Agile Facilitation and Neuroscience

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What does neuroscience tell us about facilitation?

In Methods & Tools’ Winter 2012 magazine I explore how neuroscience supports facilitation methods, and use this to make a stab at categorizing facilitation activities according to different levels of interaction.

The journey into neuroscience was prompted by trying to explain why agile facilitation methods work so well. While there is much evidence that they do, there is very little rationale as to why they should. Looking at how our brains process information provides fascinating insight into the great results they generate.

Update: here’s a direct link to the article: Agile Facilitation & Neuroscience: Transforming Information into Action

20 Powerful Questions for the New Year

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CelebrationsHappy 2013 to everyone!

The end and beginning marked by the New Year provide a useful point to stop and reflect on our daily lives.

I don’t subscribe to the ‘give something up’ approach to New Year’s resolutions. But I do like to identify a theme for development – a kind of big-reaching goal that has a year to unfold. Of course, the hard part is identifying which areas of change are significant and supported, and what we can do with them. Not unlike a retrospective, really.

Part of my facilitation toolkit is Deborah Preuss’ downloadable set of Powerful Question Cards. I use them whenever I need to come unstuck from a problem.

Powerful Questions are tools for exploring our world from a new perspective. Using subtle shifts, they help us to see our situation differently, and open our minds to options we might otherwise miss – which makes them inherently creative.

I was flicking through my set on New Year’s Eve and noticed that a few were particularly fitting for a personal retrospective. These gently thought-provoking questions provide great insight for an annual reflection and planning session:

  1. What new skill can you learn?
  2. Who can you partner with?
  3. What’s incongruent?
  4. What brings the most value?
  5. Who wants you to succeed?
  6. How do you get your energy?
  7. A small game is safe; a big game is meaningful, exciting. What’s your Big Game?
  8. What would a simpler way look like?
  9. What’s your bottom line?
  10. What’s the theme song today?
  11. Where is the fun?
  12. What could be scrapped without loss?
  13. Where is courage needed?
  14. What if it’s good enough?
  15. What offer can you make?
  16. What’s already working that you can build on?
  17. Where are you rushing to?
  18. Where’s your growing edge?
  19. What’s so important, you’d leave your comfort zone to make it happen?
  20. What would a wise person whisper in your ear?

Loosely themed, these questions cover:
– What is calling for your attention?
– What’s exciting to you?
– What’s non-negotiable?
– What possibilities are lurking around the edges?
– What themes are present already?

Without stepping into cliché or worrying about resolutions, spending some time chewing on these will help to surface trends and frame intentions, which is a great way to start anything…

Here’s to finding meaningful insights and exciting paths for the year ahead.

4x5 Powerful Questions

Favourite Facilitation Books

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The collaboration that underpins agile development depends on strong facilitation methods that ensure that all aspects of development are approached in an informed, focused and inclusive manner.

That’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s still easier said than done. The titles below are my “go to” books for understanding the breadth, possibilities and challenges of facilitation. Together they cover a wide variety of tools for both the practices and (rather badly named) ‘soft skills’ of facilitation:

Books on management, motivation and ‘soft skills’

The more I work with facilitation techniques and practices, the more I think of them as a management style for collaborative organizations. The books below have been instrumental in shaping my perspective, and have been invaluable when facilitating conversations beyond the standard agile meetings.

  • The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management – an excellent and extremely readable book which addresses the challenge creative and complex work poses to traditional management styles, by applying the tenets of agility to leadership across industries (Steve Denning, 2010 – youtube overview here)
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – a powerful book bringing together a number of studies that ultimately show autonomy, mastery and purpose to be our true intrinsic motivators, and what that means for knowledge workers (Daniel Pink, 2010 – basics covered in this RSA Animate Video)
  • Why We Do What We Do – Understanding Self-Motivation – an indepth look at intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation covering extensive research by Deci and his colleagues; forms the basis of sections of Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’ (Edward L. Deci, 1996)
  • Leadership and Self-Deception – an unexpected, honest and refreshing insight into the seeds of conflict, and averting and resolving unnecessary conflict (The Arbinger Institute, 2006)
  • Crucial Conversations – Tools for talking when stakes are high – another conflict resolution book, presenting a useful approach for tackling the hard conversations (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler, 2002)
  • Brain Rules – very readable and highly informative book on the neuroscience of how we learn, retain information and make connections between concepts, with insight into issues such as why multitasking is a myth and continuous learning is inherent in our makeup (John Medina , 2009)
  • Improv Wisdom – Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up – lessons from Improv theatre on developing a flexible and spontaneous mindset able to respond to opportunities as they arise (Patricia Ryan Madson, 2005)
  • Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos – the story of the Santa Fe Institute functions as an informative introduction to the study of complex systems, which has significant relevance to software development (M. Mitchell Waldrop, 1993)

