Facilitation in Agile Projects

The AgilePM® Handbook names Facilitation as a key technique – but how should you use Facilitation in agile projects?

Three subsequent versions of AgilePM® Handbook name Facilitation as a technique which helps in building the team, decisions making and in identifying risks. Facilitation is scarcely described in the manual and this article will present it in a nutshell and explain how it can be used successfuly in projects.

According to one of the definitions: “facilitation is any action that makes a task easy for others or a task that is supported by others.” The purpose of facilitation is to ensure that meetings and workshops are designed and conducted in an effective manner.

It allows the team to make independent decisions, thanks to an independent person e.g. a Facilitator. A professional who can properly manage the meetings, so that participants do not “harm” each other but appreciate differences in opinion and realise benefits instead.

 

Who is the facilitator?

A facilitator is a person qualified to assign appropriate ”process” (formats, models, techniques and tools) to the “task” (goal of the meeting).

Some of the models/techniques/tools are:

  • Paraphrasing by Feedback model,
  • Four box,
  • Summarise, Propose, Output (SPO)
  • Process Iceberg® Model,
  • Symptom, Cause, Action (SCA),
  • Allegories,
  • Storytelling.

These names seem to be rather mysterious and complicated and suggest the role of facilitator is a difficult one. It’ even more difficult because the facilitator is expected to manifest impartiality even if he/she is involved in the work or emotionally dependent on the results.

 

What is the facilitator responsible for?

 

Facilitation strongly emphasizes the distinction between responsibility for the process and responsibility for the task. As within project management, a process means certain activities that lead to a specific result. Project management standards such as PMBOK® Guide, Praxis Framework, AgilePM® define the processes needed to deliver the product of the project, but the product can be different for each of the projects.

The facilitation manual (“Facilitation. Develop your expertise” by Tony Mann) does not define the contents of the workshop (the “Task”), which may be different for each meeting, but it helps to identify (the “Process”) which will deliver the required result. The required result from project management should be the project delivered within the constraints of the project triangle. The required result from the facilitated workshop should be e.g. identified risks, prioritised requirements within a certain amount of time. As in the case of project management, facilitation should also include stakeholders, especially since the workshop can be implemented on the basis of various formats.

We call a “Format” the way resources are used during the meeting:

  • Group – means that the stakeholders involved will work together in groups,
  • All – means that everyone will work alone,
  • All to one – it will cause all people to work together with one medium .e.g. one flipchart,
  • One to all – one person communicates with the rest, e.g. when they have the experience, knowledge to share.

Task leader and Facilitator

 

Two key stakeholders are mentioned in the facilitation manual:

1. Task leader – person responsible for the definition of the meeting’s goal e.g. Project Manager, Team Leader,
2. Facilitator – responsible for the workshop process.

Therefore, we expect the task leader to have specialist knowledge about the task, and therefore the facilitator doesn’t need to be the expert in it. This specialist knowledge on task could even be an obstacle if the facilitator wanted to engage in creating the solution, loosing their impartiality.

We are unlikely to expect the Project Manager to be the Facilitator, but we can expect he/she will take the role of the Task Leader. AgilePM® Handbook clearly suggests that the facilitator should be a separate and independent role from the Project Manager.

An effective facilitator should:

  • be change orientated,
  • be bold, brave, a risk taker,
  • have broad focus and be ideas oriented,
  • be flexible,
  • be quick to respond and act,
  • be process orientated,
  • be a low profile catalyst,
  • be an extrovert,
  • be able to stay calm under stress,
  • have a low level of tension,
  • have broad business awareness.

Estimating the time and cost of facilitation

 

The Project Manager needs to obtain an adequate person to fullfil the role of the Facilitator but be should also be able to estimate the time needed to conduct the workshops.

However, there are some risks here, as the Tasks can have different levels of uncertainty:

  • In Certainty i.e. the question to be answered is clear and the answer is easy to get from the workshop participants, it is also easier to estimate the necessary time. The time estimated will usually be sufficient to achieve the goals of the meeting.
  • When we are dealing with Complexity i.e. the question is clear, but the answer is not known yet, the originally estimated time may be extended even 2.5 times during the workshop.
  • Ultimately, when we are dealing with Uncertainty (the question / problem / issue is unknown and must first be understood to find an answer or solution), the actual time of the workshop itself can be up to 4.5 times longer.

The facilitator’s role is to properly manage the “golden triangle of facilitation”

 

Additionally, the facilitator’s role is to properly manage the “golden triangle of facilitation”. As in the case of the “project triangle”, where the “scope-time-cost” remain in relation to each other, in the case of facilitation we have an interdependent “task-time-group maturity” triangle .

This means that the workshops’s time depends on the task (which we know from project management as scope) and on the maturity of the group / process, i.e. the difficulty of implementing a given task. However, the level of difficulty can only be estimated by an experienced facilitator.

This means that the Project Manager (as in the case of estimating other tasks in the project) should use the help of experienced Facilitator in planning workshops. This means the logistics of the workshops (location, equipment) will also affect the budget of the project.

Summary

 

An experienced facilitator (like an experienced Project Manager) uses the process so that other people can achieve the goals. It is the skill and experience of the Facilitator (as in the case of the Project Manager) that determines how efficiently he or she deals with the selection of appropriate tools and adjusting the process to the requirements of the task. Facilitation (much like project management) is a different professional activity. The responsibility of the Project Manager is rather to acquire and motivate a suitably experienced professional to achieve satisfying workshop results.

This article was first published on 17 JMay 2021 on APMG portal

https://apmg-international.com/article/facilitation-agile-projects

About the Author

 

Tomasz Nedzi has been managing projects and facilitating meetings since 1993. He became a AgilePM® Approved Trainer in 2013 and Facilitation Approved Trainer in 2015 and now teaches others to manage projects and facilitate meetings effectively. Tomasz is the Lead Trainer for AgilePM® and Facilitation at skills® group of companies (skills® 2004 UG in Germany and skills® sp. z o.o. in Poland).

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