In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner Podcast, host Dan Neumann is joined by Rebecca Sutherns, PhD. Rebecca Sutherns is a strong strategic analyst and certified professional facilitator, trained in numerous facilitation methodologies. She has conducted community consultations, strategic planning, research and evaluation exercises for a range of clients in Canada and internationally. She is an instructor of a facilitation skills course within the Conflict Management Diploma program at the University of Waterloo, the CEO of Sage Solutions (where she bring her expertise as a professional facilitator to help purpose-driven leaders align what’s important to them with what they actually do), and the author of her new book, Nimble: A Coaching Guide for Responsive Facilitation.
In this episode, Rebecca and Dan are focusing on all things related to nimble facilitation. Though her background is not in agility, her insights around nimble facilitation greatly align with the agile value of “responding to change over following a plan,” and apply to what agile coaches do daily.
Tune in to get Rebecca’s insights on what facilitation is, what separates a good facilitator from an average one, how to bring a meeting back on track through nimble facilitation, what facilitation should look like after a meeting, her tips for creating psychological safety, and all about her new book, Nimble, and the key lessons about facilitation from there as well.
Intro: [00:01] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.
Dan Neumann: [00:16] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host, Dan Neumann, and I’m really excited today to have Dr. Rebecca Suthernss joining me. She is the author of a book “Nimble Off-script, but Still on Track, a Coaching Guide to Responsive Facilitation,” so thank you for joining today, Rebecca.
Rebecca Sutherns: [00:35] My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Dan.
Dan Neumann: [00:36] Yeah, and as a bit of a disclaimer as we get going, of course these are your opinion and my opinion and not those of AgileThought or other folks or other companies. It’s, it’s just us.
Rebecca Sutherns: [00:46] True enough.
Dan Neumann: [00:47] Okay. Okay. You are a professional facilitator and not a really a, an agilelist per se, as many of the folks that I’ve, I had on the show are familiar with. Yeah. When I read your book at “Nimble, the off script, but still on track about facilitation,” so much of that really applies too. What agile coaches do or Scrum Masters do that I was really excited to ah, make contact with you and have you as a guest on the show. So thank you.
Rebecca Sutherns: [01:18] Great. Thank you.
Dan Neumann: [01:20] Yeah. What, what else about your background, um, kind of led you to writing a book on facilitation?
Rebecca Sutherns: [01:27] I noticed that when people run meetings, so that’s really what facilitation is, is finding people, giving people a structure by which to get things done. As a group, I was noticing when I had facilitation training opportunities, they were mostly about tools and maybe about how to combine those tools, but less about what happens when your best laid plans of how to do those things fall apart and they don’t have to fall apart badly. They can fall apart just by a few degrees and still things can be different than you expect and you feel like all this good training you received may not be quite as applicable. And so I think that happens most of the time. And so I wanted to normalize that and say things going differently than you expect is just symptomatic of working with humans. It’s not, uh, any indication that you’ve prepared badly necessarily or that you’ve done anything wrong or even that your script was inappropriately built or something. It actually is part of it. And so I wanted to write something and I teach people live and in person about how to react and respond and um, just be sensitive to what’s going on in the room. Cause I think that’s what differentiates a really good leader or meeting runner or facilitator, whatever you call yourself, um, from an average one is the one that can actually adjust in real time to what’s going on in the room.
Dan Neumann: [02:48] Yeah. And that adjustment to what’s going on in real time is what really resonated with me from an agile values standpoint we have a principle about, or a value of responding to change following a plan. And sometimes people mistakenly think that agile means no planning, which would be a misnomer, much like your book Nimble, it doesn’t mean no planning to go into facilitate it. In fact, it’s very heavy on planning so that you’re able to respond appropriately. Did I, did I get that part right?
Rebecca Sutherns: [03:17] I think that’s absolutely true. I think it’s about planning really thoroughly because there’s lots of reasons why things can go off script and I would suggest that yes, you want to make your own lack of planning, not one of them. There’s all good things are going to go differently than you think. You don’t want to look back and go off. I’d only thought of that than it would have been okay. So basically that’s why in the book I do have quite a lot about planning because I think you need to do a really good job of that. And also because I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, if I can lend some of that experience to others so that what I’ve learned in hindsight, they can learn ahead of time preventatively. I think that’s better. So you have your plan, but then you have to hold loosely to your plan and that’s one of the paradoxes of planning is that as you develop your plan, you start to love it and hold it tightly. And so that’s the kind of other half of the book is to say you’ve planned beautifully and conscientiously well done. Now it’s time to loosen your grip on that.
Dan Neumann: [04:18] You talked about really knowing yourself as part of the planning too, and I’m maybe jumping in the middle and we’ll come back a little bit, but one of the things I thought was interesting is knowing yourself and your tendency to either plan too much and really have a a tight grip on that plan and not want it to change or kind of going in willy nilly, you know, guns a blazing, just I’ll figure it out when I get there. And really knowing maybe if you’re on one of those extremes that that’s your tendency and then kind of fighting against that tendency.
