Tag Archives: facilitation

Self-facilitation Skills for Teams

© 2004-2010 Esther Derby

Self-organizing teams don’t just organize the technical work. They make technical (and non-technical) decisions. Not every situation requires facilitation, but when a team faces an important decision, applying facilitation skills to the problem saves time and yields better results.

Jason was frustrated. The Release 6.0 team had been chewing on a major design decision for two weeks. Jason knew they had to make a decision or they’d run out of time to pursue any option. Jason pulled the five other team members together and told them they weren’t leaving the room without a decision.

Jason started restating the option that Sara had put forward last week.

“I don’t see how that’s going to work,” Josh said.

“Well, I don’t hear you coming up with any better ideas,” said Sara.

“We could go back to the idea Alan suggested last week,” offered Jen.

“Look, we’ve been going back and forth between two ideas, and we’re no closer to a decision now than we were two weeks ago.” Jason sighed and looked around at the rest of the team members seated at the conference table. “You guys got any other ideas?”

Alan and Keith shook their heads. Jen shrugged.

“Fine. We’ll go with Sara’s idea,” Jason said. “We need to move forward or we’ll miss the market window for Release 6.0 completely.”

The Release 6.0 team filed out of the conference room. None of them really liked the idea—not even Sara. But after two weeks of rehashing two competing ideas, the team was tired of talking.

Like the Release 6.0 team, many groups struggle with decisions. Some groups pounce on the first plausible idea only to find out later that they’re down a rat hole. Other groups discuss and argue endlessly and never reach a decision. Still others choose by default or let the loudest voice decide.

In order to make timely decisions that the group can support, teams need to be able to:

  • Generate ideas
  • Narrow the number of options
  • Reach agreement

When I see teams who argue endlessly, can’t decide, or pick an option no one supports, one (or more) of these elements is missing.

There are dozens of techniques and methods that can help teams reach decisions. Here are three that will help with decisions that require broad support and buy-in. I’ve chosen these methods because I’ve seen teams use them successfully without extensive facilitation skills or a great deal of practice.

Generating Ideas

There’s no shortage of good ideas in the world. But sometimes, when people are under pressure, ideas are elusive. Many teams generate one or two alternatives and then stop. That’s not enough. Teams need at least three alternatives to have a real choice. Plus, thinking of three alternatives helps the group explore the problem.
Consider using a combination of brain writing and affinity clustering to generate many ideas in a short period of time.  Pairing these two techniques allows the group to integrate ideas and find common threads. Traditional brainstorming results in a laundry list of ideas and favors the people who are most vocal. This technique includes individual work, so people who need a bit of quiet time to think can participate fully.

Here’s how it works:

Write down the problem the group is trying to solve in the form of a question and post it where everyone can see. This question will help the group focus their thinking. Here are some examples from groups I’ve worked with.

“What are the risks of implementing the foo feature without backward compatibility?”

“What are ways that we can increase throughput in the amortization function?”

“How can we effectively test the risk areas of the product with our current hardware resources?”

“What are practical ways we can improve communication on the team?”

“What are the most important values we hold as a team?”

Allow 5-10 minutes for individuals to write down their own ideas. Ask for at least ten ideas. When the time is up, form groups of three or four to share individual lists. Have the small groups identify the best ideas and write them on sticky notes. There are bound to be duplicates between groups, but don’t worry—duplicates show where there is common ground.

Using a wall or a whiteboard, post the ideas and cluster them into affinity groups. Don’t start with a set of categories; allow the categories to emerge from the ideas. As people move the ideas into affinity groups, they’ll talk about how ideas are related, which are distinct, and how they fit together. These conversations help the team learn about each other’s ideas. When the affinity clusters are settled, name each cluster. The name represents the group’s agreement on the underlying ideas in each cluster.

Brainstorming and clustering will generate 5-7 alternatives in about 30-40 minutes. Sometimes the alternatives warrant further development before the team evaluates them. Organize small working teams to flesh out just enough detail to permit an assessment.

Narrowing Options

When I see a team stuck evaluating alternatives, it’s usually for one of two reasons: 1) People don’t have a common definition of the options under discussion, or 2) the group is talking about all the options at the same time.

To ensure that everyone is working from the same definition, write the key points of each alternative on a flip chart and post it where everyone can see it during the evaluation step. Review each alternative and clarify as needed before starting the evaluation.

Overcoming the second problem takes some discipline: Evaluate each option on its own before comparing options to each other.

You can do this by drawing two lines on a piece of flip-chart paper, creating three columns. List the “plusses” and “minuses” of the options in the first two columns. Make a note of what’s interesting about the option in the third column. Answer all three questions for one alternative before moving on to the next.

Alternative 1
+ Interesting
~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~

After the group has completed this activity for all the options, it’s usually obvious that some of the ideas are unsuitable.

Agreeing on an Option

An individual making a decision may agonize over it, but when more than one person is involved, it can turn into an argument. Teams need a way to test their agreement, discuss concerns, and arrive at a decision that all can support.

