An Agile Coach wears many hats – coach, trainer, teacher, mentor, consultant, conflict navigator – but my favourite role as a Coach is by far is facilitating groups.
There is an immense satisfaction in being the force behind group problem-solving, helping a group navigate through their issues or conflicts or get clarity and create ideas.
There are different tools you can use to facilitate groups, depending on your objectives: coaching (for problem solving and idea generating), non-violent communication (for conflict resolution), retrospectives (for learning and continuous improvement), etc.
Here I present a framework created by Roger Schwarz, organisational psychologist with over 30 years of working with global organisations in complex industries (from aerospace to energy, government), presented in detail in The Skilled Facilitator (3rd edition).
What I love about this framework is that it is deeply rooted into strong values and principles. At the heart of the approach is the idea that “how you think is how you facilitate“, and you have to work on your mindset and judgement during the facilitation just as much as you work on the process itself.
I will write briefly about the mindset of the facilitator, then I’ll jump into explaining the framework and how it can be used.
The Skilled Facilitator approach implies a deep mindset change
The Skilled Facilitator framework is based on the mutual learning mindset: as a facilitator, you are a neutral party and you don’t assume you understand and are right while others are wrong: “you assume that each of us is missing information and differences are opportunities for learning“.
The mutual learning can be used in three ways: (1) by the Facilitator, (2) by the Group or (3) the Facilitator to teach the group the mutual learning behaviour itself, helping the group achieve their objective (problem-solving, idea creating, etc.) and teaching them the mutual learning model. Schwarz calls this type of facilitation developmental facilitation.
Your mindset (the core set of values that drives your behaviour) affects the way you hold the facilitation and what you bring to the group, good facilitators must observe themselves and be ready to continuously improve their skills (also to get the hard feedback).
The Mutual Learning approach: an overview
The Mutual Learning Approach: Mindset
There are four values that the mutual learning approach promotes and groups under Mindset: transparency, curiosity, informed choice, accountability, and compassion.
“When you are transparent, the group understands what you’re doing and why. When you are curious, you learn what the group members are thinking and feeling and why.“
During your facilitation, inform the group constantly on where you are taking them, why you made that decision, and what your expectations are from them. At the same time, be continuously aware of the group dynamics, and ask questions to understand what others are thinking and what their reasoning is.
Informed choice means making decisions and maximising others’ abilities to make decisions based on relevant information in a way that builds commitment. In your facilitative role, you’re accountable to the group for the decisions you make by yourself and with them […] you’re expected to explain your reasoning, decisions and actions to others.
Don’t make unilateral decisions when facilitating a group; present all the information available to the group and reach conclusions or decisions together.
Pay attention to the decision making process in particular – consensus or participative decision making is not always the best option (for some decisions you can never obtain consensus). So you have to use the right tool for the group and adapt based on their behaviour.
Compassion is […] the emotional glue that holds all the core values together […] When you operate from compassion:
1. You are aware of the suffering that people of your work force will face.
2. You internally connect to their suffering, cognitively and emotionally.
3. You respond to the suffering.
Remember that compassion is about understanding, but it shouldn’t contradict the other values: if you withhold information from someone in order to not hurt them, you’re not being compassionate, you’re being cruel. You have to find the best way to share information that doesn’t cause more pain to the group members.
Compassion is blocked by judgement. Here are some expressions that are judgemental and don’t convey compassion (as presented by Roger Schwarz):
“Your suffering isn’t that serious”.
“You contributed to the problem.”
“You are acting like a victim.”
Compassion is about listening, not judging or solving a problem. All you need to do is listen and offer to help (if the other person wishes or needs your help).
The Mutual Learning Approach: Behaviours
The mutual learning behaviours transform values or mindset into action. Schwarz presents eight behaviours that can enforce a mutual learning mindset:
- State views and ask genuine questions: following transparency and curiosity, express your views and ask others to express theirs. Always ask others what they think about your view and leave the door open to be told your view is nor relevant. This sets the foundation for an open discussion, with high probability of resolution.