Facilitation Toolkit: Activities for Closing

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This is the last of four posts covering facilitation games for the different phases of meetings – Check InOpening, Exploring, Closing.

Closing activities form the “future” section of the agenda. Following the Exploring phase, they are focused around the question ‘How do our new insights help us move into the future?’

As with Opening and ‘Exploring-Divergent’ activities, there is a lot of overlap between ‘Exploring-Convergent’ and Closing activities. For me the distinction is the move to a planning phase: establishing a goal to move forward with, and the activities to support it. If the focus of the session is Planning, this could use up to half the allotted time, for others around a third to a quarter.

It’s also important to be aware of the time span available to implement change, and have the group select the most valuable area of focus within that context.

Ranking / Selecting:

Finding the right focus is much more reliable when multiple interests are represented – it’s easier to avoid personal agendas and generates more discussion around what really is valuable and possible. Selection criteria, such as ‘what we are able to do now,’ ‘what fits best with our team objectives’ and ‘what do we have most passion for’, play a significant part in identifying an achievable goal the whole team is committed to.

  • Ordering – Simply placing the ideas in priority order on the board is a good quick way to agree on importance – a variation is to have the group do this in silence at first, to identify debate-worthy areas.
  • Dot voting – quick technique using scarcity to clarify personal commitment
  • Impact / Effort Matrix – timeless sorting method for short / medium / long term plans (Innovgames.com has an online version as well)
  • Other decision-making grids: using the framework above, rank items by ‘Risk vs Impact’, ‘Importance vs Urgency’ and so on
  • Thirty-Five – great technique for sharing and ranking ideas in one, esp with an added twist of selling each idea as you go along. Works as a quick-and-dirty ranking method for generating and selecting ideas for discussion in groups of 10 and up – not ideal for finalizing critical issues

Goals:

While it’s generally agreed that we should create SMART goals, it’s hard to find activities that support goal clarification. Esther Derby’s article on Double Loop Learning provides some excellent questions to interrogate the goals for validity; and I use this format in retrospectives:

  • Goal Focus – Friendly way to ensure goals are SMART: once you have consensus on a goal, ask the questions: Can we do it? Why is it important? What could stop us from achieving it? How will we know when it’s done? Clarifies that the goal is appropriate for the skills & responsibilities of the team, as well as the time allotted.

Consensus:

Physical interaction tends to be a more effective way to indicate the level of commitment or agreement than a purely verbal response, and is more likely to surface any hesitation, making it easier to clarify the boundaries of what can be achieved.

  • Thumb vote – powerfully simple indication of agreement: Thumb up: I agree / support this goal; Sideways: neither agree nor disagree – will vote with whatever the group chooses; Down: I don’t support this goal / don’t think we should do it now.
  • Fist of Five – more detailed than a thumb vote, showing degree of alignment
  • Vote with your feet – Physical & spatial vote, nice for large groups: for comparative values, have participants stand somewhere along a line indicating their position on an issue. Gets the group moving, shows physical choice of position, and creates a 3D graph of the spread of commitment
  • Jump vote – Fun physical ice-breaker type vote in which each member jumps to indicate their level of commitment, enjoyment, intention etc. – ideally for lighthearted topics and large groups. Use a circle format for a quick opening or closing.

Actions:

This nuts-and-bolts section identifies how to take a new possibility to a new reality, and could feel tiring or exciting – it helps to get this pace right. Again, it’s important to limit the actions to a realistic number.

