Scrum Master: the master of the art of facilitation

Hello, great people of the world. In the previous article, we have discussed how Scrum Masters need to master many things. In this article we are going to discuss one of the stances that the Scrum Master need to master, that is the facilitation stance. A great Scrum Master is a great facilitator, otherwise, the Scrum Master will be seen as not more than a master of ceremony or even an event organiser. A great Scrum Master is able to facilitate an event that leads to a high-quality decision that is owned by the whole group attending that event.

By default, the Scrum Master facilitates the Scrum events: Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospectives or even a Product Backlog refinement session. Throughout this article, I am going to use the term facilitated event as it may refer to not only the built-in Scrum events. Throughout this article, I am also going to refer to a group rather than Scrum Team, because there are many instances where the Scrum Master needs to facilitate an event between a group of people outside of the Scrum Team or between the Scrum Team and those outside of the Scrum Team.

So what is facilitation?

In many culture, I have seen how a facilitator is being undermined and seen as the master of ceremony or an event organiser. I’ve even seen how a program manager said told me that Sprint Retrospectives is less important than Sprint Planning because Sprint Retrospectives is just about having that touchy feeling. That is quite sad. Facilitation is not a passive activity. In fact, facilitation requires skills and facilitating an engaging event itself is an art. The outcome of the facilitated event is a high-quality decision. So we can also say that the Scrum Master is partly responsible for poor decision generated by the group of people.

From my personal experience as a facilitator, facilitation is very exhausting and demanding because:

  • You must keep everyone to stay engaged.
  • And at the same time, you must keep everyone stays focused on the goal and objective set at the beginning of the event.
  • And at the same time, you must remain neutral and objectives.

We’ll talk more about this later.

So what does facilitation actually mean? Facilitation comes from a Latin word facilis, which mean to make something easy or possible.

facilis (v): to make something easy or possible.

Of course, this does not mean the Scrum Master is the team’s personal secretary or the office helper (as seen in some culture) just because her job is to make something easy. With her facilitation skills, the Scrum Master makes tough discussion, that may be seen as an elephant in the room, looks like a lite and easy thing to discuss.

In general, the goal of facilitation is to help the group to come up with a shared decision that everyone will own together. Unlike coaching, facilitation always involves a group of people, although the facilitated event can be used as an opportunity for the Scrum Master to coach the group to increase their effectiveness in collaborating together in generating collective intelligence.

So why do we even need facilitation?

I often get a question from people: why do we even need facilitation or a (high-quality) facilitator when everything works well when everyone just follows orders, it seems a high-quality facilitator is too expensive? Following orders may work fine in the 19th century when only some people with authority who holds power are the only people who know the absolute truths. But in the 21st century, there are no longer absolute truths, we’re living in an increasingly complex world where knowledge is becoming more accessible to a wider range of people and those who hold power are no longer the smartest person in the room. In short, collective intelligence is too precious to be wasted in the 21st century hence we need facilitation and facilitators. In fact, the more complex the situation, the higher the need for a high-quality facilitator.

Maximising collective intelligence comes at a cost that there will be many differences in the room. There will be people with different needs, that comes from their different experience and background. There will be people with different views that come from their different position and roles in the organisation. Even though all voices must be heard but not all voice the the same scale of quality. A great Scrum Master is able to maximise collective intelligence from these differences and many voices. So, in general, we need facilitation because there are many voices and we want to maximise that into a powerful collective intelligence.

The how: the flow of a facilitated event

Now that we have discussed the why and the what, let’s discuss the flow of facilitation.

1. The input

Effective facilitation requires knowing the input. From my experience facilitation requires:

  • All of the relevant information. The challenge here as a Scrum Master is we need to uphold Scrum values openness. We have to ensure no one in the room is hiding important information that may degrade the quality of the outcome of the event. This may be a Product Owner who is holding an information for her personal advantage. Or an architect who has been influenced by the CEO before the meeting begins.
  • Boundaries and prime directives. In Scrum itself, there are boundaries such as timebox. Some Scrum Teams may craft their own prime directives. If there aren’t any, it is a good idea for the Scrum Master to start creating prime directives and remind everyone before a facilitated event starts.
  • Goals and objectives. Before the event start, we need to understand what is the goal of the facilitated event. Scrum Teams who start their Sprint Planning with a Sprint Goal may use this to select the relevant Product Backlog Items as their Sprint Backlog.
  • Context. The last thing that we need to understand is to understand the context of the event. Is it for generating a solution? Or just to generate ideas and explore new possibilities? Is it for alignment or is it a conflict between individuals? Without understanding context, we as Scrum Master can not facilitate the event effectively.

2. The facilitated event itself

After the inputs are known and placed on the table, the facilitated event will happen. After this facilitated event, the group should come up with choices to be made. In this facilitated event the Scrum Master must:

Keep everyone engaged. Some questions the Scrum Master can ask when not everyone is fully engaged:

  • Is the person who is not engaged should even be in the room? How can that person increase the quality of the discussion?
  • Is there someone hi-jacking the whole event? Maybe the boss who tries to lead the team to think as he wants it to be?
  • Is everyone’s voice being heard? Are we undermining his/her voice because of his position or pay grade in the company?

