What does it mean to facilitate a meeting? How do you know you’re facilitating it right – and is there any value to good facilitation? For those of us who have had to sit through seemingly interminable, off-topic, pointless meetings, the answer is clear: facilitation is a definite value-add in a business context.
The question then is: what does it take to be a good facilitator?
Recently I had the opportunity to dive into this topic when I attended The Agile Facilitator (TAF), a two-day course that SolutionsIQ and the Agile Coaching Institute deliver in partnership around the world. Our class was set up for success because our instructors were very knowledgeable and highly experience: Katrina Ferguson is an ICA-certified senior Agile coach with SolutionsIQ and Lyssa Adkins is none other than the author of the book “Coaching Agile Teams” and the president of the Agile Coaching Institute. Together with support from a few assistants, the training team delivered an impactful classroom experience that helped all of us connect with why something seemingly trivial like meeting facilitation is really important and very difficult to do effectively.
Much of the work we do in business requires lots of meetings to coordinate efforts and ensure alignment, and Agile, in particular Scrum, adds several more meetings (i.e., ceremonies). It’s not uncommon for meetings to be a place and time where leadership strokes their own ego, where attendees fall asleep or answer emails, where conversations go awry, and where feelings are hurt. As a result, people tend to blame Agile or Scrum for creating more “useless” meetings, rather than identifying the real culprit: bad or nonexistent meeting facilitation.
ACI’s The Agile Facilitator course is the response to the demand for better use of precious time in meetings. Here I highlight a few of the outstanding tools and techniques for the effective facilitation of Agile meetings, conversations and collaborative work, which we learned about during the two days of this course.
The single technique that we heard about consistently and continuously through this class was the POWER Start. POWER is an acronym:
This formula for starting meetings of any length and with any goal is designed to resonate with participants and get them to see how their contribution maps back to the overarching vision. This is crucial because too often people hold meetings “because we always hold this meeting.” But, the instructors reminded us, meetings must fulfill a purpose. If you can’t define the purpose, don’t hold the meeting. And if key decision-makers can’t participate and the purpose of the meeting cannot be fulfilled without their participation, don’t hold the meeting. By delivering a POWER Start at the beginning of the meeting, you get the buy-in that you need from participants to ensure that the meeting is time well spent. Start having more meetings that deliver good outcomes and you’re likely to see better participation. You can even use POWER Starts before the meeting to help leaders and managers understand why they should attend your meeting.
Every team has one (or two): a Negative Ned or a Passive-Aggressive Polly or a Dominating Don. These dysfunction personas can derail meetings, waste time and money, deteriorate relationships and generally disrupt team productivity and happiness. In the TAF course, we identified twelve dysfunction personas along with several ways to diffuse the effects of the disruption they cause. It’s important for everyone on the team but especially the facilitator to recognize that people are not the dysfunction personas they exhibit. With good planning and careful attention to details, good Agile facilitators can identify the displeasure underscoring these dysfunctions and help team members name and disempower their disruptive dysfunctions.
An eye-opener for me in this class was just how much preparation is involved in creating and executing impactful meetings that deliver results. Much like Santa doesn’t do the Christmas shopping, good meeting outcomes don’t occur on accident or without much preparation. It’s something that people actually set aside time and effort to work on. It isn’t magic, it’s preparation. That means that someone needs to pay attention to what happens before, during and after — and that’s the facilitator’s job.
If your meetings are not being viewed as work by participants, but rather something they can breeze through, they probably don’t understand clearly why their participation is important. (A POWER Start can help with that.) Good facilitators can devote as much as two hours for every hour of meetings they facilitate. If facilitation isn’t your primary responsibility, which is the case for me, then this amount of time isn’t feasible. However, any preparation at all is better than none, even if it’s just 15 minutes. And the more important the meeting or work session, the more time you may want to devote to preparing for it.
Now the question is: how do you prepare to effectively facilitate?
Lyssa and Kat shared the Facilitation Framework with us, which breaks a single meeting into several parts: Before, During, After and Throughout, with additional special tasks and perspectives required during a meeting. By focusing energy on what happens at each stage, keeping in mind the general energy of the room, the relationships and rapport between the participants, the time constraints, as well as other limitations, the facilitator creates the “container” (i.e., the environment) which participants fill with their content (i.e., the work).
Facilitation and Agile Coaching
The Agile Facilitator course is a core requirement for SolutionsIQ’s Agile coaches. I may not be a coach, but I do participate in many meetings, some useful, others less so. This class reminded me that business people already dedicate so much energy to their work, they may not have the bandwidth to pay attention to:
- Who’s in the meeting
- What the results of the meeting are
- What process is being used to achieve those results
Many Agile teams look to their ScrumMasters, but not all of them have taken the time to hone their facilitation skills. A dedicated facilitator, whether it’s a ScrumMaster or an Agile coach, can relieve participants of this burden and remind participants of the importance of their participation and how a particular meeting maps back to the larger vision.
If nothing else, one thing is clearer than ever for me: facilitation isn’t easy work, nor is it devoid of value.
If you’re interested in taking this class, check out our upcoming classes. A huge thank you to Lyssa Adkins and Katrina Ferguson, as well as Bryan Stallings, for sharing their knowledge with me and the entire class and for making the TAF class such an enjoyable, memorable and above all valuable experience!