How to Fix the Cycle of Ineffective Meetings and Events with Better Facilitation
If you struggle to pay attention during meetings (made even more challenging by virtual meetings), you are not alone. I, and many of you, are part of the some 90% of people who daydream during meetings, and the 73% who use meeting time to do other work.* And.. we are also probably part of the group that overestimates our own abilities to lead and facilitate effective conversations, feeding that vicious circle of soul-sucking meetings and events that are ineffective.
Ineffective events lack focus, objective, balanced participation, and timing and usually cause people to disengage in boredom or frustration. Yet, the goal is not to remove all meetings, but to improve the quality of the ones that we need. In Scrum, we have 4 Scrum events within a Sprint, and without effective facilitation, rooted in purpose, even these events can be ineffective.
Listed below are five ways you can improve your meetings and Scrum events, based on the principles of effective facilitation. Effective facilitation is participatory, healthy, transparent, purposeful and an adaptive and inclusive process. I find that these principles embrace the Scrum Values of focus, openness, respect, courage and commitment well, and together help teams apply facilitation purposefully toward desired outcomes. Scrum.org has released a training course, Professional Scrum Facilitation Skills (PSFS), that teaches participants to apply different facilitation techniques through complex and likely familiar scenarios, while keeping these principles and the following points in mind:
- Have a clear purpose. How many times have you been in a meeting and you were confused about why you were there? Often, people set out to facilitate a session, but lack a clear goal, which causes there to be a lack of structure. They may include various facilitation techniques and “fun” exercises, but without a clear reason of how the exercises relate to the purpose of the session causing people ultimately to lose clarity on their involvement. Being purposeful with a clear goal will help the facilitator create a plan and approach to the session that is transparent to participants. For instance, if the goal of an event like the Sprint Review is learning and soliciting feedback, the facilitator’s approach may be different than how they would approach facilitating identifying improvements during the Sprint Retrospective.
- Stay focused on outcomes. How many times have you been in a meeting and checked-out because of the long banters and meandering tangents of a few people that led the conversation astray? One of the hardest parts of facilitation is letting people feel creative and experience camaraderie in a group, while also keeping them focused on the purpose of the event. An effective facilitation process for a team should have good judgment and adaptability while keeping everyone involved. Gauge how much process a team needs to help guide them especially when summarizing points or transitioning between topics during the event. This may be more in the beginning and less later.
- Facilitate the process, not the content. Have you ever been in a meeting where the facilitator injected suggestions or opinions regarding the work, and you became confused by their role and intentions? Teams doing complex work thrive when they can work in healthy and open environments where they can respectfully agree or disagree with others ideas without bias. Effective facilitation requires the facilitator to pay attention to the environment and the team’s group dynamics. When the person facilitating does not clarify their role, they risk minimizing transparency into their involvement which could cause the team to question their involvement. This is particularly important when the person facilitating is also a member of the team.
- Drive to decision. What about times you attended a great session, but in the end, no decision was made? I find this often happens in retrospectives where the team comes near the end of the timebox without any agreed-upon improvement items for the next Sprint, so they scramble and someone chooses for the entire team, creating another sort of problem. A facilitator can have a good plan and focus but still come up short in the end if the team did not make the necessary decision or create the results they needed for the appropriate person(s) to make the decision. When facilitators and participants run short on time, they tend to gloss over next steps. Effective facilitation means managing time carefully, avoiding repetition, advocating for specifics and next steps. Next steps (includes the who, what and when) should be transparent and understood and agreed to (the why) by all in the team.
- Ensure participation to create shared responsibility. How often have you complied with a team decision that you didn’t truly agree with only to regret it? Have you ever been in a group discussion where the conversation did not progress because someone couldn’t let go of their point or idea? These experiences are common and occur because of typical dynamics of diverse perspectives on a team. In any group or team, there are always different levels of participation because of personalities, perceived status, work, expertise, etc. This diversity is what encourages creativity and development in teams, but also what creates conflict and difficulty in agreeing on decisions. When facilitating these types of events, whether it is a brainstorming or refinement session, a facilitator should make sure everyone’s voice is represented and look for different ways to build consensus to ensure shared understanding. The understanding is what creates buy-in and responsibility in decisions, whether that decision is made by one person or many.
Whether you are new to facilitation or developing your skills to help your Scrum Teams thrive in the pursuit of value, remember that your role as a facilitator plays an important part in helping people to understand and achieve their shared goals and objectives. The next time you’re facilitating an interaction, keep these points in mind to enable a purposeful and participative environment in which people feel safe to engage, learn and collaborate. If you are curious about learning more, explore the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Facilitation Skills (PSFS) training course.