To Facilitate Or To Not Facilitate, That is the Question

So, what is facilitation?

Today, we are about to embark on a journey – delving deep into the realm of facilitation, pinpointing its origin, understanding what it truly represents, starkly outlining what it isn’t, and exploring how it compares to teaching, coaching, and consulting. Let’s dive right in.

Facilitation, in essence, shies away from the role of a leader imparting instructions and leans towards the figure of a guide who assists groups in accomplishing their goals. It’s about guiding conversations, ensuring clear communication, and fostering an environment conducive to the spread of ideas.

The term facilitation originates from the Latin word ‘facilis’, meaning ‘easy’. Does that shed some light on its characteristic style? The role of a facilitator makes it ‘easy’ for the team to derive decisions, create plans, and essentially move forward.

Alright – facilitation is well-defined. Now, let’s unravel what it isn’t.

The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.
– Ronald Reagan

Now, how does facilitation compare to teaching, coaching, and consulting? This is an area often fraught with misconceptions.

  • Teaching involves imparting knowledge, while facilitation promotes the flow of conversation and ideas within a group to obtain solutions.
  • Coaching, on the other hand, centres on the professional development of individuals, guiding them through personal improvement. In contrast, facilitation focuses on achieving collective group objectives.
  • Lastly, consulting aims to provide expert advice in a specific field or situation. In juxtaposition, facilitation does not dwell on specific advice or recommendations. Instead, it paves the way for a group to arrive at its own consensus, guided by a facilitator’s neutral stance and the breadth of expertise within the group itself.

In the wider scheme of things, facilitation, teaching, coaching, and consulting all serve different purposes but share a common objective – promoting growth and progress, albeit in varying ways.

When to Facilitate: Recognizing the Right Moments

Now that the fundamental question – to facilitate or not to facilitate – has been posed, you might be wondering in which team settings facilitation truly comes into play. While every situation can’t be exhaustively addressed, let’s explore some situations where it may well be appropriate to facilitate.

The role of leadership is not to increase the output of work, but to increase the capacity of others to do the work.
– Simon Sinek

  1. The Initiation Stage: When a new project is in its pioneering stages, facilitation can serve to collate ideas, define goals and foster an environment of collaboration. You, as a Scrum Master, will want to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard in order to build a shared vision and measurable objectives.
  2. Conflict Resolution: In times of discord, facilitation is key. The subtle art of facilitation aids in steering conversations toward understanding and compromise, encouraging empathy among team members during heated debates. Your guidance could redefine what appeared to be a stalemate, paving the way towards resolution.
  3. Decision Making: Facilitation during decision-making can ensure that team members have the confidence to voice their opinions and that everyone’s perspectives are considered. It also promotes transparency and inclusion – essential values for effective decision-making.
  4. Team Retrospectives: Facilitation plays a crucial role during retrospectives as you dig into triumphs, missteps, and areas for improvement. As a facilitator, your objective is to ensure a productive and safe environment for sharing and learning.

The act of facilitation isn’t just about spearheading discussions. It’s about creating an environment where every team member feels seen, heard, and valued, thereby nurturing innovation and promoting collective growth.

When Not to Facilitate: Recognizing When to Step Back

Deciding when not to facilitate is a conundrum that most Scrum Masters often find themselves grappling with. There are circumstances that necessitate a step back, allowing the team members to take the lead encouraging self-organization and autonomy. However, this delicate dance of discernment requires a keen understanding of the team dynamics coupled with a cognisant rationale of task complexity. Let’s take a sneak peek into these scenarios.

The team is well-versed in the process

Mature teams that have spent considerable time working together have often developed a rhythm and an understanding of each other’s working styles, strengths, and weaknesses. They might not need you to facilitate every meeting or intervene in the decision-making process.

The task is elementary

There are instances when the task at hand is straightforward, and the team members are well-equipped to handle it. The art of convening is to know when to let go. Your involvement might lead to needless micromanagement and infringe on the team‘s space.

Facilitation may cause dependency

Habitual facilitation can lead to dependency, depriving the team of a chance to grow and learn. It’s vital to cultivate an environment where the team feels empowered to make their own decisions and navigate complex issues.

