Being an effective Scrum Master or team member inevitably involves difficult conversations. How we approach challenging discussions can mean the difference between a transformative moment and one that goes sideways. Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to prepare for those times when we need to wade through a thorny issue. Let’s look at some strategies for facilitating difficult Scrum Team conversations.
Sensitive topics and high emotions
Difficult conversations involve high levels of anxiety, worry, or doubt. Perhaps we have to make a difficult decision or figure out how to do something we’ve never done before. Maybe there is conflict among team members, or there has been a significant failure or exceptionally challenging Sprint. Perhaps stakeholders are unhappy with progress or have divergent opinions about the direction of a product or how to interpret changes in the market. There are myriad examples of high-stakes circumstances Scrum Teams routinely face that will require difficult conversations. So, how can we navigate these situations successfully?
Take a breath and prepare
One of the most common missteps we make when facing a difficult conversation is being reactive and jumping right into trying to “solve” the issue. But successful facilitation involves taking the time to orient ourselves to the situation and deciding how we’ll approach it.
Ideally, we’ll be able to take enough time to prepare with total confidence. But even in situations where a difficult situation has emerged, we can often take a brief pause to get centered. Allowing time for the conversation to unfold before jumping in will help us understand the issues. We might need to propose a separate session or multiple sessions to allow people to process ideas and options before coming back together.
Set the intention
Being clear on the objective of the conversation brings clarity to the facilitation process. Everyone at the table should know why they are there and what the expectations are.
Are we meeting to seek understanding about everyone’s viewpoint? Will we brainstorm solutions or come to a consensus about ideas already on the table? Do we need to repair relationships or create a clearer team identity? Having clarity about the objective of coming together lowers anxiety and keeps the conversation focused and productive.
Get familiar with the range of facilitation techniques and activities suited to different personalities and abilities. Some folks find it better to brainstorm on their own before sharing ideas as a group. Others prefer to interact in smaller groups or share their thoughts in writing rather than verbally. Techniques involving visualization, metaphors, and other creative tools can also better suit some teams. We will likely need to use a mix.
Understanding our team dynamics and presenting options will help ensure that everyone feels as comfortable as possible to engage.
Effective facilitators tune in to what’s going on during the conversation by:
- Actively listening (checking in with the speaker to ensure we’ve understood or to clarify).
- Reading unspoken communication, such as “checking out” by looking at a smartphone or other cues.
- Noticing interactions between team members that might reveal unspoken dynamics at play.
Being aware and present allows us to detect the direction of the conversation and to make informed choices in the moment.
While we need to be intentional and prepared to facilitate, we must also adapt to what is going on in front of us. As we agilists know, things don’t always unfold as planned, so it’s best not to get too attached to our agenda or specific facilitation structures.
It’s very easy in situations of high emotion to become reactive, which reduces our ability to remain open, flexible and creative. We want to avoid a knee-jerk response to what we hear or experience in favor of thoughtfully directing the situation. You can learn more about this dynamic in my previous post, Staying Creative in a Reactive World.
Self-awareness of how we respond during stressful times can help us remain calm and change course if necessary. A helpful first step is to simply slow things down when the stress of the moment compels us to speed things up. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Typical North American English speakers become uncomfortable with pauses in conversations longer than a few seconds. It takes practice.
Regularly pausing to process information improves understanding and allows us to respond with curiosity and openness. So, take a breath, and encourage others on your team to do the same. Taking frequent pauses also allows those on your team who might need more time to process information to engage more readily. It enables everyone to make better, more informed decisions.
Also, recognize that some situations and decisions need more time than others. We tend to have a false sense of urgency in our organizations, but often we can delay decisions a bit when we need to extend the conversation or gather more information. The phrase, “Make decisions at the last responsible moment,” comes to mind.
Note that I’m not advocating for extending time boxes on Scrum events. If the issues we need to deal with require more time, it’s best to move those discussions outside of the event.
Cultivate a “brave space”
Facilitating a difficult conversation successfully requires psychological safety for participants. Team members must know they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking their minds and suggesting ideas. But keep in mind that a “safe” space doesn’t necessarily mean being perfectly comfortable. We are going to experience uncomfortable feelings when discussing thorny issues.
I promote the idea of a “brave space” instead. In a brave space, we are willing to be vulnerable. We are open to hearing difficult feedback from colleagues. We are committed to learning.
Facilitation skills are for everyone
Improving facilitation skills is not just for Scrum Masters. Any Scrum Team member can facilitate events and working sessions. Facilitation skills are valuable for many issues that arise in our day-to-day work lives, and when every Scrum Team member becomes comfortable with facilitating, the whole team benefits.
There are many creative and interesting facilitation techniques available online (I’ve linked to a few creative ones at the end of this post). But it's essential that we are intentional about the techniques we select, how we combine them, and how we choose to respond in the moment regarding the direction of what emerges during our conversations. That’s why I appreciate the Professional Scrum Facilitation Skills (PSFS) class. Just like there are no best practices in Scrum, there are no best facilitation techniques. This class focuses on helping you develop a facilitator’s mindset, learning how to select effective techniques for different situations in your context.
You might find these other posts helpful to further explore facilitation techniques:
How to Facilitate an Awesome Sprint Review in Bazaar Mode
Inspect and Improve the Performance of a Scrum Team with “Generative Relationships STAR”