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The Importance of Good Facilitation Skills to Drive Success in Agile Teams

November 30, 2023

In this episode of the Community Podcast, host Dave West is joined by Douglas Ferguson to talk about facilitation and the importance of effective facilitation. They chat about:

- How to approach facilitation and how to choose certain techniques
- Common anti-patterns
- Different facilitation techniques
- Showing up to meetings with intention
- and more!


About our guest: 

 Douglas Ferguson is an entrepreneur, educator, and human-centered technologist. He is the founder and president of Voltage Control, a facilitation academy that develops leaders through certifications, workshops, and organizational coaching focused on facilitation mastery, innovation, and play. He has helped transform leaders, innovators, and creatives from Nike, U.S. SOCOM, Google, the Air Force, Gap, Tesla, MSU, Church & Dwight, Apple, Adobe, Dropbox, Fidelity, Vrbo, Liberty Mutual, Humana, and SAIC. Douglas is a thought leader and author of four books: Magical Meetings, Beyond the Prototype, How to Remix Anything, and Start Within.  




Dave West  0:20  
Hello, and welcome to the community podcast. I'm your host, Dave West CEO in a sunny Boston, Massachusetts. today's podcast is actually going to be focused on a topic that I'm not actually very good at. And I I'm very grateful that we have this opportunity to talk about facilitation. As you can tell from my podcasts, if you've listened to any of this series, I do like to talk maybe too much. So facilitation. It's a key stance of an agile practitioner. So we know that we know a lot about that. So today, I'm very fortunate that I've got an expert in that field on that subject. Douglas Ferguson, founder of voltage control, welcome to the podcast, Douglas.

Douglas Ferguson  1:09  
David, so great to be here. Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to talk about facilitation, which is one of my favorite things to talk about.

Dave West  1:16  
I know and actually, for our listeners, I met Douglas we were somehow got introduced and we had a long, much longer than we plan conversation about facilitation in its role in, in agile and its role in Scrum. So that's the reason why I asked Douglas if, if he had something to do one afternoon, and here he is talking to us today. So as we begin this podcast, I think it's important for audience to have a little idea of who you are, and how you got to be really into facilitation. So who are you and where did you come from Douglas

Douglas Ferguson  1:55  
had an interesting story, I don't share in common with a lot of my facilitation peers. And I think the scrum community might find it interesting because I was a CTO prior to founding voltage control, started off writing code in high school, even and out of college, wrote code for startups and started leading engineering teams, and eventually product teams and designers as a CTO. And through that process became really curious about what made for highly collaborative team. So it was always consuming new types of tools such as, you know, extreme programming, and Agile and Scrum and all these different things. And even design methodologies like design thinking and design sprints, and always just trying these things out and seeing what works. And that's what led me into realizing that there might be a place for me in the world of facilitation and how I can bring this to people who haven't experienced it before. Because a lot of times people that call themselves facilitators, there are a certain type of person who wants to go out and, and lead these things all the time. But in the workplace, there's lots of folks that really need to show up as facilitators. And in fact, that's evident by the fact that we all talk about how horrible our meetings are. And how, you know, in my book, magical meetings, I say there's no such thing as a bad meeting. Just bad facilitators. No,

Dave West  3:20  
so it's a bit like pets, right? There's no such thing as a bad pet. It's only bad owners. That's, that's something we should all take to heart. So voltage control is an interesting name for an organization. You know, the one electrical engineering class I did at university, which was awful, by the way, just for reference, and I was awful at it. Maybe that's another pet analogy. Maybe I actually there's no notion this thing is bad classes. It's just bad students. Right. Anyway, the it's my understanding is voltage controllers used to manipulate analog circuits. So as an interesting choice from the name of the organization, Douglas, yeah,