  • Problem Solving Tree – Consistently asking “How can we do that?” generates detailed actions for solving issues (another version here)
  • Graphic Gameplan – Identify major steps required for meeting each objective – nice for high-level project views, and a good way to generate collaborative plans; also a nice Exploring activity for focused planning sessions
  • Who / What / When Matrix – For simpler goals, generate the action plan collaboratively

Close:

I try to close all facilitated sessions with a quick feedback format that allows participants to review the experience, helps me to get to know the teams better, and helps me improve as a facilitator. The higher the trust relationship, the better the feedback, the more trust is built … and so on.

  • Plus / Delta or Keep / Change: What was positive, what to change
  • Start / Stop / Continue: Quick version of the Exploring game
  • Helped / Hindered / Hypothesis: helps frame how well participants were able to contribute (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • WIIFM – Review the What’s In It For Me notes created in the Check In phase – gives feedback on whether expectations were met, and generates interesting discussion around what was learned in the course.

Another wrap-up mechanism is sharing individual perspectives; I do these in call-out fashion:

  • Three wishes – Some things I’d love to see happen (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • 1 Takeaway – One thing I’ve gained from this session
  • Temperature Reading – Good debrief technique for longer sessions
  • Appreciations – Nice way to highlight contributions that otherwise would likely go unnoticed, and end the session on a positive note (from Agile Retrospectives)

A strong closing session helps to build confidence that the way forward is relevant and attainable. Following thorough Opening and Exploring sections, this creates a reliable process for implementing beneficial action … and repeated consistently in retrospective format puts us well on the journey of effective, directed Continuous Improvement.

Most of these activities come from books, blogs or training sessions I’ve been part of; some I’ve created to meet specific needs. Where I can find attributions they are noted; if you see any I’ve missed, or know of links I haven’t found, please let me know in the comments below.

Facilitation Toolkit: Activities for Exploring

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This is the third of four posts covering facilitation games for the different phases of meetings – Check In, Opening, Exploring, Closing.

Exploring is essentially the ‘Present’ phase of facilitation, with two major sections within it: Exploring: Divergent and Exploring: Convergent.

Divergent games feel a lot like ‘Part 2’ to Data Gathering – and I think it is a bit of a grey area: I often find them so closely linked that the two sections can be combined, but sometimes there is value in having them both. Then Convergent exercises consolidate our findings in preparation for moving to the “Future” phase.

As I understand complexity theory in software development, the Exploring section relates to managing emergence, and ‘sensing’ in Cynefin’s Probe – Sense – Respond model. It’s this level of investigation that helps us to see what effects our actions are really having, identify positive and negative patterns that may be developing, as well as highlight unexpected areas of potential.

Exploring: Divergent

Here, we want to delve further into issues that are important, extending our understanding by looking through a different lens – of brainstorming, understanding risk, or in-depth analysis.

Generate Ideas / Breakthrough thinking:
I was fortunate to attend a session with Darian Rashied called “Facilitating Creativity for Breakthrough Problem Solving” at the London Scrum Gathering last year. In it, Darian explained how unexpected connections work to generate ideas: things that make no sense keep us occupied, we can’t walk away from them. This means we reach deeper and cross boundaries we would usually stay well within, in order to resolve the senselessness. According to John Medina in Brain Rules, this can even carry through to our sleep, hence the term “sleep on it”.

Using de Bono’s framework, Darian reinterpreted the game phases as follows:

Opening > Exploring (divergent) > Exploring (cohesive) > Closing
Provocation > Movement > Harvesting > Treatment

Provocation: ridiculous, fun, laughing – getting out of the serious mode activates a different part of brain which frees up our imagination
Movement: activities that stimulate mental leaps help us escape our normal, tried-and-tested thought patterns
Harvesting: reaping the benefit of our slightly altered viewpoints by creating space for the ridiculous, accepting and investigating all ideas
Treatment: taking ridiculous ideas and reshaping them back to practical applications

While some of the ideas below may seem whacky, they really do generate at the very least some interesting new viewpoints.

