?
Digital Application Development
8 minute read

The Role of a Facilitator in Agile Development

Facilitating regular agile retrospectives is a useful tool. As long as you’ve learned something that you can then use to get better, then you’ve been successful. The goal is to continuously improve with each retrospective.

In This Article

A vital element of any agile project is a regular retrospective. Having a facilitator run a retrospective helps the team to have a smooth and productive meeting. It is common for senior or more extroverted members of the group tend to dominate the discussion. The facilitator ventures to make sure that the debate has a balance of input from everyone. Loud ideas aren’t necessarily better ideas, but they usually get a bigger audience. Facilitation helps this imbalance. 

copy link

Facilitator duties

Facilitators encourage participation by the full group. People aren’t always comfortable speaking in front of others, and they are even less likely to be the ones that start the conversations. Facilitators need to cultivate a safe and comfortable environment where their teammates can feel secure speaking about their thoughts and experiences on the current project. Successfully coaxing an entire group of people to communicate their frustrations productively is typically demanding, and that’s why facilitators are so vitally important to the process. They keep the conversation moving without interfering with the group’s opinions.

Facilitation is a kind of servant leadership. It is simultaneously an effective structure of progression and multiple types of assistance. The ten principles of servant leadership are: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight and stewardship. A facilitator should strive to embody these principles in their work. They should encourage and support meaningful meetings as they encourage people to talk. 

A healthy way to start the conversation is to ask if anyone disagrees. This open-ended question allows your team to speak their minds. They can disagree about anything. The question is a polite way to ask for complaints. The facilitator needs to be very involved to secure constructive conversation. Regular summarization helps to maintain a clear understanding. The facilitator should regularly verify that the entire team is communicating efficiently with each other. 

Fostering inclusive solutions is one of the main goals of the retrospective. The facilitator listens to everyone’s suggestions as best they can, and then these suggestions are discussed. There will be divergent opinions, and the facilitator will have to adjust accordingly. There are various techniques to help smooth out these disagreements.

It’s also essential that the facilitator maintains several conversational threads throughout the retrospective. There will be various lines of thought that everyone’s unique perspective views interlace with each other and the facilitator keeps track of these conversations and must choose how to navigate while adequately addressing each line and connection node. It takes practice to negotiate the best path through the retrospective, but following the servant leadership principles will guide you.

Creating a stable plan beforehand is beneficial. It gives you backup options. If a particular technique isn’t being productive, you have a list of tools from which to choose. You’ll have a tightly scheduled plan to prevent the team from getting off track, and you’ll be able to gauge the success of each section. The team will also be more involved if they know how long each section lasts. People burn out quickly when they feel like they are just stuck dealing with problems indefinitely.

Neutrality is vital to maintain trust and equality. The facilitator shouldn’t favor any particular person or idea. They can encourage more discussion, and they can help the team generate more clarity, but they shouldn’t shade anything with their own opinions. The team knows what its capabilities are better than anyone else, and that’s why their honest, detailed and unbiased input is so crucial for future developments.

copy link

What is an agile retrospective?

An agile retrospective is a meeting held at the end of a sprint or other regular recurring cadence in agile software development. During the retrospective, the team reflects on what happened in the iteration and identifies actions for improvement going forward. A retrospective gives your team a chance to look back on what has occurred to get better in the future. 

Retrospectives are run regularly throughout the lifespan of your product, project or team to make sure that your team gets better as they perform their work as opposed to waiting until after it’s too late to enact any solutions. Keep in mind that there is a goal in running a retrospective. Retrospectives should produce identifiable problems and actionable solutions from the team.

copy link

Running a retrospective

Each facilitator will have their preferred style, but there are a few tried and true classics that any facilitator should know. Starting with icebreakers will help to get things moving. The earlier on in the session that someone speaks, the more likely they will talk in the future. It also makes the group more comfortable with each other. You can then move on to more structured framing discussions. These generate ideas for what the team would like to discuss in the retrospective.

Lean coffee is a powerful technique. It can be for a retrospective or any other type of group decision-making meeting. It is a way of generating a list of topics that the people in the meeting want to discuss. It involves each member of the group writing down the topics that they would like to discuss on sticky notes, and then these notes are placed on the wall. The notes are placed in groups to identify any overlapping topics. These topics become a loose agenda for the meeting when the team votes on the order of importance. Each issue is then discussed for a predetermined amount of time before moving on to the next topic. Lean coffee is an effective way to engage in the discussion process because it makes sure that what is discussed is essential to the team.

copy link

Prime directive

An excellent way to set the tone for a retrospective is to read the prime directive. The prime directive helps set the stage for a positive and successful event. Project Retrospectives, written by Norm Kerth, states: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” Keeping this at the front of your mind will encourage a supportive and productive conversation.

copy link

Problem recognition and action items 

Understanding and identifying problems, deciding the best course of action, then following through on those decisions is the overall goal of the retrospective. Each of those steps deserves the group’s full attention and focus. The facilitator’s job is to ensure that the conversation is flowing and that the objectives are being reached. 

Jointly discovering operational problems or successes is achieved by using the various retrospective plans and techniques. Trying to solve a problem based on incomplete information can lead to chaos. Not only is the original issue still unaddressed, but any new steps implemented could cause further and unforeseen ramifications. After the team has agreed upon the most pressing issues and their causes, it’s time to decide what to do about them. 

The group will start planning solutions for the problems that they identified. These solutions are broken down into what are known as action items. Action items are documented experiments, tasks or activities that need to take place to solve a problem. The facilitator will help to ease the group into an agreement on the best course of action. Again, remember that a proper facilitator doesn’t lead the group to an answer. They assist the group in having a healthy dialog.

The facilitator then captures what the team wants to change or experiment with moving forward and assigns the action items to the group. Accountability is the key to a successful retrospective. Each action item must be owned by a team member responsible for its completion. There should be documentation listing the action items, including who is accountable for those action items. It is crucial to have someone take responsibility for action items to increase accountability. 

copy link

Ending a retrospective

Appreciation techniques are a great way to end the retrospective. These are to remind everyone that while there is always room for improvement, that there is a lot to be thankful for and to appreciate. It also strengthens morale and trust within a team. Feedback for the facilitator is always appreciated and, when time allows, the group members discuss their thoughts and feelings with the facilitator about the process that everyone just went through. The team then goes forward with greater clarity and an agreed-upon plan for their next few weeks of work, sprint or iteration. 

Facilitating regular agile retrospectives is a useful tool. As long as you’ve learned something that you can then use to get better, then you’ve been successful. The goal is to improve with each retrospective.