Douglas Ferguson  3:59  
you know, I am a musician. I was playing music when I was in high school and writing code, too. And I have a large synthesizer, and it's a modular synthesizer. And the synthesizer is comprised of voltage controlled modules. So the patch cables carry control voltage, and that's how they operate and the carrier signal. And I've often use it as a metaphor when I think about teams and organizations because once you start rearranging things and moving things in the synthesizer, like unplugging cables, or plugging them in the different spots, it can change the sound drastically, often to detrimental health impacts, right? And so, if you don't, under if you just walk up to that thing and go, Well, this seems like it'd be more efficient over here, or this might make more sense over here, without understanding the nuance of why it was put together in the way it was, or even the nuance of how these modules work, ie the people how the people work and how other people connected it If we're not paying attention to those things, then we can cause detrimental harm to the harmony or the sound of the, of the piece we're creating or the environment we're in. And as I was thinking about how I wanted to name the company, something that was personal and meaningful for me, I reflected on that metaphor. And the thing that really drove it home. For me, it was as I thought about how the definition of voltage is potential energy. And I thought about, we're manipulating the potential, we're helping people harness their potential in their organizations that really spoke

Dave West  5:32  
to me. But the word control is an interesting one, because my, particularly with your heavy emphasis on facilitation and, and the work you've done there, which is in the book you wrote, which was, which is an awesome book, I recommend it. The control, you know, as a facilitator, I, for my understanding, aren't I meant to be unbiased anti not meant to control anything that just, you know, I'm like this. I don't know, wind read? I don't know, some sort of a no hippie kind of analogy? I don't know. But control sounds a little bit scary. Yeah,

Douglas Ferguson  6:08  
it's like the water right. And it just kind of flowing around things are some are the Gumby on the side of the street that just waving around? I don't think you can get things done. You know, you can't be a servant leader without having some leadership without kind of driving stuff in a direction. And as a facilitator or using facilitation skills, we have to understand what outcome we're trying to drive toward. And we can steer the group there. The point is, we shouldn't be mandating or telling people do this, go in this direction, make these specific moves, it starts to get into micromanagement. Right. And so a great way to, to combat micromanagement, if that's something you tend to, or if you want to move further in the direction away from micromanaging, facilitation is a great way to do that. But still move toward a common goal still helped the group understand together, where we might need to go, or a nuanced variety of that direction, how we might steer it in a subtle new way?

Dave West  7:09  
Yeah, I think, I think that's really interesting, understand the difference between control and direction. And sort of like micro management, versus that sort of direction stuff. I think it's a, it's a really interesting nuance, because I've been facilitated to heck, at times where I've felt the exact opposite. I felt that I'm literally being forced to do this almost uncomfortable series of yoga stances. And my body is going I don't want to do this, this is not fun. But, you know, but but the facilitator was so into it, that I just felt that I couldn't say no,

Douglas Ferguson  7:48  
yeah, it's so important as a facilitator to read the room and and notice what's happening. And, you know, there's a really important quality and a facilitator, which is often doesn't come natural at first, because when folks start facilitating, they typically will hold on to their methods really tightly, or they'll, they'll have a plan, and they want to work the plan, you know, because it's perfect. And they figured it all out. And, and it's really they get kind of frightened in the moment, because they see this big group they're responsible for these outcomes are responsible, and they they push and push this plan through and your to your example, you're in these yoga poses feel uncomfortable? And can you imagine looking across the room and seeing these people Wow, they don't look like they're enjoying themselves, right. And I think that's, rather than getting frightened and doubling down on the plan, and just going, whew, I gotta sweat through this. And, you know, it's not comfortable for the facilitator, I can tell you, like, they don't, it's not an enjoyable place to be. But it's frightening to stare outside of that, because because they typically get in the zone of, you know, I gotta get through this and make the plan work and so much more powerful to let go, you know, to be nimble, to be agile, right, like, and, in fact, we tell people to practice making three versions of your agenda, and then make one, throw it away, make another one, throw it away, make another one. And then, you know, no matter what you run into, you at least got three ways to do it. And you've built up a muscle and an ability to rethink different varieties of how to approach it.

Dave West  9:26  
It's really, really interesting. So that, and I really like the point around having that flexibility to use facilitation techniques. As you as the audience allows you to in in in the situation, merits itself. So as an agile practitioner, I guess the first question is, why do I care? I mean, facilitation, you know, we're not we're not trying to mediate peace. We're not you know, we're not running in it. Most agile practitioners work came to the UN Though interestingly, a lot of Scrum was practiced in the UN in the 90s by Ken Schreiber. But so we're not in these high stress situations. It's just the scrum team and a few stakeholders, and we're trying to get to something. So why do I need any of this crazy facilitation? Talk? Douglas?

