Are You Missing this Core Skill for High-Performing Teams?

agile leadership agile teams collaboration
Facilitator standing in front of team members

By Julie Springer

July 7, 2022

One of the most important skills for teams to succeed with Agile is often overlooked and under-developed. This skill is necessary for teams to self-organize, collaborate and make decisions. This skill helps teams to improve communication, have more effective meetings, and develop leadership capabilities. What is this key skill? Facilitation.

Facilitation is the ability to guide a group to work together effectively to achieve their goals. Strong facilitators have high emotional intelligence, are good listeners, know how to ask powerful questions, and skillfully apply techniques to support communication and collaboration within the group. Facilitators are neutral, and focus their attention on the context of the meeting, rather than the content. The amount of facilitation needed varies, depending on the degree of collaboration that’s needed and the size and make-up of the group. It is always helpful and frequently necessary for a group to perform at their best.

Reasons Why Teams Lack Facilitation Skills 

How is it that such a valuable and important skill is often overlooked and under-developed? One common reason is a lack of awareness, if it is not a skill that has traditionally been developed within the organization. Without anyone to model the behavior and demonstrate the value, leaders and teams “don’t know what they don’t know.”

I notice this when we come in and provide workshops and team coaching. Most teams are familiar with using sticky notes and basic techniques like dot-voting, but true facilitation of these activities is lacking. They go through the motions but it falls far short of meaningful engagement and collaboration. They are surprised to see what is possible when more advanced facilitation techniques are applied.

Another issue is that Agile training tends to touch lightly on facilitation skills, but goes much deeper into Agile principles, values, frameworks and approaches for planning and delivery. The importance of facilitation gets lost. While there is an emphasis on self-organizing teams and building trust, the how-to for the facilitation skills that are needed to support this are often not included in the training. Even if they are covered, the team needs coaching and support to apply what they have learned, and this is generally not provided.

An underlying issue that gets in the way is that public speaking or standing up in front of a group to provide leadership is one of the most common fears for individuals. It takes vulnerability and courage to step out of your comfort zone and move into the facilitator role. Because of this, facilitators are less likely to naturally emerge, without intentional support and skill development programs. 

The Value of Facilitation

Despite these challenges, there is good reason to invest in developing facilitation skills across your teams. First, it improves overall team communication and working relationships. Experienced facilitators know how to create an environment and structure that supports group communication. They model curiosity and prioritize engagement and hearing everyone’s voice. They see what is needed to create this within the group and can draw on tools and techniques to support healthy interactions.

This has a noticeable positive impact on the value and quality of meetings. Frustration with meetings is one of the biggest complaints that we hear from nearly all teams that we work with. The most effective way to address this pain point is to develop facilitation skills to design meetings that have a clear purpose, with a plan for how to achieve the goal and to apply techniques to support the team as they work through the meeting.

The skills that are needed to be a strong facilitator are also leadership skills. Leaders need emotional intelligence, communication skills and the ability to guide group interactions. By investing in developing facilitators, you are also investing in developing key leadership competencies. This provides important growth opportunities for team members and helps to strengthen the culture that is needed for Agility to succeed within the organization.

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