When Agile meets Facilitation: Building Self-organizing Teams in Scrum


(Chinese version published on FunEvo.com 中文版發表於敏捷進化趣)

I always think being a Scrum Master is like being a legend , a Scrum Master helps the Team to understand Scrum and Agile, supports the Team to level-up technical practices, guides the Team to be self-organizing, removes impediments to the  Team’s progress, etc. And to make the job even more complicated, Scrum Master does not have authority over the Team, the Team does not listen to Scrum Master (Unless Team choose to)!

If you look at all these responsibilities individually they seem achievable, but when you put them together it is very challenging for one person to execute. And the one responsibility that confused me the most was that the Scrum Master needs to “Facilitate”, and I had no idea what it meant back in 2014.

Facilitation in Scrum

Facilitation appears in two must-read Scrum handbooks- Scrum Primer and Scrum Guide.

In Scrum Primer:

“the Scrum Master does not tell people what to do or assign tasks – they facilitate the process, supporting the Team as it organizes and manages itself.”

In Scrum Guide, it also stated that facilitating is ScrumMaster’s service to Product Owner and Development Team:

“Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.”

Learning Facilitation by (Wrong) Doing

When Titansoft started to adapt to Scrum in 2014, (because of ignorance) I thought that “Facilitation” is a polite word for “Manipulation”. So I read books about Psychology and how to influence people, I planned for expected outcomes of meetings, I designed contents and process in the meeting, and hoped that the Team will eventually reach “my answer”.

Most of time “my answer” appeared as planned, when “my answer” did not show up, I would use leading questions, suggestions, hints to lead the discussion’s direction. If I sensed the disagreement might be huge, I would even talk to 1 or 2 individual participants in advance to get some insiders to drive the direction of the discussion.

By that point of time, I felt that facilitation is easy task as I can get the answers I want from a group discussion, not knowing that what I did was actually damaging trust between the team and myself.


Facilitation is not Manipulation

Because of my position and environment, teams will pretend that “my answer” is “their answer”, but deep down in their minds they do not agree. So even though we reached a so-called “consensus” in the meeting, the results did not turn out well.

I thought it’s due to my methods, so I looked for more tools for activities and team building, like tape games and retrospective activities. Those games were fun, however they did not help result to shine. My frustration piled up and I was not aware that it’s mostly due to my mindset problem causing facilitation techniques to not work.

Fortunately before things got any worse, Steven Mak from Odd-e shared information about facilitation training with me and I was surprised to find out that this training is conducted regularly in Taiwan.

Meet ICA : The NGO Promoting Facilitation

After Steven’s introduction, I met Lawrence Philbrook (Larry) from ICA Taiwan, I learned that ICA (The Institute of Cultural Affairs) is a global non-profit organization, and their mission is to be “empowering, an authentic and sustainable transformation of individuals, communities and organizations, through methods and values”.

ICA provide their services in developing countries, their funding comes from donation and training provided to enterprises. With over 50 years of experience in community development, ICA has developed an integrated set of facilitation methods, tools and approaches called Technology of Participation (ToP).

ToP covers a wide range of processes, like how to ask powerful questions, generate group consensus, determine strategic direction, and design implementation plan etc. Each process is covered in a two day training, each year there will be a series of bilingual (English/Chinese) courses covering 9 ToP topics in Taiwan. There are also courses conducted in Hong Kong, China and other countries- you may refer to training schedule of ICA Taiwan for more information.

First “Facilitation” Experience

When I met Larry in 2015 August, fundamental facilitation trainings were already finished in the early part of year, so we had to wait until 2016. Larry mentioned there is a Dialogue course coming up, however it is unstructured and his recommendation was for us to go for a structured training like Focused Conversation first.

Because I was eager to know more about facilitation, our team still joined the Dialogue course. Among 20+ people in the course, about 50% of people were from our team, and the other 50% were business consultants, coaches or trainers. Because it’s conducted in a bilingual format, there were also people from other countries.

I was shocked by what happened in the training, and I realized my understanding of facilitation was totally wrong. Being a facilitator is a neutral role to assist a group of people to find their own answers, build deeper connections,  generate group wisdom and not to impose his own idea on the group.

I learned a couple important concepts about facilitation in that Dialogue course:

  • When letting group discuss, state clearly what is given and how the result of discussion will be used.(Ladder of Participation)
  • Never manipulate the group, as people are sensitive and will resist manipulation- misuse facilitation techniques will damage trust.
  • When I have already decided what to do, I should not use facilitation methods.

At that moment I saw bright lights to further advance our Agile journey , I found the  missing puzzle in Scrum: Practical way to build self-organizing teams ( i.e. the How)

Start with Fundamentals of Facilitation

In 2016 we invited Larry and Frieda Lin to conduct two facilitation trainingsin Titansoft, which were Focused Conversation (ORID) and Consensus Workshop. We also had Stuart Turner and Stanly Lau from Odd-e help us to organize our very first company wide Open Space in June 2016, which was a great opportunity to understand and experience self-organization.

ORID is probably the most powerful communication tool I learned, it can be apply to many scenarios like meetings, discussions, even day-to-day conversations. More details about ORID can be found in the book: The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace.

However, after those two trainings, I still felt that something is missing. We learned how to ask questions in ORID, we learned how to get group direction in Consensus Workshop, however when comes to implementation there are still gaps between ideas to actions.

After discussing with Larry and Frieda, the answers were in other ToP courses. Participatory Strategic Planning will generate vision and implementation plan, and Transformative Action Planning is for implementation and review. I think Transformative Action Planning can be adapted to Sprint Planning meetings to make them more effective.

I am looking forward to learning more about what can be integrated between Facilitation and Agile in those two courses. (ICA courses and activities)

Agile from Facilitators’ Respective

Top: Lawrence Philbrook, Gail West, Shufang Tsai. Bottom: Abraham Chien, William Tai, Yves Lin (Photo By David Ko)

In 2016 August, Larry initiated a discussion around Agile and Facilitation, because of David Ko’s article about his learning on facilitataion, and Larry was also curious about the increasingly popular “Scrum” word, also how Scrum and Facilitation can work together.

It was inspiring and interesting to re-learn Scrum from their perspective, maybe because as facilitators they had worked with many companies so they are very sensitive to the context of culture and organization. Following are some snippets of what I recalled from discussion:

“There is so much communication happening in Scrum, no one is in control of what’s happening, leaders need to learn new ways to lead.”

“Scrum is a very effective framework to make things happen, it requires a lot of discipline to continuously do those activities.”

“Scrum seems easy to implement, it is easy for organizations to accept and adapt. However Scrum does not only change processes, letting those decisions to be made from front line staff required culture change. If leaders are not aware Scrum also brings culture change, they are unprepared for what’s coming, and may decide to stop change.”

“Self-organizing is not a Yes/No question, it is a matter of degree, every decision that leaders make will affect team’s self-organization, for example, decide to say ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Get it done today’.”

What I learned the most, is that I need to ask myself more often: “Do I really need to make this decision? If I make this decision myself am I taking away someone’s opportunity to learn and self-organize?”



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