  • Random Input: Idea generating technique that works by aligning the problem with the attributes of a random object (played in Darian’s workshop, from Edward de Bono’s How To Have Creative Ideas)
  • Brainwriting: Generate ideas and share them, expanding on each others ideas as you go (also in Gamestorming)
  • Anti-Problem: Solving the opposite of your problem helps to view the issue from an ‘opposite’ perspective, and promotes both idea generation and a “re-view” of your current processes
  • Destruction Plan: Taking the Anti-Problem to an extreme, this game harnesses our apparently abundant destructive abilities to create awareness of tools, processes & ideas we don’t normally consider, then reframe them for positive effect (played in Darian’s workshop).

Risk detection:
Traditional Risk Matrixes and Risk Mitigation Strategies tend to fall far short of the mark for the complex work that makes up most of software development. The activities below work well as collaborative approaches for surfacing risks and assumptions, and are really valuable at the start of a project or in a planning phase for resolving rocky ground.

  • Speedboat – what’s weighing us down, why we aren’t moving at the speed we expected
  • Pre-Mortem – ‘remember the future’ technique – an imagined post-mortem on a failed project – surfaces underlying problems with our current approach (I blogged on this here)
  • Ritual dissent – an idea generating-and-then-bashing activity, that helps to challenge assumptions & highlight risks – this requires a high-trust environment and at least 3 or 4 teams (another description of Ritual Dissent)

Avoiding failure is apparently a better evolutionary tactic than building on successes1 and this may be why we find it easier to visualize disaster than success. Whatever the reason, once we’re given permission to identify things that can go wrong, these activities can unleash a wealth of information. Be sure to create safety first and follow on with identifying mitigating actions, so that no-one is left with a sense of impending doom…

1 Mostly from Dave Snowden’s Podcasts discussing resilience and exaptation.

Root Cause Analysis2:
Sometimes we encounter issues that are really symptoms of deeply rooted organizational impediments. This is especially valid for recurring issues, as well as catastrophic events. Here we need to dig deep to unpack the root cause of the problem.

  • 5 Why’s: Originally from the Toyota kata, this method uses 5 as a heuristic number of times we need to ask “Why” something happened to get to a level of human cause(s), such as flawed process or incorrect assumptions
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams: These diagrams make visible all the ‘symptoms’ that need to be addressed, their apparent causes and their effects, and highlight the reinforcing loops. This is a valuable aid for identifying ‘attractors’ to enhance positive loops, and ‘dampeners’ to weaken the negative – making it possible to make decisions on what should be resolved in which order, and how we expect it to impact the rest of the system.  (Ishikawa diagrams are an alternative form of this, which I haven’t worked with)

2 I owe this section to Carlo Kruger’s A3 Thinking session which he presented to SUGSA at the beginning of this month – Thanks Carlo!

Other formats:
These two formats are complete facilitation plans for generating insight from opposite standpoints: a strength-based, imagi-planning approach, and analytic problem analysis:

  • Appreciative Inquiry – Highly creative full retrospective technique for generating new ideas from a positive foundation. I find that future-specting is quite hard to grasp for teams unfamiliar with agile games, so for less exploratory teams I’ve replaced this with an outcomes-focused exercise.
  • A3 Thinking – Toyota’s methodical ‘total picture’ approach to understanding issues and testing corrective measures. Incorporates root cause analysis techniques into a detailed improvement plan. Great for significant issues, overkill for small ones.

Exploring: Convergent

Once we’ve expanded our view, we need to start the converging process, making sense of what we have uncovered. These sorting exercises help to clarify where ideas are overlapping and identify dominant themes and needs. I typically do all of these in a session, with more or less detail as time allows.

Grouping > Clarifying > Interpreting

  • Clustering – The process of grouping associated ideas provides a the first step to identifying underlying causes, and also highlights unity and differences in a group
  • Identify Themes – Having the team name the clusters of post-its encourages discussion about and agreement on the grouping, providing a nice organic approach to determining categories (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • Debrief – Open questions that bring attention to emerging patterns – can be done as a quick round-robin or murmur group exercise (from Agile Retrospectives)

Through exploring our situation we seem to be answering the question ‘What does what we know about the Past tell us about the Present?’. By uncovering underlying themes and discovering experiments yet to be tried, we put ourselves in a position of strength – able to apply our insights in a way that can shape our future.