- Share all relevant information: if you have information that the group isn’t aware of, you have to share it. The group can’t make good decisions if they don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.
- Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean: without clarity and understanding, the group might think they reached the same conclusion and agree on the some actions, but the reality could be entirely different. So make sure there is specificity in the discussion and explain words, creating opportunities for learning.
- Explain reasoning and intent: always make sure the why behind your reasoning and decisions and facilitate the group members explaining their intent. Explaining the why also brings accountability to you and the group.
- Focus on interests, not positions: Positions are solutions. People argue mostly on position, but many a times they actually have the same interests (the underlying needs to be met by the solution). By uncovering the interest, so pushing the conversation one level higher than solution, you can uncover a similar interest, which will allow a higher commitment for differing solutions (hint, this is a very useful tip in communication with your partner as well).
- Test assumptions and inferences: don’t make assumptions or inferences without testing them (sharing them with the group and assuring you have the same understanding).
- Jointly design next steps: especially when you are the expert in the room, refrain yourself from designing solutions for the group, but do it together with the group. This creates higher commitment to the actions agreed on and higher accountability from all the group members.
- Discuss undiscussable issues: discussing undiscussable issues during a group meeting is the best way to have them resolved effectively. Create a safe space for the group to openly discuss issues and find resolution.
The Mutual Learning Approach: Results
The Mutual Learning approach creates plenty of positive results (openness, transparency, trust, faster problem-solving and decision-making are to name a few). Schwarz organises them in three categories:
Increased Team Performance:
- Higher-quality decisions: everyone participating into the decision-making, sharing information brings better decisions and increases innovation
- Greater innovation (see above).
- Shorter implementation time: bringing people together is the best way to solve problems fast and make fast decisions. “Mutual learning uses the system thinking principles: go slow to go fast” – taking the time to involve the group in decision significantly reduces waste caused by decision making and lack of clarity.
- Reduced cost: time saved equals money saved; making high quality decisions reduces waste.
Better Working Relationships
- Greater commitment: The Mutual Learning approach discusses interests above solutions, so the group commits to a decision, even if some of the members don’t necessarily agree with it, as they feel their interests have been considered.
- Increased trust: compassion, transparency and curiosity build a great foundation for trust between the group members.
- Increased learning: all the values and mutual learning behaviour work together to increase learning (and as a facilitator, you learn plenty in the moment).
- Reduce defensiveness: bringing compassion to group meetings pushes down defensive walls and opens the door for a genuine and honest conversation.
- Productive conflict: using transparency and curiosity (doubled by compassion) helps bring conflicts in the open and openly discuss them. Focusing on the interest, not the solution, makes for a better conversation and higher acceptance of and commitment to the final solution.
- Appropriate dependence on others: as a Facilitator, you don’t just use mutual learning to facilitate the group, but you teach them the values and behaviours of the approach, thus reducing dependency on you and helping them use mutual learning in their interactions.
Greater Individual Well-Being
Following the positive results of the above, another side effect of using the Mutual Learning approach is the increase of the well-being of the members of the group: higher sense of satisfaction, increased motivation, richer development opportunities and a lower level of stress.
The Mutual Learning approach, as a team effectiveness model, helps you and the team in three ways: as a design tool (to help a newly formed team design itself effectively), a diagnostic tool (use the model with existing teams to improve effectiveness), and an intervention tool (use the model to watch the team in action).
I have been using the behaviours in my facilitation of retrospectives or other group learning events, to set up new teams (create team rules and understanding of how to best work together) and to remove impediments or solve conflicts between the teams or between the teams and stakeholders.
I strongly recommend reading the book, as Schwarz has plenty of examples and case studies on the mutual learning approach that will definitely up your facilitation game (as a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, manager, or team member in a self-organised team).