Facilitation is not about control but about guidance.

Great leaders are willing to sacrifice their own personal interests for the good of the team.
– John Wooden

In the world of agile scrum, as a scrum master, you may often find yourself questioning – to facilitate or not to facilitate. This authority conundrum tends to confuse many, and rightly so. Facilitation isn’t about controlling your team or dictating terms. To quote the eloquent words of a famous philosopher – it’s about guidance. But when is it appropriate to facilitate? To sate your curiosity, let’s delve deeper into four common scenarios:

1. A New Team Just Starting Out

Is it appropriate to facilitate? Absolutely!

In the beginning stages, a scrum master’s facilitation is critical. New teams typically lack understanding of the Scrum process and their roles within it. They are like fledglings learning to fly – still unsure about their wings. Your facilitative intervention can act as a safety net, guiding them towards their initial sprint goals. Introducing facilitation into the team’s dynamic aids in constructing a streamlined mode of operation, promoting harmonious interaction, and avoiding possible pitfalls or misunderstandings.

2. A Mature Team

Is it still appropriate to facilitate? Indeed, but with finesse.

Mature teams, being well-acquainted with Scrum mechanisms, do not require the same level of guidance as newer ones. Like a well-oiled machine, they can function efficiently with minimal supervision. But does that mean the Scrum master’s role devolves into redundancy? Absolutely not! The key here is to facilitate without encroaching upon their independence. You’re not there to hold their hand at every juncture but to offer support. You should be present, but not overwhelmingly so – a watchful guardian, ready to step in when necessary.

3. Simple Tasks

Think you need to facilitate? Not necessarily.

When the task is so simple that it’s practically part of your team’s routine, your facilitating role might seem excessive. Your team, savvy as they are, can navigate such tasks with ease. Over-facilitating in such situations can lead to frustrations and, ironically, create unnecessary complexity – a case of the potion being worse than the poison, isn’t it?

4. Complex Tasks

Consider it necessary to facilitate? You bet!

Unsurprisingly, complex tasks are a whole different ball game. They are intricately woven webs of uncertainty that your team must unravel. Your engagement as a facilitator here is less about dominance and more about partnership. You join their ranks, not as a superior but as a comrade, supporting them through this labyrinth of complexity. The idea is not to solve the problem for them but to equip and encourage them to find the solution themselves.

These decisions aren’t always easy—especially when your instinctual drive is to jump in, take command, and steer the team to its goal. Yet, the magic of Scrum lies in its ability to foster self-organised, cross-functional teams that rely on each other rather than an external facilitator. As Scrum Masters, knowing when not to facilitate is as critical as knowing when to step in and guide the team. This wisdom comes with experience, perceptive observation, and an affirmation that every member of the team is a master of their trade. The balance, once struck, can lead to optimal team functioning.

Facilitation: A Vital Skill for Every Scrum Master

The role of a facilitator is not to make decisions, but to guide the group towards making their own decisions.
– Roger Schwarz

In short, as a Scrum Master, your role extends far beyond leading or steering a team towards its goal. You carry the pivotal responsibility of nurturing and fostering an atmosphere that allows for self-organisation and robust cross-functionality within your team — two cornerstones of effective Scrum methodology. The trickiest part, however, may often be to recognise that fine line between when to facilitate and when not to.

Knowing when not to facilitate is as critical as knowing when to step in and guide the team.

This takes insightful observation, keen perceptiveness, trust in your team’s expertise, and most importantly, valuable experience. Realise that every member of your team is a true adept in their respective field, and their individual prowess can collectively result in optimal team functionality.

At the end of the day, the journey of a Scrum Master is less about taking command and more about guiding a voyage of self-discovery for the team. It’s about enabling them to realise their inner capacity to function as a cohesive unit without expert facilitation. Mastering this operation can lead to a plethora of benefits for both the team and the project.

The question remains – to facilitate or not to facilitate? The answer lies within your ability to balance these forces and harness the true potential of your team. So take a step back, keenly observe, make thoughtful decisions, and most importantly, learn from each experience. Keep striking that balance and leading your team to greater heights of self-sufficiency and effectiveness.

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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