrated when you are trying to find a solution. Groan zone (check the image above) earned the name for a good reason. It is not easy to come to common ground, and you can expect to hear several “This makes no sense” type remarks. Please resist the urge to make a quick decision. It could be a bad one.

And finally - why should you have a good facilitator?

So, I am making a statement here – every company needs a good facilitator to make meetings more productive. It should lead to fewer meetings, allowing people to prepare for them. Good facilitators should cause a positive productivity snowball effect and prevent people from becoming meeting hoppers.

So far, the role of facilitator has been nicely tucked away under Scrum Master’s responsibilities. I believe that, regardless of what process or framework you are using, a good facilitator can greatly impact the quality of the meeting outcome. If you want to learn basic facilitation skills, I recommend reading books by Sam Kaner. Also, attending a workshop that will teach you basic facilitation skills is a good start. Even if you are not going to hire a professional facilitator, try to find somebody within your company willing to learn basic facilitation skills.

Meetings should be a place where people share ideas, discuss topics they care about, and come to inclusive decisions. Although this may sound somewhat like a utopia to some, I have got immense satisfaction from hearing comments like, “This was the best meeting in months”. Believe it or not - good meetings do exist!

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