Douglas Ferguson  10:18  
What does it say it's not high stress, but often, the workplace can be quite stressful, when emotions flare up. And, you know, we get can we get passionate and dedicated to our work and believe that, you know, I think we should do it this way. And someone believes that we should do it some other way. And so decisions can be hard, often, and so, you know, moving into situations where we can come together and make decisions more effectively, more calmly, and delineate between when we're actually disagreeing. And when we aren't, in those situations where the group's in violent agreement with like, no one's stepping up to pointed out. So like, actually designating a role. And this is where the unbiased piece comes in, it can be really powerful to have a facilitator, outside of the outside of the main group that's doing the work, especially if you've, if you've got two groups that are coming together to collaborate on something, like if you have someone facilitating from one of those groups, then they there's kind of a sense of power that they have over this collaboration. And so finding a third party can be a really great way to kind of level the playing field. And it's not really about bringing in an outsider necessarily, it could just be someone from a third team. And I see a lot of companies do that where people were borrow someone for a few hours, just to help like, with a session, show up and do a thing. And that can be a great way as well to cross pollinate ideas throughout the organization. Because even though it's not your project, that you're you have stuff that you're responsible for, but it might impact something that you have coming down the road, or just understanding what's happening oh, and this other group that's working on a different module, it's helpful to have context on this thing sometimes. And so, you know, it comes down to decision making, it comes down to understanding options, you know, all the a lot of the principles that when you really look at the Agile Manifesto, a lot of the things around, you know, the tenets that they believe in around

Dave West  12:26  
whether it's in teams, for instance, rather than process. Exactly.

Douglas Ferguson  12:31  
And so if we're going to prioritize these things, facilitation can help us get there, right. And we can use the siltation, to lean into those values that we have, because we can invite people to the conversation better. And we can also start to understand these, these things that might be causing issues down the road, for instance, because if we don't have those conversations earlier, then they can rear their heads later. Oftentimes, I see people just kind of going through the motions and sweeping stuff under the rug until it really until it really bites us down the road. And, you know, I think when people are practicing agile, and they're, they're testing things out and, and seeing stuff there, we're shipping code, you know, and seeing stuff in real life, then there's this interest in learning. And so why don't we apply that same interest into our relationships at work, and in the projects that are unfolding versus just the software itself?

Dave West  13:30  
I think the that I think those points are spot on. I think obviously Scrum. We care very much about that that cycle of learning. That's what the Sprint's are and the feedback of Sprint Review and retrospective. But so let me just make sure that I'm getting this right, though, Douglas. So you're saying that everybody should have some level of facilitation skill and a desire to use it? It isn't just the the anointed scrum master Agile coach, external consultant that comes in is that is that true? Is that the message that you're sending here?

Douglas Ferguson  14:09  
Well, I haven't specifically brought that up yet, but it's an important point, you know, I, the the thing is that there are certainly people that will facilitate more often, I would say, anyone who calls a meeting to order should be thinking more deeply about just basic facilitation skills. And it's really unfortunate that it's not taught and leadership programs or, or even an undergrad, and it's kind of a mystery to me, because, well, frankly, there's a lot of stuff that's not taught, right, like, oftentimes you get into the workplace, right? And it's like, no one's ever told you how to use a calendar and so you got to learn all this etiquette of how to show up and be an actual worker. Right. And you know, some of that stuff is probably learned nowadays, just through osmosis, and internships and things but, but no one's no one really. really takes the time to say, how to be a great meeting participant how to actually run a great meeting. Because learning facilitation skills can help you have more appreciation for those that are running the meeting. So you become a better meeting participant, you can actually assist without usurping control, you can assist them in really meaningful way as if you kind of understand the dynamics and what they're going through. So

Dave West  15:23  
everybody needs to bring some of these skills to bear either in terms of understanding them. So you help whoever is facilitating that the meeting? And also, are you saying Douglas, that everybody that that, that all meetings need to be actively facilitated? or is this some sort of bar, you know, when there's three people or when it's a Wednesday afternoon, you should always facilitate? Or is there some bars? Or is, should every meeting be facilitated?

