Saturday, October 19, 2013

Problems with facilitation methods

Facilitation is a core skill for agile coaches, and most of us are pretty good at it. There are some practices that I have seen that can be problematic however.

Dot Voting

The whole point of dot voting is to rank things by importance, priority, urgency, or some other scale - and to use the participants as the deciders so that they feel ownership of the ranking.

But what if the participants do not have the judgment needed to properly rank something?

For example, consider a group of diverse participants - including many agile novices - that is ranking the agile practices that they want to focus on. The ranking will most likely end up reflecting the sources of pain that they currently feel. What it will likely not reflect is the root causes, because it takes a Ri level agilist to understand root causes. And we all know that if we do not address root causes, we will not solve a problem.

So the implication here is that if the facilitator has not drilled into the practices and discussed root causes with the participants, the root causes will not be reflected in their ranking, because the participants are diverse and many are therefore new to agile and will not appreciate the root causes.

The lesson: be careful what you rank, and what you do with the ranking. In the example above, if the goal is to identify practices to talk about, and talk through root causes, voting will achieve that. But if the goal is to identify what practices to focus on, it will not be effective, because the participants do not have the judgment required to make good choices about that.

Not Allowing the Facilitator To Voice an Opinion

A central aspect of facilitation is that the facilitator should not bias the group. But what if the facilitator is an expert in the topic being discussed? What do you do then?

We probably all know the answer to this: you guide the group by asking hard questions, rather than telling them the answer. In fact, they probably have some local domain knowledge that you do not. But what if the group needs to be informed by your expertise?

One technique is to explicitly take off your facilitator "hat" by saying something like, "Ok, allow me to explain what I know on this", and then give a brief explanation based on your expertise. When doing this, I usually punctuate it by saying something like, "So that is the accepted approach to that, but it is not necessarily what we have to do here, because our situation might be unique". That last part lets the group know that they are still in control: they can decide to go against standard practice. Every time you share your expertise, you again re-iterate that it is an accepted view, but that the group can depart from that if it wants to. You then resume facilitating and have complete willingness to record and support choices that go against what your expertise advises. You have done your job to inform, but then the group decides the content of the discussion.

Putting Cards On the Wall

Putting cards on the wall is a long-standing practice for facilitation. I personally first encountered this technique when I participated in a six week (all day, six days a week) modeling session with Peter Coad, David Anderson, Jeff DeLuca and others in Singapore in the late '90s. The purpose of this technique is to encourage people to voice their opinion on something: if you just ask for opinions, some people remain silent. If you give them cards and tell them that they have to write something, they will. It gets all the ideas out in the open.

The problem is, people often write small, or illegibly, and so you cannot read what they wrote unless you go up close to the cards. And if you have a group of more than five people, it starts to become difficult for people to see past others as they crowd around - especially the smaller people. Further, if there are many cards (say, more than 20), some people will not read them all.

Having people stand up close to the cards has another problem: standing uses working memory and consumes a tiny bit of your focus, and standing in close proximity to other people who are shifting around uses even more working memory and focus. Try this experiment: while standing, perform some long division in your head. Now sit, and repeat the experiment (using different numbers of course). You will find that while sitting, you can think more deeply and therefore do the arithmetic more easily. You might think that standing is something that you can do on autopilot, but it actually does consume some mental energy. Sitting, with everyone else in the room stationary, allows you to focus better on purely mental tasks. Sitting is therefore better for the participants of a facilitated session if you want to get their best - their deepest - thoughts. This does not apply to the facilitator because the facilitator's attention is mostly on the group - not the topic. The facilitator has to focus somewhat on the topic, but his or her primary focus is on the people, and the direction things are taking, and standing is also important for the facilitator in order to establish a sense of authority over the process. The people who need to think deeply are the participants.

One myth about the use of cards is that writing cards enables things to go more quickly. The purpose of facilitation is to establish a shared way of thinking about a problem. That means that all ideas that are expressed - as cards or otherwise - need to be mentally processed, one by one, by everyone in the room. It is an inherently serial process, so don't be fooled into thinking that you gain time by having people simultaneously writing their ideas on cards. Saving time through concurrency is not the purpose of the cards. Each card still needs to be read by each person, or the facilitator can read each card aloud. But if people cannot see the cards, they cannot then sit back and reflect on them: they will not remember what each card said and they will not be able to "connect the dots" in their heads. Even if you do affinity analysis, it is often the case that very critical things are mentioned by some cards in an affinity group, and so just looking at the grouping is likely to miss major ideas.

In order to enable participants to sit, and to ensure that all ideas are heard and read and can be contemplated by everyone, I re-write each card on the whiteboard. I do this as I read each card, so it consumes little additional time. I write each idea large and cleanly (legible writing is an important facilitation skill) so that everyone in the room can read it, and then we discuss it. Once all ideas have been written and discussed, we can discuss all the ideas as a whole, coming up with holistic strategies that address all of the ideas. I find that this works much, much better than having cards on the wall.

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