Facilitation: The Fine Art of Noticing
This is the first in a series of blog posts that cover four domains that are important for Agile Coaches to understand, and furthermore, each of these domains are areas where it is vital for us to achieve a high level of comfort and proficiency. One reason I’m choosing these four domains is that they are fundamental components of the of the Agile Coach Competency Framework, created by Lyssa Adkins and michael k spayd. Specifically, the four areas are:
I have heard many Agile practitioners use a metaphor where each of these competencies is like a particular hat that we wear. And just as we might have different hats for different purposes, we have different metaphorical hats as coaches. Knowing which hat to wear, under which circumstances, requires paying close attention to the dynamics that are at work with the individual or group that we might be working with. Which is another way of saying, we need a finely-tuned ability to notice what is happening, and make adjustments to our approach accordingly.
Why Call Facilitation the Fine Art of Noticing?
I have chosen this title in part because it’s a way to honor my Dad, who was good at noticing the little things that might pass most of us by. For him, his ability to notice, quite literally, the tiniest of things (very small insects, fungi, pine needles, etc.), was particularly true when it came to the natural world, where he had not only a vast amount of knowledge about flora and fauna, but also a boundless curiosity. And he was always eager to share his interest in and knowledge about the wonders of that natural world. Since he was a teacher who worked with young children (mostly fourth and fifth graders), he had lots of of opportunities to do just that — to share those insights with his students.
I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to observe Dad in the classroom. Still, based on my recollections of him as a parent, I have no doubt that he was also pretty good at picking up on the subtle cues that his students might send his way in the class room, and also when they would go on field trips outside of school. It was always evident what an indelible impression he made on his students, because there were countless times when one of them would come up to him and thank him for opening their eyes to the world around them, launching them on their own journeys of personal discovery.
I’m inclined to think that the extent to which I notice things going on around me makes me a better facilitator. And I think the same is true for anyone who has achieved a reasonable level of mastery with facilitation. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn early on the importance of these kinds of skills thanks to my parents, teachers and professors, and also from a great many colleagues over the years.
What Facilitation Looks Like in Practice
Now let’s turn our attention to what it looks like for us to act as facilitators in the wild. And a good place to start is with some definitions of these four terms:
- Meeting. A gathering of two or more people convened for the purpose of achieving a common goal through interaction.
- Facilitator. A person who seeks to make a meeting worthwhile for attendees, by asking clarifying questions and making sure the design for and direction of the meeting align with the outcomes that attendees wish to achieve.
- Facilitation. A set of practices and techniques that enable groups of people to identify topics of interest, decide which topics are most important to talk about right away, and make decisions based on the discussion.
- Powerful Questions. An approach to seeking clarification in a group setting, which helps open the door to conversation, action, and discovery.
To be clear, I’m not saying that these terms are the only ones that matter when it comes to facilitation. Still, these provide a pretty decent baseline for the purposes of this conversation.
Facilitation in a Meeting Context
When in a meeting, we tend to be aware of a lack of facilitation, meaning that we notice when the meeting seems to have no agenda or goals, for instance. When an experienced facilitator is present, and assuming that the meeting is going smoothly, it’s easy to forget that the facilitator is there, especially a facilitator who understands what effective facilitation looks like in practice. So let’s move on to that topic next — what effective facilitation looks like.
Consider these two statements:
- A facilitator manages the method of the meeting, not the content of the meeting.
- A facilitator focuses on how decisions are made, not on what decisions are made.
Quite a few people think that “running a meeting” means to “drive” the conversation in a particular direction, and push toward reaching a particular decision. Although there might be circumstances where a more directive approach could be appropriate, facilitation is non-directive in nature.
When we say “manage the method of the meeting,” what we mean by that is we seek to design the meeting in such a way that the attendees achieve the outcomes that they want to achieve, and that we’re likely to ask probing and clarifying questions along the way.
And when we say we “focus on how decisions are made,” what we mean by that is we reach into our facilitation toolkit to help the group make the decisions that they want to make — not the ones that we want them to make.
What are Some Examples of Things That Facilitators Do?
For this section, I’ll reference some advice provided by Martin Alaimo in his book Agile Team Facilitator: A Coach’s Path Towards Enterprise Agility.
Alaimo suggests that the most important thing for a facilitator to do is …
foster an inclusive, safe, transparent, efficient communication process.
And he goes on to say that these are some of the primary things we do as facilitators:
— Honor dialogue over monologue
— Help make and keep team agreements
—Decompose big or complex topics into smaller ones
— Help navigate through disagreement/conflict
— Coordinate conversations
— Paraphrase or help clarify
— Make the decision making process visible
Effective facilitation has a lot in common with Servant Leadership, especially when we consider these two further observations that Alaimo makes:
The role of the facilitator gives you power and it takes it from you.
It gives you the power to intervene in the process as well as the emotions of the conversations. It also takes away the power to intervene in the content.
To sum up, being an effective facilitator means achieving a delicate balance. We need to provide enough space for participants to express their thoughts, and we also need to recognize that asking a question or introducing a technique could help our colleagues get out of their own way and accomplish what they wish to accomplish. To achieve that balance, we need to pay close attention — we need to notice — what’s happening around us, and make course corrections accordingly.
While recognizing that there are many techniques that can help us be effective facilitators, one of the most vital of those is having an arsenal of powerful questions.
As we can see based on the following examples, powerful questions are open-ended questions that invite conversation, open the door to learning and discovery, and can reveal fresh perspectives:
- What are some other options that we can think of?
- Can we explore that further — what else comes to mind?
- What do we think about the proposal?
- What do we think will happen if we do what is being proposed?
- What do we think will happen if we don’t do what is being proposed?
- What needs to be clarified?
- What concerns us the most?
- What other resources can help us make a decision?
- How do we envision the desired end state?
- How would we summarize the key points from our conversation thus far?
- What do we think an actionable plan might look like?
- What lessons have we learned from this?
- What will we do?
- When will we do it?
It’s not so much about having particular questions memorized and at the ready. It’s about noticing what dynamics are present among the group members, and finding a way to interject without interrupting the main flow of the conversation. Like a lot of things we do as coaches, it may sound reasonably straightforward, however, it takes practice. And that is part of the joy of coaching, when we help groups find their footing and achieve what they otherwise might have struggled to achieve on their own.