The Romans indicated their will in the gladiator’s arena with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. A modern modification of Roman voting helps teams arrive at a decision.

Thumbs up = “I support this proposal.”

Thumbs sideways = “I’ll go along with the will of the group.”

Thumbs down = “I do not support this proposal and wish to speak.”

If all thumbs are down, eliminate the option. On a mixed vote, listen to what the thumbs-down people have to say, and re-check agreement. Be cautious about choosing an option if the majority are thumbs sideways: This option has only lukewarm support.

This technique generates consensus. Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean complete unanimity. Consensus means that everyone must be willing to support the idea, even if it’s not his personal first choice.

Sooner or later, you’ll have a situation where one person withholds support for any option. Manage this situation before it happens. At the start of the consensus process, set a time limit:

“We’ll work really hard to reach consensus until the end of this meeting. If we don’t have agreement by that time, we will

turn the decision over to _________, or

take a vote, or

__________ (a technical expert, coach, manager) will decide.”

Most people don’t hold out to be obstinate; they are responding to a deeply held value or belief. Often the lone holdout will move on, but not at the cost of relinquishing an important belief. Respect the belief, use your fallback decision-making method, and move forward. However, when a group seldom reaches consensus, but instead relies on voting or deferring to authority, it’s a sign there are deeper issues at play.

Putting the Techniques to Work

When the Release 6.0 team held their project retrospective, the team identified decision-making as an area they wanted to improve. Of course, not every decision requires a formal process; but when important decisions come along, the team saves time and energy by applying techniques like the ones I’ve described.
If you notice your teams are stuck in one (or more) of the three decision areas, point out what you’re observing. Ask the team if they are willing to try something different to help reach a decision. Then hand them a copy of this article and try the appropriate technique. Teams who learn to self-facilitate spend less time churning and more time on the business of the business.


Adapted from the Technology of Participation methods, The Institute of Cultural Affairs www.ica-usa.org

Five Tips for Retrospective Leaders and Meeting Moderators

This article first appeared on stickyminds.com

Few people enjoy meetings that waste time in swirling discussions. Fewer still like meetings where their ideas and opinions are solicited and then ignored. Retrospective leaders (and anyone else who leads group discussions) need the tools to help groups think, discuss, and decide effectively. Below are five tips to help you make the most of time spent in retrospectives (and every other meeting).

1. Let the Group Members do the Work

Some facilitators have the idea that their job is to stand at the front of the room and do most of the work—writing flip charts, interpreting data, and pointing the group to the right decision. Au contraire! As a retrospective leader, it’s your job to provide a structure that will help the group do the work. Do not do the work of the group for them. If you do it, they won’t own it.

One simple way to put the work back with the group involves flip charting a brainstormed list. Rather than writing down the ideas as group members call them out, ask people to write their ideas on large sticky notes (and write big, using a dark marker). Then, post the sticky notes. This method has three additional advantages: 1) it’s easier to group ideas on movable sticky notes; 2) it makes it easier for introverts to get a word in edgewise; and 3) it keeps people engaged in the process.

2. Record Faithfully

When you take up the marker to record for the group, record faithfully. I watched in horror as one facilitator wrote down only ideas he agreed with. Another facilitator wrote down his interpretations, which didn’t match what group members said. For example, the retrospective leader wrote down “commit to commit” when a team member suggested the team formally agree to attend the daily stand-up meeting. Another facilitator failed to capture one participant’s idea, even after she had brought it up three times.

When the facilitator ignores or misinterprets a participant’s idea, that participant feels like she hasn’t been heard and is likely to tune out the rest of the meeting.

When you are holding the pen, it’s your job to capture ideas from the group, not insert your own ideas. Sometimes, participants don’t express their ideas in a flip-chart-ready way. In that case, ask the participant to summarize the idea in just a few words. If that fails to produce a succinct statement, then summarize concisely and ask if it’s okay to capture the shorter summary

3. Use Parallel Processing

Computer professionals know how to design programs to take advantage of parallel processing. Retrospective leaders can use parallel processing to work lists efficiently. For example, suppose the group has identified three problem areas that are impeding the group. Rather than tackle them serially, break into pairs or small groups to analyze root causes for each. Then bring the group back together to look for common root causes.

Parallel processing is also useful when there are one or two people in the group who tend to dominate the conversation. Work from a small group reduces its impact on the whole group. Plus, many people who won’t speak up in a larger group will probably speak in a small group, which should balance participation.

4. Let the Group Members Draw Conclusions

Our human brains are wired to make sense of data, so it’s not surprising that retrospective leaders fall prey to the temptation to inform the group of what they see. After one team posted a timeline, the retrospective leader lectured on her perceptions of what was going on during the project while the team just sat there. Even when the facilitator is spot on (and this one wasn’t), the team most likely will reject the facilitator’s view. It’s like criticizing your brother-in-law; it’s fine for your spouse to say his brother drinks too much, but watch out if you say it.

Some retrospective leaders protest that it takes too long for the group to process the data—that it’s more efficient for the facilitator to do the job. It may be true that it takes less time for the facilitator to relay her own interpretation of the data to the group, but it’s only more effective if the facilitator doesn’t care whether the group actually buys into and acts on the interpretation.