Keep everyone focused. Keeping everyone engaged is very important, but often times it is too easy for people being sidetracked too far away and forgot the first reason for being there. Some questions that the Scrum Master should ask:

  • Is this topic still related to the goal or objective of us being here?
  • How is the timebox? Are we close the timebox already? Should we push the discussion forward?
  • Have we got enough choices for the group to decide?

Stay neutral and unbiased. The Scrum Master must stay neutral throughout the facilitated event otherwise it will lower the quality of the decision that will be made by the group. The Scrum Master must focus on the idea given by the person rather than his/her position in the organisation.

3. Free and informed choices

Before the facilitated event, the group of people should generate free and informed choices. Free and informed choices are one of the governing variables of a Model II theories-in-use developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon.

Free choices mean that each choice placed on the table are testable by logics from people outside of the group. The choices are neither self-serving or self-sealing certain individuals. Informed choices mean that everyone understood that the choices are not generated under an influence or even a manipulation.

As you can imagine, inside a very political and bureaucratic organisation, the role of Scrum Master as a facilitator will be tough! We need to ensure that all of the choices placed on the table are not self-serving and self-sealing otherwise people will not collectively own the outcome or the choices made and start blaming someone when the choices selected does not work.

4. The outcome

The outcome of this facilitated event is a high-quality decision that is owned by everyone. What that means is everyone is holding each other’s accountable for the decision made. This high-quality decision is transparent to everybody and tangible.

The who: High-quality facilitator

So far we’ve discussed the flow of facilitation and we’ve learned that poor quality facilitator is one of the reason the group of people came up with the poor quality decision. So how does a high-quality facilitator looks like? Here are some qualities I found important to be an effective facilitator:

  1. Trustworthy. What that means is the Scrum Master has integrity and is not easily swayed away by anyone. I have been pushed to the wall by a middle-manager of a company once to hide an important information during a facilitated event because if that information is exposed during the event it may risk his position. Hiding this information will lower the quality of the decision made. In this case, if I just listened and manipulate the event as he wants it to be, I will lose trust from the group of people. It is very important for a Scrum Master as a facilitator to be professional and stand on code-of-ethics.
  2. Objective and neutral. Not only the Scrum Master is trustworthy, but she must also be neutral and unbiased. What that means is the Scrum Master should not have any self-interest in the outcome of the facilitated event and has no preferences offered by the group of people. When the Scrum Master is also part of the Development Team, it is hard to not have any preferences during Sprint Planning knowing that he/she will be the one doing the work too. And that is also why the Scrum Master should not be the Product Owner because in many cases we have to admit that Product Owner has a self-interest that will maximise the value of the product.
  3. Has effective behaviour. As a facilitator the Scrum Master should have an effective behaviour. That means the Scrum Master is an excellent communicator, fluid and creative througout the facilitated event. Having effective behaviour means the Scrum Master does not bring her emotion to the facilitated event and at the same time does not invite everyone to bring their emotion.
  4. Ability to increase group effectiveness collaborating together. A great Scrum Master is not only facilitating the event to come up with a high-quality decision but at the same time, the Scrum Master is also able to increase group effectiveness collaborating together during the facilitated events. This requires knowledge in group dynamics, knowing when something is outside of the group’s norm. For example, when somebody in the room starts becoming silence after a word is being mentioned, what does that mean? Understanding group dynamics also mean at the same time the Scrum Master needs to be dynamic during the event and courageous to cancel her original plan for the event when something changes during the event. To be dynamic, the Scrum Master needs to have many facilitation tools under her belt!
  5. Ability to create a mutual learning environment. A great Scrum Master are able to make every facilitated event as a mutual learning opportunity, whether that is a Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, the the Daily Scrum or even the non-built-in Scrum events. Many Scrum Master are only seen as the team’s babysitter or ceremony organiser because the Scrum Master does not know how to use every facilitated event as a mutual learning opportunity. And that is also a reason why many organisation view the Scrum Master as less valuable in the long run.
  6. Ability to keep everyone focused and engaged. A high-quality facilitator is able to keep everyone engaged and at the same time focused on the initial goal of the event. When people start playing with their cell-phones, what does that tell the Scrum Master? When the discussion starts deviating from the initial goals and objectives, what should the Scrum Master do? When the discussion has not reach conclusion before the timebox, what should the Scrum Master do?

Well, I am sad to say that there is too much about mastering facilitation in a one-page blog. I hope this article can be used as a starting point for you to continue your journey to improve your facilitation skill as a Scrum Master. If you want to share other techniques or other important information on how to be a great facilitator, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. Looking forward to learning from you.

If you want to hone your facilitation skills as a Scrum Master using a less-theoretical approach, you may want to look at Professional Scrum Master II training, an advanced training for Scrum Masters who want to improve their Scrum Mastery that has recently been released by Scrum.org. You will learn many aspects of being a high-quality facilitator in this training.

Until then. Keep learning, keep improving. Let’s make better workplaces in this world.