It’s not the meeting’s fault that it sucked!

The Artful Facilitator is a new program to master the art and science of facilitation and turn them into Magic

We’ve all been in meetings or other sessions which have sucked all our energy, haven’t we? I know I have. Sessions where people have been on their laptops or checking email on their phones and not paying attention to the proceedings. What about when 1 or 2 people dominate?

We’ve also experienced meetings where everyone is in love with the shape of the problem; when the time allotted for the session is over and no decisions have been made. So they decide to have another session to make some decisions… or they rush through some meaningless actions causing the meeting to run over, making people late for their next session. And let’s not forget the group of people, impatiently waiting outside the room to start their meeting…?

Contrary to this, a meeting or a session that is skillfully facilitated:

  • Engages everyone in the room;
  • Lets all the voices be heard;
  • Remains focused on its purpose; and 
  • Unlocks wisdom and creativity beyond your expectations.

The contrast between the two is huge. We leave the second one with a sense of achievement; feeling our time has been well spent, something worthwhile has been achieved, and we maybe even feel energized.

What is it that makes the difference? 

It starts with having some facilitation tools & techniques (the science), however that only takes one so far. The magic really happens when we have developed the art of facilitation, and when we blend that with the science.

When this magical combination happens, these are some of the things that we will begin to notice:

  • Everyone quickly shifts into a state of ‘being present’;
  • Participants contribute from their strengths and their hearts;
  • Ideas are generated and solutions may be found;
  • Constructive disagreement takes place;
  • Clear decisions can be reached with buy in from everyone;
  • Real outcomes are achieved faster;
  • Trust, collaboration and accountability grows; and
  • New effective behavior results and continues beyond the session.

To access this magic, we need to look inside ourselves. Only then can we develop our art.

Imagine you have had a tough sprint and you now need to facilitate the retrospective. You know it is not going to be easy. Take the time to prepare for the upcoming session by following this 4-step process:

  1. Take responsibility for yourself. Many times we go into sessions when we are feeling defensive. Defensiveness is the quickest way to a failed session. You begin to take responsibility for yourself by acknowledging that you are feeling defensive. It’s that easy.
  2. Identify the triggers that are making you lose your neutrality. Losing your neutrality might take you into ‘push’ mode and you risk making the session about you, when it should be about the group. Spend some time reflecting on these, draw (yes, draw!) each one on a separate sticky note. Now put them all in a box and lock them in your desk drawer…you can collect them later.
  3. Now you are ready to begin to understand the others who are going to be in the room. If you are feeling defensive, what might the others be feeling? Reflect on this using empirical evidence of what happened in the sprint and the interactions between the team. Put yourself in your team’s shoes and try to see how they see the sprint, what it means to them, and what they want for the next sprint.
  4. Now you can plan your retrospective… and you already know how to do this.

All of this is done before the session. A wise man once told me, “For every hour of the session, you have to spend 2 to 3 hours preparing. So if your session is 2-hours, you need to spend 4-hours preparing.”

Originally published on agile42 on 26 July 2018.


How to Design a Facilitated Work Session

I’ve just finished a call with a client who commissioned me to facilitate a strategy session for their leadership team. In walking her through my design I realised again the importance of creating a generative container for people to do their best work. As such, the facilitator takes care of the structure, while the group takes care of the content.

This article highlights three design elements that help me each time when I design and later hold the structure of a facilitated work session. A work session can be anything from a status meeting, Manco, retrospective, planning event, team building…I’m sure that you can fill in the rest.

The first one is…

Creating relationship

Creating relationship is about the ties that bind – the constructs that hold a group together. So spending enough time at the start of a work session establishing this before diving into the “work” part of the session is time well spent. 

Consider the following things to help you hold the group:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. how is the group going to be together in the session?
  • The physical stuff – e.g. is the room set up conducive to people doing great work together?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. how am I, as the facilitator, going to ensure the engagement of the people?

The second is…

Ensuring diversity

Great results come from groups that embrace how different people see the world, how each one processes information, and consider any cultural norms. This is the difference that makes the difference that provides the potential for new ideas to emerge.

Consider the following things to keep the session moving towards its desired outcome:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. how can participants accommodate the differences between them, such as organisational levels, that separate them?
  • The physical stuff – e.g. – how can everyone’s voice be heard equally, even the soft ones?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. how do I keep people engaged throughout?

…and the third one is…

Encouraging open discussion

Relationships cannot grow without communication and collaboration, so how participants connect and share information is important. This can be any flow that creates some change (and exchange), such as feedback, dialogue, and conversation.

Consider the following things to keep the flow of information untethered:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. are participants listening to each other or talking over each other?
  • The physical stuff e.g. what are the rules that inform discussion and help participants collaborate?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. do participants have the time and space to think before engaging? 

Becoming masterful at facilitating means combining the art and the science. What I’ve mentioned above talks to both. The science is the actual tools, techniques, and exercises. The art is what the facilitator brings to enliven the tools and techniques that help a group move towards their desired state.

Originally published on LinkedIn on 8 February 2020.


I’m a Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST)!

After a 3 year journey, I was invited to a Scrum Alliance® TAC (Trainer Approval Community) in Vienna 2 weeks ago! The last 10 months have been intense, readying myself for this invitation. I didn’t know if I was going to get a TAC spot this year, but I prepared as though I was. No matter what happened, I knew that it was going to be a learning experience. An opportunity! If I got a spot and didn’t make it, it was also going to be a learning experience. No matter what happened, I was going to learn a whole lot – about me, my style, my knowledge, my materials…you name it. And I can safely report that this has been one of the most profound learning experiences of recent years! I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity and I decided to grab it with both hands (and feet :-)).