5. Test for Agreement

Groups can go on and on discussing issues, mulling over concerns, and answering questions. It’s important to have a thorough analysis, and it’s also important to come to a decision. So after the team has asked clarifying questions related to a decision, test the agreement.

Testing for agreement isn’t the same as making a final decision. Testing for agreement creates a data point and an assessment of how much more discussion is really needed. One way to test for agreement is by using the “Fist of Five.” Each person signals her support for a proposal or option by utilizing a six-point scale, which requires no ballot other than the use of your hand. The votes are as follows:

Five fingers = I strongly support
Four fingers = I support with minor reservations
Three fingers = I’ll go with the will of the group
Two fingers = I have serious reservations
One finger = I do not support
Fist = I’ll block

(I advise against using the middle finger to indicate lack of support.)

If everyone in the group expresses strong agreement (four or five fingers), you know that you need to note reservations and mitigate risks. But the group probably doesn’t need a lengthy discussion of the topic. However, if there’s only lukewarm support (three fingers), then more discussion is warranted—possibly to identify more favorable alternatives.

If most of the people in the group show three fingers or less, it’s time to move to a different option rather than wasting time discussing an option no one wants.

Practice these tips, and pretty soon people will notice that meetings seem to work better when you lead them.

Tips for Retrospective Facilitators

When Diana Larsen and I teach a two-day Leading Agile Retrospectives workshop, the second day is stand up facilitation practice. We create the bare bones story of an iteration, then the class works together to design a retrospective. Each participant has a chance to lead an activity. And Diana and I offer feedback and facilitation advice.

Having done this more than a few times, I’ve noticed that we repeat the same advice in almost every class.

My colleague Mark Kilby asked what that advice was, so here it is (at least some of it).

When you ask the group a question, give people enough time to answer. It can feel a little disconcerting to stand there in silence, but people–especially introverted people–need time to collect their thoughts before they speak.

Count to eight s-l-o-w-l-y. If no one has answered, count to eight again. If there’s still no answer, move on.

Do some of the work in pairs or small groups. Not every discussion or activity needs to happen with the entire group. Doing some activities in smaller groups or pairs adds variety, makes it easier for reticent people to state their views, and limits the possibility for voluble or dominant people to own the airwaves.

Let the group do as much of the work as possible. Rather than doing all the capturing, when possible have people write their ideas on stickies (with a marker, not a regular pen) and post them. Ask one of the participants to help hang up flip charts or hand out stuff like markers, stickies, dots.

Give instructions in chunks. If you are using an activity that has multiple parts or requires movement, break up the instructions. Even if the instructions seem simple to you, people are not likely to retain them if they are hearing several steps at once and having conversations between steps.

Start by stating the purpose of the activity: For example, “We’re going to do use a use a special type of diagram to help us understand which issues are causing most of our difficulties.” Wait for questions.

Then give the first instruction. “Please from groups of three.” Wait until people are in groups before you continue…or say “In a minute, I’m going to ask you to get into groups of three. Let me tell you what I want you to do in the small group.” Give the instruction.

Once they’ve done than part, give them the next instruction.

Provide a key when you color code anything as part of an activity. (for example sometimes I’ll do a timeline with yellow=technical issues or events, blue=team issues or events, green=organizational issues or events.

If you get lost in an activity or something happens that you don’t know quite how to handle, pause and reset. No one can be perfect, so get good at recovering gracefully. It’s okay to say, “This isn’t going the way I thought it would. Is this useful to you?” Always have a back up activity, just in case.

Use wide chisel tip markers in dark colors for writing on flip charts or white boards. Dark blue, dark green, dark purple, green and black are easy to see. Fun colors like orange, light green, turquoise are hard to see from a distance. Red is okay for younger people, problematic for people over 40. Use those fun colors to accent, but not for text. (You can buy boxes of Mr. Sketch dark colors at www.artsuppliesonline.com.)

Write BIG, and use sentence case when writing on flip charts or white boards. It’s still sort of surprising how many people stand in front of a flip chart and write letters 1/2 inch tall. Write BIG. People can read sentence case more quickly than they can read ALL CAPS. Capitals are okay for headings, as they create a visual cue.

While I’m on the subject of flip chart writing, there’s something about visual field when you are writing BIG on a flip chart that makes it difficult to spell correctly. It’s nothing to do with you (or me). Really. It’s because your brain can’t take in the entire word as it does when you write on a smaller scale. Declare a General Spelling Amnesty, or put a spell check button on your flip chart when you make a mistake–you’ll probably get a laugh.

Put dying markers out of their misery. Really. Throw them away (unless they are refillable.) They are useless, worse than useless, because they make you think you are capturing something the group can see, when you aren’t and they can’t. Throw them away, now! (I visited a company where people held onto dead markers. When I asked why, they told me they were the only markers they had, and the secretary wouldn’t order any more. So wrong, on so many levels.)

Okay, that’s enough for now.