October 30, 2020

How to use Powerful Questions Virtually

How do you break down a large item on your Product Backlog? How can you get a more valuable Sprint Goal? And how can you help people see what is right in front of them? Often, all you need is to ask the right question at the right time. That is why we spend a lot of time compiling a huge deck of Powerful Questions for you.

We know from experience that the best way to unleash teams is to ask questions instead of giving (your) solutions. The best teams we know invest heavily in learning the skills to ask the right questions at the right time and then work together to answer it.

For our book the “Zombie Scrum Survival Guide”, we compiled over 50 of our most favorite Powerful Questions into one huge deck. We worked hard to cover the six areas where teams struggle the most:

  1. Create better Sprint Goals & Sprint Backlogs;
  2. Break down Product Backlog Items;
  3. Discovery & Action Dialogue (creative thinking);
  4. Gently challenge beliefs and encourage double-loop learning;
  5. Keep the team focused during the Sprint;
  6. Help teams switch from a technical to a functional perspective;

Invite people in your team to randomly pick a question from a relevant category and answer it together. The possibilities are endless, really.

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How to prepare?

Duration

This totally depends on the approach you use. Answering a question can take 5 minutes, but also 90 minutes when using within a string of Liberating Structures.

Intended Audience

These questions are designed for Scrum Teams that develop products. So using the questions within your team makes sense. We highly recommend that you include important stakeholders as well. Many questions are directly about stakeholders or the products they’ve got a stake in. Instead of trying to figure out an answer within your team, explore it together with stakeholders.

Virtual Delivery

We’ve successfully used this exercise with virtual teams. It does require preparation and the right tools. In our work, we purposefully follow the principles of Liberating Structures and break down interactions into smaller groups to allow everyone to contribute — and not just the loud voices and know-it-alls. If you are working with a group beyond five participants, you need tools that allow you to create subchannels or breakout rooms easily. Zoom is ideal for this, but similar features are available in tools like Teams and GotoMeeting.

In a virtual session, you can use a virtual whiteboard like Mural, Miro, or Google Slides to provide a good experience. You can set up your canvas as shown in the screenshot. Or simply share the questions by showing them via Zoom.

Example

When to use Powerful Questions? 

It shouldn’t be difficult to find opportunities to use Powerful Questions. You can use them during the start of a new Scrum Team, at a meetup with other Scrum Masters, or to improve the collaboration with other Scrum Teams. The most obvious applications for using these questions are the various Scrum events and activities. You can share the questions you think are most relevant via a digital whiteboard, or simply ask them during a Zoom call.

Sprint Planning

Sprint Planning is about selecting the work from the Product Backlog that is needed to achieve the Sprint Goal. But what is a good Sprint Goal? And given the Sprint Goal, what work needs to be done? And what is less important? The cards “Create better Sprint Goals & Sprint Backlogs” help you find an answer. Examples of questions are:

  • “What would need to happen while working on this Sprint Goal, that would be cause for celebration?” 
  • “If we just canceled the next Sprint and went on vacation, what would be inevitably lost or become much harder later?” 
  • “When we achieve this Sprint Goal, what has clearly changed or improved from the perspective of our stakeholders?”

Daily Scrum

The Daily Scrum is where the Development Team plans their collaboration towards achieving the Sprint Goal for the next 24 hours. It’s the ideal moment to navigate the complexities involved in even a single Sprint. The cards “Keep the team focused during the Sprint” help craft the Development Team a plan for the upcoming day. Examples of questions are:

  • “What is the biggest bottleneck in our current work together? What can we do today towards removing it?” 
  • “What is keeping us from completing this item? Where do we need help?” 
  • “Instead of picking up something new, where can you help others get work done that is already in progress?”