Douglas Ferguson  15:53  
I think every meeting is facilitated at some level. The question is, how much intention do we take to it? How important is it? What's the quality and the purpose of the meeting, that might warrant the experience that we need to design into that meeting, right. And so we may not be bringing, like really heavyweight tools into our short to person meeting. But the more you facilitate, and the more you start to adapt tools and techniques, the more that they will just find their way into everything you're doing. Because you just become better at hosting people and bringing them together to do things. And so, for instance, one really powerful technique is to have people split people into smaller groups. And that's not not something you have to be super planful about. But if you're hosting a meeting of like, you know, six people, you might realize, like, I'm just gonna put them in pairs really quick, that might actually help things move faster. In this moment, I didn't know I was going to need to do that yesterday. But in this moment, I'm realizing that that's the kind of stuff that starts to happen, the more you practice it and more, the more you lean into that learning the skills and but to your point, there's, there's certain meetings and gatherings that we do need to be really planful about and, and the more we are planful, about any any of those opportunities, then we start to learn those moves, and they just kind of show up all the time. So specifically, things we might want to be more planful about, you know, things that are higher stakes, things that have repetitive patterns to them, where we can start to put in, you know, there's a reason why these ritualistic meetings in the scrum world have patterns to them or, or kind of like, ways of doing them, because we do them a lot. And let's make them efficient. And let's like, let's have a way of doing them, right. And so when you think about like retrospective, for example, that's like a way to facilitate a retrospective. But that's also a great way to mix things up. Because people can get bored with this kind of repetition. So think about, you know, if I'm, if I was going to be planful, about something, retrospective, could be a really fun way to say, Okay, how might I show up with a mural or mural board and really just like, make this feel way different than we have done in the past? Or what kind of metaphor might I bring to get people thinking a little bit differently? Do I bring in Start Stop continue, or, or some other kind of framework to or what So what now, what there's so many different ways to do a retrospective and so mixing it up is a great way to try try different tools and techniques without it feeling, I don't know, like, forced.

Dave West  18:33  
So obviously, every meeting, particularly maybe every meeting, but certainly the important one is usually an outcome and a context to that whether it's gaining consensus, you know, resolving conflict, brainstorming ideas, creating, you know, doing some sort of creative work or consolidation work, these kinds of things are review and feedback or whatever. So does just bearing them the, the intent in mind? Does that influence you to pick a particular set of techniques?

Douglas Ferguson  19:12  
Absolutely. So there's, we have an approach that we call workshop design, and we there's a free workshop design template on the website, and we do a workshop Design Workshop. Every now and then we don't currently have one available but but you know, the templates fairly straightforward to use. And the concept is applying learning experience design to the workshop or meeting process and, and I think even if you don't sit down to use the template, some of these some of these patterns of this approach is really powerful. So I think it's worth breaking down. So essentially, there was a learning experience design, there's a concept called backwards design. And with the workshop design template, we start with that In the objective in mind, so how are the learners leaving the experience? And, you know, some of you may have raised your eyebrow like learner? What do you mean learner, we have this belief that all meetings are learning experiences. And if we set people up to be in learning mindsets and apply learning design principles, we're going to design better experiences, because then they're going to be more open to hearing what the coworker has to say, and being more receptive to the ideas of other people, because we put people in a learning mindset. And so thinking of reframing meeting participants as learners is kind of a powerful way to invite those kinds of design tools in. So thinking about the way the learners leaving, how do we want them to leave transformed or different in some way? And then thinking about how they're entering, and then looking at that gap. And that gap can help us understand, Okay, well, if we know they're entering a certain way, we want them to leave in a different way, then how might we design that differently. And of course, we might have different ways people are entering, like an executive might be entering that space differently than a frontline contributor. And so if they're applying at different altitudes, once thinking strategically, and not thinking tactically, we might wouldn't want to be mindful of that as we kind of design the session. And then we're looking at, so that kind of gets to your point around the purpose, right, because the outcome that we're kind of how we're wanting them to leave, is directly impacted by how we what we are trying to accomplish. And, and that'll, that'll really influence how you think about opening the session, all the work you might do in the middle, and then how you close. And often I'll see, you know, real rookie mistake of facilitators or anyone starting to hear about some of the stuff just glom on icebreakers or activities, and not thinking about that purpose. And that's why people get a distaste for icebreakers are people telling them to do strange yoga moves or whatever? Like, what's your favorite ice creams? Like, why are we talking about ice cream? Aren't we here to like, figure out like this weird bug that's going on, you know, it's like, if you, if you really want to create some connection, before you get into the content, it's gonna be way more powerful that the connection that you're inviting is somehow aligned with the content you're gonna go into, or the work you're going to do together. And so being mindful of that, and planful about that will really get people way more engaged, and way more attention into what you're asking them to do.

