Watching a great facilitator in action can feel like being in the audience for a magic show. You cannot understand how they're doing it, but somehow they invite people to be present and give of themselves while creating the safety and energy for true creativity and alignment to emerge.
It's been a large part of my work for many years, and I know that for a long time when people asked me to explain my secrets I was unable to answer. Eventually, as I spent time with amazing facilitators like +Jean Tabaka, +Gerald Weinberg and +Esther Derby I started to understand the science and recognise why some of the things I did worked.
A facilitator's first desire is for every person in the room to have a voice, and to be engaged from the moment they enter the room. Their second is for the workshop to align these divergent voices, enabling them to leave the room with both shared insights and shared commitment to the outcomes.
The SAFe Release Planning event is both the dream and the nightmare of the facilitator. As a dream, it provides the canvas of 100 or so people and 2 days to work. As a nightmare, it asks that you keep 100 people fully engaged in tough often contentious work for 2 days. The first secret of facilitation is to create the safety for every participant to be heard, understood and valued - incredibly hard to create, observe and address in large groups.
|Draft Plan Review
So, how do we do it? The good news is that it begins with basic technique rather than "art". When coaching facilitators, I return again and again to the message that you do half of your facilitation before you ever enter the room. You do so by creating a structure to facilitate to. How will you use the space? What tools (or activities) will you use for each phase of the workshop? What supplies will you need? How will you "set the scene" visually to engage them when they walk in the door? What will they see? What will they hear? How will you create movement? With the right preparation, you can focus on observing, inviting and steering with minor interventions.
The really good news is that the SAFe Release Planning Facilitation guide in every SPC's toolkit provides you with a fantastic starting structure. The influence of +Jean Tabaka (the "Queen of Collaboration") in +Dean Leffingwell's formative work at BMC is readily visible, as is the polish applied through the dozens if not hundreds of events in which it has been applied since.
The agenda sets the scene for an orchestrated dance of scene setting (vision briefings), divergence (breakouts), convergence (plan reviews), check-ins (scrum of scrums) and closure (confidence vote). The Program Board and Team Breakout setup guides provide a visual structure to facilitate to, as do a number of the additional tools such as a Feature Planning Kanban that I've suggested earlier in this series.
However, there's a catch. Once the dance starts, the most important tool in the facilitator's arsenal is observation. They must be able to see and hear the moments when intervention is needed, and observe them clearly enough to intervene effectively. You can do this for 20 people, but how do you do it for 100?
Additionally, a typical workshop breakout would be measured in minutes and intervention can occur when the groups converge back from the breakouts. But we have breakouts that last for hours. Our overarching structure requires supplementation at a more granular level. Those long breakouts themselves need to be designed and facilitated.
Team Breakout Space
If you spend any amount of time with Jean, you will learn the importance of facilitation planning. Personally, I generally allow 1-2 hours of planning/prep time for each hour of the workshop. Jean generously reviewed this post for me, and observed that her team at Rally have found that very large workshops tend to take even more than 2 hours per hour of the meeting. This is not "logistics, invites and powerpoint" .. it's facilitation design. And if you're working with a facilitation team, it needs to be shared time.
The reality is one facilitator cannot do this, no matter how heroic their skills. You need a team. And that team needs the fundamental skills to enable an amazing event. The chance that your brand new Release Train has a ready made team of facilitators is near-zero - you need to create one. My recommendation would be that your team consists of at minimum the primary facilitator and one per team (ideally your scrum-masters) for the breakouts. Ideally, you'd also have a secondary facilitator dedicated to folks such as stakeholders, product managers and architects who are at risk of becoming disconnected or lost during the breakouts. This team needs 2-3 days workshopping together to prepare the facilitation plan for the first event.
As you create the plan, make sure the whole team owns the whole plan. At no time should a facilitator be thinking "I'm off-stage now" and signing out. It's a synergy. If the objective of a particular "whole train" moment is going wrong, the small group facilitators can rescue the day through adding the right powerful question from the crowd. Likewise, the main facilitators should be roaming constantly during the breakouts.
A rough plan of attack is to look at each segment of the agenda and ask the following questions:
- What is the objective of this segment?
- Who is "on stage" for facilitation?
- Who is "off stage" and how might they help?
- What does success look like?
- Who are the main players?
- Who is likely to be less involved, how can we keep them connected?
- What facilitation tools will we use? Do we all understand how to use them?
- What materials and preparation do we need?
- How will we capture the key takeaways?
- What is likely to go wrong?
- What is the ideal time box? What's the minimal time box?
Once the event arrives, make sure the facilitation team has an open/close for each day and a retrospective after the event to support their own inspect & adapt cycle.
Like much of this series, the tips offered here are lessons learnt through failure. For my first event, I took the "heroic facilitation" approach. I worked with the RTE to create the facilitation plan. It was a great plan, and we were very proud of it when we shared it with the scrum masters so they were clear on their responsibilities. And I started writing this post in my head about 10 minutes into the first breakout. We survived it, the energy was great, and the stakeholders were blown away. But it could have been so much more if I'd remembered Agile 101 - "the team that's going to do the work should be the team that creates the plan".