We take this information into the Closing section to identify specific probes to set up and actions to take that will help us get there.

Most of these activities come from books, blogs or training sessions I’ve been part of; some I’ve created to meet specific needs. Where I can find attributions they are noted; if you see any I’ve missed, or know of links I haven’t found, please let me know in the comments below.

Facilitation Toolkit: Activities for Opening

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This is the second of four posts covering facilitation games for the different phases of meetings: Check In, Opening, Exploring, Closing.

The Opening phase of facilitation is the space in which the group starts to unpack the topic at hand. This is usually the “past” phase – looking at what has led us to this point in time.

It’s surprisingly difficult for us to look back at events that have passed and generate insight and understanding from them. Aside from struggling to remember everything that’s valuable, often there are deeply held beliefs or other organizational messages that sway our view of events until we look at them closely from a unbiased perspective.

The Gathering Data section of the meeting gives us the opportunity to ‘get back to the facts’  of what we’re dealing with, and with the Exploring section, has the most scope for variety, providing a multitude of ways to unpack the status of a team, project or company. And doing this in a group format allows us to combine individual memories to build up a reasonably comprehensive picture of what is happening in the environment.

In Gamestorming, the authors refer to ‘Meaningful Space’ as the use of visual space to sort our experiences, knowledge and feelings into comparative or relative areas. This is particularly valuable both for prodding our memories and clarifying areas of strong agreement, disagreement, and alternate perspectives.

Timelining:

This opening format is a great way to have team members tell their story; the narrative format grabs everyone’s attention and highlights the human side of the sprint / release etc.

  • Activities over time + emotions – A good way to see individual experiences – especially if you include personal events in the timeline. Increases team’s knowledge of each other, as well as what was significant to them in the sprint.
  • Emotions timeline – As above, but start by drawing the emotions timeline, only adding events at major points. Use a large graph with x axis showing the time period, and y axis equal amount positive & negative space, and have each person draw their line in a different colour. Can also be used as a check-in activity.
  • What was my Pace – Same format as the emotions timeline, showing when team members were balanced, cruising or overworked. Good for analysing uneven sprints, disconnected teams. Debrief looks at where people are in sync and where they aren’t, the possible reasons for this, and any other observations.
  • History Map – good for company retrospectives – a timeline showing the detail of events which shaped the company’s direction and growth over time. Fun way to share corporate knowledge and reflect on events which affected the company’s development.

Categorizing:

A nice way to dissect information and prompt the group’s memory is to categorize experiences along a theme. The Learning Matrix is the most well known of these formats, and there are a variety of others below. When I can’t find something that fits, I often make these up. *Tip: Alliteration is an unexpectedly handy tool for maintaining overall cohesion.

  • Liked / Lacked / Learned / Longed For – Clarifies current status and indicates areas of growth that are beginning to develop
  • Components / Characteristics / Challenges / Characters – Product analysis tool, ideally used with a group representing different departments, from product management to development to infrastructure.
  • Confident / Concerns / Challenges / Chocolate (i.e. the ‘sweet spot’) – Use to clarify the current state of a team / product / company etc. (used for a company retrospective and planning sessions)
  • Proud / Sorry / Grateful – For high-trust teams: promotes deep connections. The addition of ‘Grateful’ helps to round out some spiky feelings and acknowledge others’ roles in ‘my’ experience. (adapted from Agile Retrospectives)
  • Helped / Hindered / Hypothesis – Unpack how a method / improvement is working for us – useful for ‘measuring’ improvements (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • We’re Good At / I Worry About / I Wonder About – Variation on the learning matrix, with a bit more focus on team identity
  • Start, Stop, Continue, More of, Less of Wheel – Focus on process / improvements analysis – the subtle distinction between stop / less of and continue / more of invites some interesting discussions

Other shapes:

  • Circles & Soup – What’s happening that is within vs. outside our control; great for identifying actions a team can responsibly take on, especially useful when decisions seem to be out of our hands, or where blaming is present
  • Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities Timeline – A visual format that combines an events timeline around the outside of the page (Past) with ‘Strengths’ & ‘Weaknesses’ (Present) and Opportunities that can reliably be completed in the next sprint (Future) all in one. Completed in groups with feedback and debrief of themes.
  • Sailboat (what puts wind in our sails, what gives us direction, what weighs us down) – Creates a sense of identity and direction (combination of Gamestorming’s Speed boat and airplane metaphor in the introduction)

Other visual formats:

  • Draw the Problem – A longer drawing format similar to the Check In activity, which surfaces deep connections
  • Mind mapping: Good technique for generating related information quickly, but avoid the temptation to get hung up on sorting too early – I find it useful to stress quantity over quality and use a tight timebox.
  • Group posters & feedback: Fun collaborative activity for sharing perspectives

Conversation-based opening:

  • Appreciative Inquiry – Interview section of this retro: good for strong teams to find new areas of improvement
  • Locate Strengths (larger groups): Powerful way to get to know team members and discover unknown skills (from Agile Retrospectives)

The aim of the Opening phase is to establish the foundation from which we are building. It’s important not to start drawing conclusions directly from this data, but simply to help the group as a whole to remember as much detail as possible.

Once we have this, we move on to Exploring, where we delve deeper into extending and interpreting the data we’ve gathered.

Most of these activities come from books, blogs or training sessions I’ve been part of; some I’ve created to meet specific needs. Where I can find attributions they are noted; if you see any I’ve missed, or know of links I haven’t found, please let me know in the comments below.

Facilitation Toolkit: Activities for Check In

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This is the first of four posts covering facilitation games for the different phases of meetings: Check In, Opening, Exploring, Closing.

The Check In is the initial phase of a meeting, and to a large extent is independent of the content. The purpose of this section is to bring everyone’s focus into the room and establish the collaboration boundaries, so that right from the start we are all clear on what we expect of each other, and what we expect from the session.

For regular sessions like retrospectives with teams who know each other well, I jump straight to the Metaphor section below; for teams that are new to working together, or long facilitation sessions, I try to include all three steps as time allows.

Check In:

These activities signal the general level of attention, acknowledging outside distractions and bringing attention to the current objective.

  1. Fist of Five – Adapted to show how happy / informed / focused I’m feeling right now
  2. ESVP – How committed I am to being here (from Agile Retrospectives)
  3. Form a line – participants stand in a line from left (low) to right (high) in response to a question such as ‘How I rank my level of knowledge’
  4. WIIFM – have participants write their “What’s In It For Me” (What I want to get out of this session) on a stickynote and stick it up on a designated wall space. If time allows, have them discuss this in small groups first. Revisit at the end of the session as part of closing. Defines personal objectives, generates ideas for others, and also gives the facilitator some perspective on the group’s expectations.

Create Safety:

These activities are designed to maximize collaboration. Developing personal connections between participants and setting the boundaries of the meeting help to establish initial trust.

  • Introduction Card – Pair activity: create a card for your pair stating their Name; Role; Interesting Fact; and Superhero Quality, then introduce them to the group. Fun introduction technique, creates bonds & generates laughter (from our Coaching Dojo)
  • Working Agreements – Agreement on how we’ll handle distractions, conflict, tangents etc. either long term as a team or for the current meeting (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • How can we make this (retrospective / session) fail? Round robin format – this is a fun way to surface fears and create awareness of unsupportive activities and attitudes, and agreement on how to avoid them or handle them if they come up.
  • Focus On / Focus Off – Another way to bring awareness to collaborative vs obstructive behaviours (from Agile Retrospectives)
  • Hope for the meeting / sprint etc. – Creates a shared understanding of individual objectives (from Agile Retrospectives)

Check In Metaphor:

Once the conditions of safety have been established, a quick ‘Turn the Head’ activity suffices as a Check In, providing a meaningful transition to the Opening section of the meeting.

It’s ‘disruptive’ as it challenges our thinking by bypassing the jargon we use on a daily basis, to create new associations and insights. Metaphor check-ins can also give a heads-up on underlying themes or tensions, but are quick enough to simply highlight issues without pre-empting a tangential conversation.
These ideas appear in both Gamestorming and Agile Retrospectives.