Dave West  22:23  
Wow, mind blown ay, you said, two things really said more than that. But my mind was so blown on the first two, one, thinking about every meeting is a learning situation, it reminds me of my grandmother used to say to me, you've got two ears and one mouth, use them in that order. And I'm like, Oh, thanks, Grant. I never did, but she was a very wise lady, and Carter. And the second thing I never thought to do it to do was think about how people turn up. Obviously, you do that, when you're in a very tricky sales situation are very tricky. You know, maybe you're going through a divorce. And you've got you think a lot about Oh, my God, is Bob gonna come with this. But in most meetings, even some pretty high risk ones. I've never thought about that. And where do we want everybody to get to at the end, and then looking at that distance, and the fact people come with different things might mean that we structure the meeting into two segments, it might mean, wow, that's really good stuff. I really, really, I've learned something. I mean, wherever I apply, it is a whole different thing. But I really have learned something that's awesome.

Douglas Ferguson  23:36  
You know, the decision making is a great example of this, Dave, it's how many times have you seen in groups be come disgruntled about like a leader making a decision. And oftentimes, it's because the expectation wasn't set at the beginning. We didn't consider that they were coming in thinking that we were going to make this decision together. And all the leader needed to do was say, I'm gonna collect your input, but ultimately, I'm going to make this decision. They would have been totally happy with that. But since their expectation was different, they went through the all these motions in this meeting or session, and then we're, you know, bummed to find out that we, here they had this feeling like, Well, why did you ask me if you weren't gonna take my advice, you know, and so it's so powerful to front load that expectation setting or even, you know, a classic opener, we're big fans of is asking, why are we here? Like, what are we trying to do? Because it's really important, as a facilitator, clarify the purpose, but it's really powerful to also test it. Because if we've shared it told them, make sure the name of the meeting based on the purpose, so it's really we've done everything we can to kind of clarify that then let's double check, let's trust but verify that the purpose is aligned, because if it isn't, we can correct that out of the gate and maybe our participants can correct it for us. Like let's say that everyone's aligned but one person Next thing you know that the whole group is helping address that error. And you don't even have to do anything. And we call that the lazy facilitator. You know, if we can set up conditions where the group does the work, and we can just kind of lean back, then then you really hit that Zen moment.

Dave West  25:16  
Wow, I'm feeling that I've got to write some post it notes and stick them around my screen. So the next meeting, I'm much more I will I show up with a lot more intention, which is what you're advocating. And I think that's fantastic. And I could talk to you all day, don't listen, I'm sure I would learn lots from you about facilitation, and but I'm afraid we are coming to the end of our our time together. This has been really, really interesting. As I said, mind blown I love that learner stance. And I love the thinking about how people attend. And then obviously using the right patterns, or having a series of patterns that we can use to to bridge that gap between what we're trying to get people from to where we're trying to get them to. Super, super interesting. So thank you for blowing my mind today. Before we go, I know our listeners would love to hear where they can find out more from you.

Douglas Ferguson  26:16  
Absolutely. I'm very active on LinkedIn. So feel free to follow me there or come check out any of the content. Also unbolted, you can check out our facilitation Academy where we offer certification and courses and would love to check you out. There's a lot of free content. So feel free to jump in and and start learning with us.

Dave West  26:40  
That's awesome. So thank you, Douglas, thank you for your time today. So today for our listeners. So I was with Douglas Ferguson, founder of voltage control. And we were talking about that interesting and often thorny topic of facilitation. Thank you for joining us. Thank you, Douglas. And thank you listeners. This is Dave West here at the community podcast. Hopefully, you have enjoyed today. And if you have maybe you want to listen to more. There's lots on the site. Please go some interesting topics ranging from professional scrum trainers talking about their journeys to obviously today we talked about facilitation. agile marketing was another recent topic. There's lots on there. So feel free to consume that content. And thank you for attending. Bye, everybody.


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