Facilitation appears to be the next big thing. But what are its roots and what are its best applications in the world that requires constant adaptability, adjustment and innovation? In this article we will look at the roots and developments of group facilitation as well as at several techniques that can be useful for all kinds of projects, teams and organisations.
The deep roots of facilitation
First and foremost, let’s do no waterfall bashing. Group facilitation is equally useful in sequential, “predictive” projects and throughout the project life cycle. Workshops can be deployed for phrasing the project justification, scope definition, project planning, risk analysis, stakeholder engagement and lessons learnt. You can find advice for the use of facilitation in PMBOK® Guide 4th Edition and even more in PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition. But it does seem that the agile philosophy has taken facilitation to the forefront. Why? Possibly thanks to it essentially collaborative orientation, the need of constant communication within teams as well as between teams and users or a broad community of organisational stakeholders.
Neither is group facilitation anything very recent. One of its roots goes back to the activities of the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the Unites States, from early 1970s. The ICA was involved in the community development initiatives, first on the American Continent and then globally. The ICA developed a set of group facilitation methods that are now a corner stone in the foundations of group facilitation.
In the field of technology, IBM pioneered the use of facilitated group work, in the form of joint application development sessions (JAD), in about 1980. JAD workshops were highly structured events that brought together the information technology professionals and users to jointly define the requirements and specifications for an application or a system. These events could take a day or several and were profoundly prepared to make sure that the time allocated was best used. JAD workshop were then carried over into Rapid Application Design, and from there on, to Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), born in 1995, that is now a highly popular agile project management framework, branded by APMG as Agile Project Management. In DSDM facilitated workshops and the role of a facilitator are integrated into the project life cycle and the roles configuration. Notably, the workshop facilitator and the DSDM coach are pointed out as the processes-oriented roles, with no content interest. Rightly so.
Facilitation for Agile Teams
About the same time as DSDM, Scrum approach appeared. What differentiates Scrum from DSDM is its scope of focus. DSDM combines the essence of agility – incremental and iterative development – with a comprehensive project framework and process. Conversely Scrum focuses on the development team itself. So, any facilitated activities happen within the team. Scrum has a set of meetings, the “ceremonies”, through which the team plans its sprints and daily activities and reviews its work through retrospectives. There is not much need here for an independent facilitator, the Scrum Master can essentially fulfil that role. Sometimes, an agile coach may also put on the facilitator’s hat, as proposed by the Agile Coaching Institute, in its model of agile coaching.
Facilitation for collective requirements definition, architecture design, modelling and reviewing
But you can see a broader application of facilitation that involves various stakeholders in an organisation. Here the JAD approach comes back. The workshop format brings everybody interested in a theme into a room for a structured discussion and exchange of views. It is not an individualised process of one-on-one interviews, of which results have then to be interpreted and combined into a single result. It is rather a collective process, where everyone can hear everyone else. The dynamic exchange leads to a synergy of many different ideas and a feeling of ownership of the result.
This is what a requirements workshop, within the DSDM project life cycle, may offer. A useful method is the ICA consensus workshop, which consists of a structured brainstorm, grouping ideas on the wall and then naming the groups. If we start from the most important features, we naturally produce a prioritised set of requirements in different categories, corresponding to system functionalities. We can then add the specific MoSCoW priorities to the set. Most important of all, we build the consensus of all participants for the product we have just designed. For this, however, a skilled and experienced facilitator would certainly be worth having.
We can similarly design a system architecture or a model. This would be less verbal and more visual, or combining the two. The rich picture technique may be useful, with actors, activities, and their relationships drawn in an image. A talented graphic facilitator would be useful for this.
It is also worth to look back (retrospect) at the work just done. Another method can be used for that called a structured conversation, developed again by the ICA, also know as the ORID process. For an ORID retrospective we ask a series of well phrased questions:
- Questions about facts (Objective level), for example: “What happened for you in this last iteration?” “What was completed?”
- Questions about feelings (Reflective level): “How did you feel about this or that event? What was the energy level halfway through the timebox and how is it now?” “Where were you surprised, glad, upset?”
- Questions about the meaning, impact, significance (Interpretive level): “So, what does it mean for our project? What is the impact? How does it change our approach?”
- Questions about the actions to be taken (Decisional level): “What shall we do differently in the next timebox?”
Facilitation for organisational change and transformation
Going deeper, facilitation has even greater use, especially for organisational change, of which an agile transformation is a good example. In classical theory, a change raises resistance. Project and programme management – including the good old PRINCE2 and MSP frameworks – attempts to define both the benefits and disbenefits of change. It is commendable to go through these with all interested parties. A useful technique for is an output-outcome-benefit map.
You can resort to an even greater classic. Kurt Lewin has offered us his change theory together with force field analysis. Extremely valuable at the start of any change programme or a transformation. Two questions should be asked:
- What are the forces pushing the agile transformation in our organisation?
- What are the forces stopping the agile transformation in our organisation
The result of such a facilitated workshop may look like this (Image 1).
Trainings, workshops and games
We argue here that facilitation is a very valuable form of group work, with many applications, at different levels in an organisation embarking on its journey towards agility. But we certainly recognise that it is not the only form and it does not invalidate training or coaching. On the contrary, it seems that the most effective are combinations of those various forms in well designed and consistent organisational development processes. Some knowledge needs to be delivered, including project management methods, tools and techniques. Training is valuable for this, but if it is combined with workshops that bring the knowledge gained into the real life situation in a workshop format, the training effectiveness will be so much greater. And why not add a simulation game in between, that will test the team’s dynamics in a fairytale or mythological or a science fiction situation.
Group facilitation has been for a long time present in the project management, change management and organisational development domains. The agile movement has given it an even more important place in the product development processes and the organisational culture change coming with it. But it does require specific applications, methods and designs as well as trained professionals, be them Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches or independent facilitators. This article has cast some light on some applications and methods, with a belief that group facilitators have good days ahead of them.
Group facilitator, consultant, project manager, project management trainer. Accredited Green Project Management Consultant and Assessor. Designs and conducts workshops, including those related to strategy, portfolio, programs and projects, including project impact analysis and sustainability. Doctor of Social Sciences, university lecturer in Project Management. Graduate of the University of Leuven in Belgium. Owner at wefacilitate.eu.