The Scrum Master work often times requires that she/he facilitates discussion among developers and a key component of that is that the discussion stay focused, productive, short and in the right level of energy and respect.
The facilitator rol as such has a lot to do with helping the conversation flow without monopolizing it and imposing her/his own conclusions. Very frequently a facilitator has to resist the temptation to tell the team what to do and how.
Other times facilitation has more to do with breaking the silence by making a question that generates valuable discussions [Schein13]. In occasions facilitation implies making that uncomfortable question that no one wants to ask.
Whichever is the situations, the Scrum Master needs to be prepared and have in his toolbox techniques, tools and knowledge that allow she/he to act as facilitator of the communication both inside and outside the team.
To Be or Not To Be on Agreement
Often times a developer or several developers might not be on agreement about technical aspects of the work and in the best case scenario disagreement is voiced and worked out somehow; in a not so good scenario, disagreement is there but nobody says nothing about it and the team is a collection of individuals with fractured opinions.
When facing disagreement a very common reaction is to fear it and neglect or ignore it, this means trying to live in an “artificial harmony” state in which everybody seems to be on agreement and seems not to divergent opinions. The problem with “artificial harmony” is that is a symptom of a dysfunctional team [LencioniI02].
Like in sports and other domains having a dysfunctional team rarely conduces to productive work. Seems counterintuitive but actually talking about disagreements clears the air for the team and enables it to achieve better performance.
If we see it from a different angle, discomfort is part of team dynamics. In fact, discomfort is the basis upon which dialog emerges and that in time triggers creativity and buy in.
Expressing the former in a simple model:
Divergence ——-> Groan Zone ——-> Convergence
The job of the Scrum Master as a facilitator is not to prevent that the team enters the “Groan Zone”, on the contrary, the Scrum Masters helps the team to safely enters the zone, stay there for a while and then leaves with an agreement that was reached using converging thinking [Schwarz16].
It’s important to notice that convergence doesn’t necessarily implies that the best solution has been found or that the team has all correct answers, it just creates a hypothesis or presents an idea that needs to be validated by trying it. Needless to say, if the hypothesis or idea doesn’t provide good results when implemented then the team repeats the cicle and tries one more time.
Techniques to Help Convergence
Often times teams can engage in heated debates that can last minutes and even hours; the conversation can be valuable but is still hypothetical until teams start actually working in implementing something. Speaking in Lean terms, abstract conversations and debates are too far distant from the gemba.
These are some basic techniques that can be very useful to help the team converge and reach agreement:
- Fist of Five where five fingers mean totally in favor, one finger means totally opposed and three fingers mean go with the room and support what the majority decides
- Dot Voting is a technique that requires that each individual on a team cast her/his vote using a dot next to the option or alternative that she/he supports; votes are casted on a easel pad or whiteboard
- Majority Vote consist in allowing everybody to vote on options and whichever that get more that 51% of the votes wings, this technique can work well with large groups and even electronic tools can be used to cast votes. A general recommendation is not to have too many options
- Decider Protocol requieres that someone formulates a motion, someone else seconds it and then everybody needs to vote the motion raising hands; the team decides how many votes are needed to pass the motion
It is not advisable that the Scrum Master make business or technical decisions without deep knowledge about the discussion topic. However, there are exceptions in which the team can not decide regardless of several attempts and facilitation techniques. In extreme situations like this the Scrum Master may decide to switch stances and vote to break the tie.
Taking a step back, in many situations facilitation is needed because people in the team are just not listening to one another and even if they’re listening they’re not understanding what the others are trying to say.
Kaner [Kaner07] proposes several facilitation techniques that can help the team to better listening, these are some of them:
- Stacking means defining a sequence for people to talk one after the other so not everybody try to talk at the same time
- Paraphrasing someone talks using similar words and then asks the person who originally presented the idea if it has been well captured
- Drawing people out helps not only who wants to propose and idea or voice an opinion but also who listens
- Making the space for people in the team that hasn’t talked, talked too little or got interrupted. This technique is specially valuable to help introverts to ask questions or present ideas
Listening techniques are vary handy tools in the Scrum Master’s repertoire because they facilitate the communication process and help to build understanding.
It’s factual that one of the facets of a Scrum Master is being a facilitator but is also true that this is not the only facet and that even though is important should not consume all her/his time and energy. Ideally the Scrum Master should aspire to cultivate a culture of self facilitation inside the team. [Hackman02].
Facilitation starting from listening or even better from effective listening is one of the best tools that a Scrum Master can use to help the team converges on an idea, decides to experiment and ultimately validate it.
Schein13 Schein E., 2013. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 1 edition
Lencioni02 Lencioni P., 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Jossey-Bass; 1st edition
Schwarz16 Schwarz R., 2016. The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Coaches, and Trainers, Jossey-Bass; 3rd edition
Hackman02 Hackman R., 2002. Leading Teams – Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Harvard Business Review Press
Kaner07 Kaner S., 2007. Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Jossey-Bass; 2nd edition