Sprint Review

The Sprint Review happens at the end of a Sprint. Its purpose is to inspect the work that has been done to date and to decide what next steps make sense based on what was learned from that. It could be, that during the Sprint Review the Scrum Team & stakeholders stumble upon a problem. This is where the cards from “Discovery & Action Dialogue (creative thinking)” come in place. It will help you explore the root cause of the problem, together:

  • “How do you know when this problem is present?” 
  • “How do you contribute effectively to solving the problem?”
  • “Do you know anybody who is able to frequently solve this problem and overcome barriers? What behaviors or practices made their success possible?”

Sprint Retrospective

During the Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team inspects how they worked together to achieve the Sprint Goal, and what can be improved in the next Sprint. This can involve an updated Definition of Done, researching new tools or technologies, a change in working agreements, or a different team composition. The cards related to “Gently challenge beliefs and encourage double-loop learning” will help the team define **real** impactful improvements. For example challenge possible falls beliefs that block the growth of the team. Examples of questions are:

  • “What happens when this belief turns out to be wrong?”
  • “Where do you see this belief confirmed?” 
  • “What would need to happen for you to let go of this belief?”

Refinement

Items on a Product Backlog are reminders of “conversations that we need to have in the future”. And refinement is the ongoing process of having those conversations. Sometimes this means talking with stakeholders about an item that may end up in the next Sprint, while at other times it can be to clarify an item that the team is already working on. Often, refinement means breaking down work on the Product Backlog that is too big to complete in a single Sprint (which generally also means that they’re too unclear). The cards “Break down Product Backlog Items” will help you do so, for example:

  • “Which of the acceptance criteria for this item can we get away with by implementing later?”
  • “What is the smallest and simplest possible way to implement this item?”
  • “If we had to implement this item in only one day, what would we focus on making sure is there? What could be done later?”

The cards related to “Help teams switch from a technical to a functional perspective” are often also useful during refinement. Questions you can use to create a better understanding of the Product Backlog items are:

  • “How would sales explain the benefits of this to a new user or customer?”
  • “When we implement this item, which user(s) benefits from it the most?”
  • “If we don’t implement this item, what likely complaints can we expect from our users in the future?”

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How to use Powerful Questions? 

Now that you have specific examples of when to use Powerful Questions, you may wonder “But how?”. One easy way is to invite your team to randomly pick a question from a category and can result in a useful conversation. The chances of a valuable conversation drastically increase when you use Liberating Structures. Especially in a virtual context where important voices can be drowned out by louder ones. Liberating Structures help to break up conversation and allow everyone to actively contribute and participate.

Below we share examples of Liberating Structures that you can use in combination with the Powerful Questions. Many other Liberating Structures are suitable as well, but these will help you get started.

Conversation Cafe

Use Conversation Cafe to make sense of the challenges you’re facing within the team. This Liberating Structure gives everyone the opportunity to share their perspectives and jointly gain insights on how to move forward.

Steps:

  1. Prepare breakouts for groups of four or five people.
  2. (2 min) Share the Powerful Question for Conversation Café and give everyone some time to individually and silently reflect on their experiences with the topic.
  3. (2 min) Provide a rough overview of the rounds. Each group goes through four rounds, two first rounds with a talking object, the third one as an open conversation, and a final round to share personal insights again.
  4. (2 min) Explain that, once everyone is in their breakouts, they will self-manage the rounds. Use the chat to broadcast which round they should be in. Ask for each group to pick a host. The host is a full participant whose role is to keep the timeboxes and to gently intervene when a participant fails to observe the timebox or is talking on and on.
  5. (5 min) In the first round, everyone shares their personal thoughts and experience with regard to the selected question. Emphasize that this round is *not* a conversation.
  6. (5 min) In the second round, everyone shares thoughts and feelings after having listened to everybody. Emphasize that this round is *not* a conversation.
  7. (8 min) The thirds round is an open and lively conversation. 
  8. (5 min) In the fourth round, everyone shares their takeaways from the conversation. People have the option to pass. Emphasize that this round is, again, *not* a conversation.
  9. (5 min) Once everyone is back in the main channel, briefly discuss the patterns that emerged with the entire group.