  • Describe (the sprint / release / team etc.) as a:
    • Fruit, food, drink – rich associations with wide applicability; can surface emotions
    • Car, mode of transport – drive & motivation in the team
    • Colour, sound, other senses – wide applicability; can tend towards the abstract; useful for volatile situations
  • Drawing:

While there is always someone in the room who “can’t draw to save their lives,” I’ve never seen this exercise produce trivial insight. Both metaphor and drawing can create new neural networks that help to situate each participant’s experience; drawing goes further by using a different form of language and connecting different spheres of brain activity. The debrief experience tends to be rich, and contributes to building trust within the group.

… and then sometimes I just ask for any 2 or 3 words, or a highlight and lowlight, that start the discussion. This is particularly useful when I don’t know the group, when emotions are running high, or there have been a variety new experiences.

Most of these activities come from books, blogs or training sessions I’ve been part of; some I’ve created to meet specific needs. Where I can find attributions they are noted; if you see any I’ve missed, or know of links I haven’t found, please let me know in the comments below.

Facilitation Toolkit: Working with Games

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I’m often asked where to find facilitation games and formats for agile teams. Fortunately there’s an increasing amount of information on the web, a number excellent books on the topic and some great training courses available – and since it’s an ever-expanding world, the more you look the more you’ll find.

Over time I’ve assembled a list of favourite collaboration games covering a wide variety of applications, which I’d like to share over the next few blogs. To make sense of them, it helps to understand a little bit about the activities we call Games.

What is a Facilitation Game?

The idea of games being inappropriate or irrelevant in a business context is fast losing ground as we begin to understand the value of collaborative and innovative approaches to problem solving.

Games are designed, interactive experiences in a variety of formats, generally following an ‘Opening – Exploring – Closing’ structure. I distinguish between ‘empirical experience’ games and ‘collaborative’ games, as follows:

  • Empirical experience games are safe-to-fail learning activities that simulate real-world scenarios from which we gain deep experiential knowledge quickly, as opposed to theoretical knowledge. They have a powerful learning value which helps us act more consciously when we’re in similar situations in the real world – but many organizations still distrust their un-businesslike characteristics.
  • Collaborative activities are called ‘games’ because they follow the game format of open – explore – close; the activities are interactive, with ‘set moves’ directed towards an overall goal, and an outcome which is determined as a result of the collaboration.

Collaborative games tend to be easier to adopt in meeting agenda as they readily support business objectives, and while the level of collaboration may feel unusual at first, the quality of the interaction compared with traditional meetings quickly establishes their value.

This is where the focus of the next few posts will be.

What’s in an agenda?

We can apply the gaming ‘open – explore – close’ structure to designing the facilitation agenda as well. There are different kinds of activities for each part of the meeting, and following this format creates a balanced pace through the session to keep participants focused and engaged.

For retrospectives I generally combine this structure with activities focusing on past, present and future, as described by Esther Derby and Diana Larson in Agile Retrospectives, and a small addition of ‘disruption’ I encountered in Loop Organisational Consulting’s Team Leadership Skills course. This gives us:

Check In > Turn The Head > Gather Data > Insights > Goals & Actions > Close
which is roughly:
Open > Refocus > Past > Present > Future > Close

‘Turn The Head’ highlights the value of the disruptive element to adjust our viewpoint so that we can see our world through different lenses.

I also use this overall structure for other sessions, with a greater emphasis on the specific area of focus, as well as icebreakers or empirical experience games as appropriate.

Sharing the Agenda

I’ve learnt to start meetings with a discussion of the agenda and how long we’ll spend on each section, and keep this visible for the duration of the meeting. Initially I resisted the idea, with worries like “what if it goes wrong; what if people don’t like it, and I want to change direction?” but I’ve been amazed at how much collaboration improves when participants can see the overall context of each activity … and I’ve also learnt that changing direction with the full awareness of the group is far more effective than rigidly holding onto the plan or appearing unprepared when circumstances change.

Developing a wide and deep toolkit gives us the flexibility we need as facilitators to respond to our changing circumstances. Each of us builds up a unique set that works for our environment, and which also evolves with time.

