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.