1–2–4-ALL

The Liberating Structure 1–2–4-ALL is a great way to involve everyone simultaneously in generating questions, ideas, and suggestions. Regardless of how large the group is you’ll engage every individual in searching for answers.

Steps:

  1. (1 min) Ask people to get their thinking started about the selected Powerful Question. Individually, and in silence.
  2. (2 min) Invite people into pairs and move them into breakouts. There, they quickly share their ideas and build on them.
  3. (4 min) Invite people into groups of four, preferably by keeping the pairs together and move them into new breakouts. Ask the groups to share their ideas and build on them.
  4. (5 min) Together, collect all the participants on a shared workspace and remove duplicates as needed.

Impromptu Networking

The Liberating Structure Impromptu Networking allows a group of any size to make personal connections and share ideas in less than 20 minutes. It is a great way to kickstart the collective brainpower of the group and rapidly identify patterns to dig deeper into later.

Steps:

  1. (3 min) Share the Powerful Question and give everyone time for individual thinking. Simultaneously, prepare the breakouts for the pairs.
  2. (3 min) Ask participants to share their thoughts about the question. Let them be mindful of each other and share the responsibility for the timebox.
  3. (3 min) Reshuffle the configuration of the breakouts and ask the new pairs to continue sharing their thoughts. 
  4. (3 min) In the third and final round, ask the newly formed pairs to share their thoughts but to also pay attention to patterns (e.g. differences and similarities) between the conversations. 
  5. (5 min) Once everyone is back in the main channel, briefly discuss the patterns that emerged with the entire group.

Wise Crowds

Wise Crowds exists to tap into the wisdom of large groups. It creates a space where people can both get help on a persistent challenge and work with others to develop and practice helping behaviors that help overcome other challenges.

Steps:

  1. (2 min) Ask a team member or stakeholder to present his/her challenge and request for help. Use the Powerful Questions as inspiration. Figuring out an answer to a certain question can be the input for Wise Crowds.
  2. (2 min) The team members (acting as consultants) ask open, clarifying questions to better understand the challenge.
  3. The client turns off the webcam and audio and gets ready to take notes.
  4. (8 min) The consultants ask questions and offer advice, and recommendations, working as a team, while the client only listens.
  5. (2 min) The client turns on the webcam and audio again and provides feedback to the consultants: what was useful and what he or she takes away.

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After the exercise

With these Powerful Questions, you unleash your team’s superpowers by asking questions instead of giving (your) solutions. The best teams we know invest heavily in learning the skills to ask the right questions at the right time and then work together to answer it.

Learn And Grow, Together

Although asking questions isn’t difficult in itself, finding the right moment, and creating a suitable environment can be challenging. This is why we gladly invite you to join our growing community of patrons. Here, you’ll find many other Scrum practitioners who are eager to give and get help.

If you’re stuck or have other questions about this exercise, reach out to us at info@theliberators.com. Let’s learn and grow, together!

Help Us Improve This Exercise

We are eager to learn from your experience of this exercise. You probably discovered much about the flow of the exercise, the use of the invitations, and the impact on the group. What did it make possible for you or your team? What unexpected surprises did you run into? What would make it even better? Help us learn from your experience by sharing it with us. It only takes a few minutes.

Share Your Outcomes

There is bound to be plenty of learning going on in your session. If you can, please share some of those results with the wider community. We always like to share a collage of pictures (with permission) or a short video. It is a nice way to inspire people to give the string a try as well!

Try our other exercises

We offer many other exercises in our webshop at shop.theliberators.com. All are designed to create transparency within your team and to use that to inspect and adapt together.

For example, the Scrum Events & Activities exercise creates transparency around the purpose of the various Scrum Events and how you’re benefitting from that (or not). The Definition of Done exercise creates transparency around what happens when your team is unable to deliver “Done” increments every Sprint. Management in Scrum makes clear what management looks like in Scrum, and what makes Scrum Teams autonomous. You can also try Ecocycle Planning for Scrum Teams to diagnose how well your team is doing with Scrum.

Find many more at shop.theliberators.com.

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