I worked hard for it, and I still feel privileged to have been awarded this badge (click on the badge for the certification details):

If you’re a Scrum Master, Agile coach or trainer, consider this path. It’s rewarding and there are many people along the way who are only too happy to help. In order for us to Transform the World of Work® we need more trainers. All over the world.

In Africa, we have only 4, all in South Africa. Africa is huge – there are tech hubs in many countries, large organisations who can benefit from the agile mindset. The place to start is here. At Scrum Alliance®.




Sprint Retrospective Using The World Cafe Method

The Sprint Retrospective provides one of the best opportunities for Scrum teams to discover improvements. Retrospectives aren’t the only opportunities. And Scrum Teams aren’t the only organisation members that need to discover opportunities for improvement.

This post will describe a facilitation tool that I’ve used to help teams and other stakeholders discover such opportunities. For each, I will also describe a situation in which I used it effectively. The name of the organisation will be anonymised.

Sprint Retrospective using the World Cafe Method

The method:

The World Cafe is a large group facilitation technique that facilitates people to engage in dialogue. It’s simple and effective. The 7 principles follow below.

  1. Setting – set up the environment for small group discussion. Use round tables covered in flipchart paper or a paper “tablecloth” for people to write and draw on. Groups should be between 4 and 5 people – not more than this because the intimacy of the conversation may be lost. 
  2. Set the context – the host…it may be you…welcomes all present and takes everyone through the process and the etiquette.
  3. Rounds of small groups – each small group discusses a question for 20 minutes. After this time each member of the group moves to a new table. A table host may stay behind to host discussions with new participants and hold the previous rounds’ context. Switching tables can happen for about 3 rounds. Participants can add to the ideas and drawgins on the table cloths.
  4. Questions – each round has a specific question – you, as the World Cafe host need to think carefully about these. Off course, the same questions can be used, or each new question builds on the previous one.
  5. Harvest – after the rounds a representative of each group shares the discussions in plenary with the entire gathering. The discussions are recorded by someone using a variety of techniques – the most popular and also my favourite is visual recording or sketchnoting.

The situation:

The Bank was picking up the pieces after a failed multi-million ZAR project, most of which was outsourced to an offshore vendor. There were the inevitable “organisational casualties”, the contract with the vendor was canceled and IT decided to incrementally re-write the system on their own. This became a priority for many teams, including Infrastructure and System Operations. Management decided that Scrum would be used. At the retrospective after the first release, all teams were present, approximately 50 people. I decided to use the World Cafe Method because of the size of the group and because of the richness that would come from the conversations with all stakeholders, including the business. It worked well – after a slow start, conversation ramped up and all people were engaged. The results were good and feedback from the participants was positive. They had never been through a process like that and were pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

Did it lead to actionable improvements? Yes it did, and there was buy in by the stakeholders because they were involved. This was not a retrospective in the traditional sense involving just the Scrum team. There were other stakeholders present and this was deliberate. And it followed a release which had taken many sprints to achieve. I hope you try this the next time you have a similar situation, and I’d love to hear about it.

© 2019 Regina Martins. All Rights Reserved.



To Scrum Or Not To Scrum?


When might you advise a client to apply XP, Lean or a non-Agile approach to workflow instead of Scrum?

Let me answer this question by describing an actual situation.


I once coached a programme of teams at a large corporate that had to automate a manual and laborious business process onto an off-the-shelf product. This programme had been working in a waterfall manner for a year and had managed to automate a small subset of the business process.

A new CIO was employed and decided that this programme needed to implement Scrum because it would help with faster delivery. When I arrived the teams had been set up, consisting mostly of contractors from different contract houses. Project Managers were in-house and expected to be Scrum Masters as well. Teams were supposedly dedicated, but the programme manager repeatedly moved contractors in and out of the teams. The deadline had already been decided by the CIO.

It became apparent that the teams were set up for failure and that Scrum would be blamed. I thought that by focusing on Lean principles without worrying about doing Scrum right initially, it would start them thinking about improvements to their value stream and eventually lead onto adopting either Scrum or Kanban later on.


Major organisational impediments which due to the nature of the organisation (size, structure and politics) were outside of the teams’ control to resolve resulted in an interrupted value-stream, but for which they were being held accountable. Here are some of them:

  • Data sourcing – each business process was multi-layered with multiple data sources which the teams did not own nor have access to. Obtaining data required a long process with multiple approvals;
  • Environments – development, test and production environments were being built at the same time that the team needed them to do their work.

Programme-level impediments:

  • Teams were not stable – people moved in and out without notice to them and the Project Managers;
  • No Scrum Masters – Project Managers were expected to also be Scrum Masters – this created a conflict of interest and anti-patterns began to emerge;
  • Teams did not own their full value stream and yet were held accountable for delivery;
  • Each business process to be automated was 1 large story because they were not easy to break down into user value items;
  • Teams consisted of more than 10 people and had 3 Product Owners.

I recommended that teams adopt Lean principles and visualise their work, in its imperfect form, and start improving where they could because:

  • The Product Owners were present and involved – there was real effort on their part to help teams break their work down into manageable chunks taking into account the organisational impediments;
  • By visualising the workflow as it was they would start to see where all their bottlenecks were and having the teams and Product Owners focus on customer value they would begin to identify wasteful activities;
  • For me it was also important to help teams see that their current process was not value-creating, and by regularly looking for improvements they would start to look for different ways of getting around that which was seemingly outside of their control.

There are other ways of answering this question, such as using a complexity frame and the Stacey Complexity Model. As with all things that relate to coaching, the context of the organisation and the maturity of the team are important. In order to help them become unstuck I decided to start them off on this path, and bring in the learnings of complexity later. I felt that that this was, for these teams, a useful place to start.

What would you do? Please leave me a comment below.