Chapter 17 Disillusioned Facilitator
. . . in which the team mocks the facilitator for using ridiculous activities, and the facilitator explains why the activities are useful
Sarah is still inexperienced as a facilitator, and at the next retrospective, she has decided to introduce a new activity: every retrospective should start with a round in which, prompted by a question, everybody shares something from their personal life. The question could be anything, but she decides to make it simple for the team and start with, What did your last meal consist of?1 Sarah believes this is a safe question that doesn’t require much thought and that people will be comfortable answering it.
1. Don’t ask this question in Denmark, though. It is boring because everybody eats cheese sandwiches and oats for breakfast. It is more fun in a distributed retrospective with people of different nationalities.
Although she feels this activity will be useful, Sarah is a bit worried about asking people to share something personal, because she has overheard some team members say on occasion that they are not interested in each other as people, only as colleagues. When she starts the retrospective, she asks everyone to stand in a circle and describe their last meal. People start looking around in a puzzled way, someone giggles, and most of them look at Rene.
Sarah has noticed before that even though Rene is not the leader or the manager, he seems to be the “natural leader” of the team. Whatever he does, the rest of the team wants to do as well. And it is obvious that he does not like this activity at all. In earlier retrospectives, he has called the activities “games” to emphasize how childish and unimportant he finds them. (Actually, in my opinion, playing games and being childish are important, and there are good reasons2 for doing so.) Rene says that it is a silly thing to waste time on now, when they are so busy with the implementation of the new API, so perhaps “we should call it a meeting and go back to the real work.” Everybody leaves—everybody but Sarah, who stays, disillusioned.
2. You can read more about this on Portia Tung’s The School of Play website (2019).
Many facilitators, especially at the beginning of their journey as facilitators, find themselves initiating an activity despite being worried or uncertain about the activity and unconvinced that it will work. They might disregard their concerns because someone recommended the activity or because it was described in a book or a blog post about effective retrospectives. Perhaps it was even described in the book Retrospectives Antipatterns, in which case it should be a great activity.
The antipattern solution is to go ahead with the activity, but somewhat reluctantly and almost apologetically, saying, for example, “I know this sounds stupid, but people say this activity is good” or “I am not sure about this activity, but the book says we should do it like this.”
The consequence can be that no one else takes the activity seriously either, because if the facilitator does not seem to think it is a good idea, it could just be a waste of time. The team might try it out halfheartedly—all but guaranteeing its failure. They might make fun of the idea or even make fun of the facilitator. The long-term consequence is lack of respect for the facilitator and for retrospectives, and in that case, you might as well stop doing retrospectives for this team. This means that the team will not be learning what they could from the events they experience in their daily work. Last but definitely not least, the facilitator will lose even more self-confidence.
The symptoms can be found in yourself: you feel uneasy about facilitating a particular activity, one that you find yourself not really believing in. You might also notice symptoms among the team members; for example, they start giggling and whispering to each other or refuse to do what you ask them to do. Another symptom is that proposed activities are abandoned without being properly attempted.
“Fake it ’til you make it” is the short answer, but there is more to making an activity successful than just putting on your best facilitator’s smile. Sometimes you will come across an activity that you are not sure will work in this particular setting with these particular people. And perhaps you are right, but it is certain that if you do not believe it will work, then it will not work.
People usually will do what it takes to make the retrospective a good experience. They might not want to admit it at first, but even though they appear to be too cool or too grown up or too serious to do something as silly as compliment their teammates, vote with their feet (that is, walk to a specific part of the room to indicate what they want), stand in a circle, or share what they ate at their last meal, they are willing to give it a try if you can convince them that it is a good idea.
And herein lies the challenge. If you are inexperienced or simply new to the team you are facilitating, you might not have earned their respect yet, and perhaps more important, retrospectives might not have earned their respect. When you decide to include an activity, make sure it is one you believe in. In the beginning, you might want to use only safe/boring activities, but with time, you will grow bolder. But choose the ones that you see and can explain the purpose of and that you do not think are silly. If you do not believe in an activity, nobody else will.
Start the activity by explaining its purpose and what you expect the team to get out of it. Then do the activity and, afterwards, make sure to point out the benefits, such as the opportunity to share, vent, identify causes, just have fun together, or get to know each other better. It’s good practice to debrief the team after the activity to reinforce what they got out of it.
For an online retrospective, this antipattern is both harder and easier. It can be harder to convince participants to do something that takes them out of their comfort zone because of the added border between you and them, coming from the online aspect of the retrospective. Conversely, that same border can make it feel less brutal if the team ridicules the activity. For both online and offline retrospectives, it is important that you choose only activities you believe in yourself, that you explain their purpose, and that you try to not take the negative reactions personally.
I once facilitated a new team, and I could feel from the start that being in this retrospective was something they had been forced to do. It was not their choice to sit down and talk about anything. They did not acknowledge anything good that any of them had done: the Gather Data phase was all about what had gone wrong, even though I tried to make them think about good events or things that gave them energy. See also Chapter 21, Negative Team.
I decided to apply Norm Kerth’s Offer Appreciations exercise. I made the team stand in a circle, which took some convincing, but I said that it was necessary. I then explained the activity. There was a ball, and the ball would start with me, and then I would acknowledge one of them for something good and then throw the ball to that person. This person should then acknowledge something good about another person and throw the ball to him or her.
I started by acknowledging one of them for a positive comment that he had made earlier, and then I threw the ball to him. He caught the ball, looked at the ball, looked around, and slowly, without a word, let the ball fall to the ground. As I watched the ball roll along the carpet, I almost panicked. I initially did not know what to do but decided to end the activity and move on to closing the retrospective. If the same thing were to happen to me now, I would react differently.
The way I interpreted it back then was that he thought it was a stupid game, and that might still be part of my thinking now, but I also think that he simply did not have anything nice to say about anyone on the team—or if he did, he did not want to share it. That is a big red flag, which you can take as a huge gift if you experience it, because it gives you a lot of information about where the challenges in this team lie.
Today, I would probably dive into that action and ask him if he had any thoughts about acknowledgments that he discarded or if he could think of a reason for acknowledging his colleagues and fellow team members. Depending on the context, I might need to confront him with these questions outside of the retrospective instead of in front of everyone else. Making people lose face is rarely a wise choice, and if your role as a facilitator is not yet established or respected, it could also be very harmful to your relationship with the team. Another thing I would do today in that situation is ask whether someone else had anything he or she wanted to say.
At the time, I took it as a harsh criticism of my facilitation, which, in part, it was. If it happened now, I could also choose to see it as an interesting way of starting a conversation because my experience since then has given me the confidence to know that this is not (often) about me. That realization takes time.
But most important, I would have told the team why I wanted them to take part in this activity: that acknowledging one another in a team is very important because that is part of building trust, and when trust exists, people are able to speak up and ask questions. Asking questions means the problems are dealt with earlier, and the team works more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.