In the next few blogs I’ll be sharing some of the tools I’ve enjoyed using for each of the major sections of a facilitation:

* Links will become active as the posts are published.

What is Agile Facilitation?

One of the more distinctive differences between agile software development and its traditional counterparts is the wide-spread adoption of group facilitation techniques by agile practitioners.

This is largely due to the high degree of collaboration demanded by agile methods: we have to learn effective ways of sharing information and making decisions together – so much so that it’s become one of the Scrum Master’s major responsibilities.

I see facilitation as a foundation support for self-organization, and critical to new management practices: the fundamental understanding that an informed collaborative approach to problem solving involving those closest to the work will consistently yield better results than a plan designed by a single expert.

So what is facilitation?
As a field, facilitation is hard to define. Wikipedia and Google give us a view of the wide range of contexts in which the term facilitation is used, from business to neuroscience.

These give us a good overview, but I worry about definitions that tell us facilitation is ‘making things easier’ (from the root ‘facile’). Because while facilitation is a significant aid to collaboration, as experience tells us, collaboration is not easy. Good facilitation provides ways to address this and make it more comfortable in the long run, but it’s neither a magical panacea for problem resolution nor a superficial fix we can use to avoid conflict.

To clarify my understanding of the field, this is my take on facilitation (I won’t claim it’s the most elegantly worded):

Facilitation is the “art” (an informed blend of techniques and insight) of aiding groups to collaboratively interpret their (project) context and identify the most valuable path forward.

From a continuous improvement perspective, we know that having clear and attainable goals set and agreed on by those doing the work is a fundamental factor in both motivation and team success. Coupled with the short cycles of Scrum, this provides an excellent mechanism for teams to improve incrementally while responding to changing conditions.

But we also know from complexity theory that there are situations when it’s just not possible to see up front what the desired outcome might be, and setting predefined goals or actions can be meaningless, or even damaging if they lead us in the wrong direction. In situations where work emerges as we go along, a facilitator needs to be able to help the team clarify the boundaries in which exploration can take place, and understand how to navigate these waters.

In either circumstance, the facilitator ensures that teams reflect regularly on the process, either to clarify whether the activities undertaken are leading them to the intended outcome; or to ensure that they are conscious of the steps they’re taking, the results generated and the kinds of patterns emerging – and what these indicate about next steps (Cynefin‘s Probe – Sense – Respond model). The detail of what and how to proceed is a product of the facilitation itself, not a predetermined formula.

From this perspective, agile facilitation is about reaching a new level of understanding; surfacing valuable insight that will get the group to their next stage – whether it’s a vision, the next sprint, or a new team dynamic.

Outside of continuous improvement, the Scrum Master facilitation functions include planning well for meetings, using time-boxes effectively, and ensuring good communication flow both within the team and across organizational boundaries. At a process level, it’s ensuring that coming work is appropriately groomed and that everyone is aware of constraints so that the right expectations are set.

Here the facilitator function is making sure that the time utilized and the effort expended are appropriate and valuable, and that there is as little as possible waste in both meetings and normal day-to-day activities.

And this is part of the ‘art’ of facilitation: how do we know what is wasteful and what beneficial? What level of noise is required for us to have sufficiently investigated all areas?

In different contexts, discussing a tangent or exploring an alternate technology could be beneficial, harmful, or irrelevant – but if it’s important enough to come up, we need to ensure that we explore sufficiently for the first two possibilities, and avoid the last. Again, this call must be guided by group input. Facilitation involves making sure everyone involved with a decision has a voice, is clear on both the constraints and possibilities, and is able to proceed in an informed manner.

It’s well noted that the facilitator does not provide answers, and as a rule does not contribute to the content. What they create is the most conducive environment for each individual to contribute their knowledge and clarify their concerns, such that the group is to be able to choose the best route for their situation, as a self-organized team responding to business needs.

And do to this well, we need a wide and deep ‘toolbox’ of techniques, from idea sharing to consensus activities, which allow us to respond in a contextually relevant way to the range of challenges with which software development so regularly furnishes its practitioners.

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