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The world is changing rapidly, and it’s hard to find universal specialists who have all the necessary competencies to create the product you want. The importance of having teams with diverse specialties and experience is growing, and Agile has emerged as a way to help bring those varied voices together. Successful Agile software development can’t be done without the effective work of an Agile team facilitator bringing together the experience and know-how of each member of the team.

Agile has become the new industry standard and replaced classic directive management methods. As a result, there is a greater need for communication and Agile facilitation techniques that increase creative collaboration.

While Agile’s goal is to keep meetings collaborative and engaging, that’s certainly not always the reality. We’re sure that everyone has experienced a Scrum Master dominating a meeting while the rest of the team sits quietly waiting for the meeting to finally end. Mitigating and preventing those types of meetings is one of the primary goals of facilitation. Nowadays, facilitation techniques are an essential toolkit for a good manager, whether you’re using Agile or classic techniques. In this article, we discuss facilitation theory and structure, who facilitators are, as well as their key skills, techniques, and responsibilities.

What is Facilitation?

Facilitation is the art of guiding discussion in a group. The role of a facilitator is to plan and implement an appropriate process; the rest of the group is responsible for the content of the discussion by contributing expertise. Facilitation aims at being economical (goal-oriented and time-efficient) and promoting the well-being of all participants involved (giving room to all voices in a group, establishing an atmosphere of listening to each other, and ensuring that decisions are backed and owned by all).

Meeting facilitation techniques are used to help the audience acquire, retain, and apply knowledge and skills. Participants are introduced to content and then ask questions while the facilitator fosters the discussion, takes steps to enhance the experience for the team members, and gives suggestions. The facilitator’s aim is to organize the process and create an environment that helps participants to reach the desired outcome.

Who is a Facilitator: Main Skills

Facilitators can come from any background or experience level. The best facilitator skills are:

Listening. Facilitator responsibilities include active listening and hearing what every team member is saying.

Questioning. A facilitator should be skilled in asking questions that are open-ended and encourage discussion.

Problem-solving. Effective facilitation skills include applying group problem-solving techniques, such as:

  • defining the problem
  • determining its cause
  • considering a range of solutions
  • weighing the advantages and disadvantages of solutions
  • selecting the best solution
  • implementing the solution
  • evaluating results

Resolving conflict. The responsibilities of a facilitator are to understand that conflict among group members is natural and, as long as it’s expressed politely, does not need to be suppressed. Conflict should be expected and dealt with constructively.

Using a participative style. A facilitator should encourage all team members to actively engage and contribute in meetings, according to participants’ individual comfort levels. This includes creating a safe and comfortable atmosphere in which group members are willing to share their feelings and opinions.

Accepting others. The skills of a good facilitator include maintaining an open mind and not criticizing ideas and suggestions offered by group members.

Empathizing. A facilitator should have the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” to understand team members’ feelings.

Leading. A facilitator must be able to keep the meeting focused on achieving the outcome identified at the outset.

How can you be a good facilitator if you don’t yet have these skills?  Don’t worry! People aren’t born with them; you can learn them with time and commitment.

The Basic Rules of Facilitation in Agile

In addition to the interpersonal skills we just mentioned, a good facilitator needs to understand motivation theory in order to create an environment for productive discussion and problem solving.

Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive,” lists three elements of the motivation formula: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This trio engages people to help them do their best work.

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Pink defines each element as follows:

  • Autonomy. Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.
  • Mastery. The urge to improve our skill sets.
  • Purpose. The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.

Building more autonomy, mastery, and purpose will make your workforce be more productive and effective. If we go deeper, we can trace the relationship between motivation and self-management theory — shared goals, accountability,  and boundaries.

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That is why it is important to set goals, outline boundaries (set rules), ensure accountability, and communicate with others.  It’s crucial to believe in team professionalism for the team to grow and mature.

Once you’ve learned motivation theory and honed the skills you need to be a facilitator, the next step is to learn the mechanics.

DYNAMICS OF GROUP DECISION-MAKING

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Each circle represents one idea. Each line of circles and arrows represents one person’s line of thought as it develops during the discussion.

Initially the individual members of a group need to express their own points of view with the help of a facilitator. The facilitator’s responsibility is to help participants do so effectively. Let’s look at a facilitation example during a meeting using convergent and divergent thinking.

What is divergent thinking? This is the first stage of facilitation, when the facilitator, with the help of brainstorming exercises, encourages participants to brainstorm as many ideas as they can. The next stage (convergent thinking) is about choosing the most valuable ideas from the initial brainstorm. The final stage is when participants vote on which idea is most valuable and important.

Here are four examples of what each type of thinking process can look like:

Divergent vs. convergent thinking

DIVERGENT THINKING CONVERGENT THINKING
  • Generating a list of ideas
  • Free-flowing open discussion
  • Seeking diverse points of view
  • Suspending judgment
  • Sorting ideas into categories
  • Summarizing key points
  • Coming to agreement
  • Exercising judgment

What are some facilitation techniques in project management?

Now that we’ve covered the theories of motivation and facilitation, let’s get practical and go over some hands-on group facilitation techniques. There are several main conventional “structures” that we default to in organizations and groups:

  • Presentations
  • Managed discussions
  • Status reports
  • Open discussions
  • Brainstorms

This list is good, but often not enough to achieve our goals. We’ll need to expand on it to get the best results. We recommend also using Liberating Structures, which are a selection of 33 microstructures for facilitating meetings and conversations. They were curated by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, experts in the field.

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If you need help

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Liberating Structures are designed to embrace distributed control and include a fairer, larger number of people in shaping the next steps. The benefits? Innovation, inclusion, participation, clarity, purpose, fun… you’ll see when you experience them.

What technique you use depends on your goals, so think like a facilitator and set goals, choose your practice, and prepare for your meeting! You’ll see how using facilitation helps your team communicate and collaborate for an even better Agile experience.

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