May 11, 2022

Trumpeting For all Voices to be Heard with White Elephant - Facilitating for Participation

Elephants standing on horizontal line

One scenario I dread is a low level of engagement and participation from people during a Scrum event. Or only the same few people speak. These scenarios are indicative of a few things, and as a Scrum Master, this is when I put my facilitator hat on and use a participative style to encourage participants to actively engage and contribute in activities and discussions, depending on their individual comfort levels. My goal is to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere, in which team members are willing to share their ideas and perspectives.

There are many ways that help facilitators establish an environment where everyone's voice gets heard. Some time ago, whilst discussing this topic with my fellow Professional Scrum.org Trainer Todd Miller, he shared his experience with using White Elephant principles to enable a participative facilitation environment (thanks Todd!). It inspired me to use it and write this blog. 

White Elephant Principles

If you are looking for a participative facilitation technique and getting everyone's voice heard and understood, then using White Elephant facilitation principles can be a great choice. White Elephant principles help to involve everyone and they give the facilitator the opportunity to include the whole group in the process.

I’ve used White Elephant principles during  Sprint Retrospectives, team agreement discussions, sizing sessions, and other activities that benefit from a participative facilitation style.

Here is how I’ve facilitated White Elephant during a Sprint Retrospective of a team that was doubting the value of certain Scrum elements and were even discussing skipping them completely. As their Scrum Master, my goal was to explore these questions:

  • Has the team fallen into the trap of doing Scrum mechanically and not getting the true value out of the events?
  • Is there a shared understanding of the purpose of the Scrum elements?
  • How can the team improve their use of the elements so they provide (even) more value to the team?

Using White Elephant during the Sprint Retrospective

At the start of the Sprint Retrospective we created a scale ranging from ‘No Value’ to ‘High Value’. We added the following Scrum elements: the five Scrum Events and the three Scrum Artifacts with their corresponding commitments. 

Example white elephant facilitation - horizontal bar with least value and most value at end points

The activity starts with placing the Scrum elements on a scale of how much value they currently provide:

  • The facilitator starts a 1 minute timer for the first team member’s turn. They choose a Scrum element (blue sticky note) and read it out loud to the group.
  • They then place the Scrum element on the scale where they believe it is most appropriate within the Scrum Team’s context.
  • They provide the reasons why they placed it where they did.
  • It is then the turn of the next team member, and the process is repeated with the facilitator restarting the timer.

Only the team member whose turn it is can speak, and they can place the element wherever they believe it is appropriate, without any external interference. It is important that other team members are silent and do not pass judgment. 

If a team member does not place an element on a scale within one minute, the element must be placed in the middle of the scale.

When all elements have been placed on the scale, it is time to start making adjustments.

  • The facilitator gives each team member in turn, again limited to 1 minute, the opportunity to move an element on the scale.
  • The team member provides the reason why they have moved the element.  
  • The team continue to take turns until everyone in the team passes*. 

*Passing means that the team is happy that the placement of the elements on the scale represents the team fairly. If a team member does not make a decision within the 1 minute, it will be interpreted as a pass.

White Elephant can be followed up with, for example, a Lean Coffee to discuss and order concrete actions based on the results.

Conclusion

When doing this activity during the Sprint Retrospective, the team found that we had missed out on the purpose and valuable outcomes of certain events, especially the Sprint Review. We also discussed in the follow-up Lean Coffee ideas on how to improve the Sprint Review. Suggestions such as trying a Sprint Review Bazaar, getting stakeholders to interact with the product, and setting time aside to adapt the Product Backlog together were put on the table. And though it is often said an elephant never forgets,  the idea of ‘skipping an event completely’ was quickly forgotten about!

I hope this blog is helpful and I would love to hear what other participative facilitation styles you have tried. 

 

Feature photo by Martin Mecnarowski on Shutterstock