Rebecca Sutherns: [04:49] I think so because I think finding somewhere in the middle helps and I think the way I like to think about that either pole of those two extremes that you just described, you as the facilitator, you’re almost too obvious. You’re too visible to the group and it becomes about you. So if you’re really stressing your script, it’s like when you go to a presentation and somebody makes it all about their slides, you know, and Oh, you know, I meant to do this, or I’m flicking a head really fast or I’m going back, you’re too conscious of it. And then same thing, if someone is just winging it, you’re also conscious of that because you have this sense that they’re poorly prepared or you know, somehow winging it, you know it. And so in both of those extremes it becomes about turning the focus on the facilitator. And I think you want invisible facilitation that just happens like magic. So the group, can do what they need to do and your piece is so smooth and seamless that they barely even notice you’re there.
Dan Neumann: [05:46] Yeah. I think that’s a nice distinction about making it, about the, the goal of the meeting or about the participants of the meeting and not about, you know, the, the well laid out script or the lack thereof that people are going with.
Rebecca Sutherns: [05:58] Yeah. And I think the other piece around knowing yourself is also knowing how you act under pressure. Because I know for example, for me, if I feel like we’re running tight for time and I haven’t yet landed the objectives that we set out to to achieve in that meeting my end, or if I am stressed for other reasons, tired, distracted, something, I will tend to get too directive in the room. And that’s another way that I am too visible to people. I will push a little too hard. I will rush activities a little too much in an effort to get things done. And I think that’s another way you know yourself because the energy you bring to the room, the pace that you set, the level of intervention that you bring to the conversation, all of that changes the dynamic in the room and the outcome. And so having some really good self-awareness about what you tend to do when you’re at your best and how you tend to behave when you’re not, um, can keep you monitoring that as you go along.
Dan Neumann: [07:05] Is there, we’d talked about wanting to share some, some tips, some specific things. And I think that scenario that, that you just shared resonated with me pretty strongly. Right? Okay. We thought this was going to take an hour or two hours or a day, whatever your time box is. And we’ve got an agenda with some time boxes. So imagining we’ve done some prep and then you know, you’re halfway through the time box and only a third of the way through the agenda or towards the goal. And are there some ideas for how one then maybe handles that situation without it making about my perfect agenda that we’re now off track with versus um, you know, letting the objective get missed or somehow endangering the objective of the meeting. So what are some ideas for bringing that back on track?
Rebecca Sutherns: [07:51] Yeah, I think there’s a bunch. A few come to mind. One is setting expectations at the beginning, both in your own head and for the group about what constitutes being on and off track. Um, I think I use language around off script that doesn’t bother me off track does. Off script is different from what I expected off track means I’m not meeting my objectives and if I know that I’m going to go off script, it doesn’t stress me out when it happens. So it’s all about expectations, right? If we set our expectations in a particular way, we’re not disappointed when they’re met or not met. So I think it’s partly understanding that things will go differently than you thought. And so when you are seemingly running out of time, that’s not unexpected. That’s just one way that things can go off track. That’s okay. So you’ve set those expectations for yourself. You’ve also, in a sense, possibly set them for the group. And the way that I do that is I give people starting and end times and maybe when we’re going to eat, or take a break. But I don’t give them really, really detailed agendas because if I say something’s to take from 10 o’clock to 10:10 and it’s now 10:13, there’s going to be somebody in the room that I have now stressed out. I’ve distracted them because they’re like, you’re running late, right as I, you and I would be the same. And it not only makes people feel stressed, it makes them feel like you don’t know what you’re doing because if you really knew what you were doing, it would, you would be on time. And so it lowers their trust in you as well. So why do that? Why not just say we’re going to start at 8:30, we’ll take a break at 10:30 lunch is at 12 and then you have some flex in that and they don’t have to know that you’re running a little late. Then when you are running a little late in your head, don’t say so. There’s no need to draw attention to that. Um, and then I think the final tip I would have is to plan for multiple scenarios. And what I mean by that is if you actually have planned, hey, if this goes like this, I’m going to do this. If it goes this other way, I’ve got this other thing in my back pocket, I’m going to try that. What it does is that’s plan A and plan B. My experience is that it’s usually plan C or D that happened. So you didn’t plan for those. But by letting your brain be ready to plan for a or B, you’ve opened the possibility that things are going to go differently than you thought. So when they do, your brain is ready to be nimble on that. So I think of it like on a tennis or squash court, having bent knees and being on the balls of your feet and ready for that shot to come from wherever it comes from is different than I am so ready for that shot only to come to my backhand and my knees are locked and darn it’s going to come that way. And then when it comes to the other way, not only are you not ready, you’re actually ticked that it came that wrong way cause it feels wrong in your head and it’s not wrong. It just came in a different way. So it’s about your internal mindset, how you position it with the group and then how you get your tools ready to pull out of your toolbox at a moment’s notice and sort of how you’ve prepared your brain and your sort of skills I guess to to do that.
Dan Neumann: [10:52] So if I understand here and I do love the distinction of off-script versus off track. That really clicked with me when I was reading through the book. So okay, we’re off script but we’re still on track for what we’re intending to achieve. And so you know, maybe a couple of exercises are in mind for different parts of the agenda. One, if we have more time, one, if we have less time or a couple of different ways to facilitate the same exercise depending on what we’re trying to do. Those sound like the types of things that you’re describing to me. And, and I think the, not making it your participant’s problem if you are not on the pace that you thought you were. So you, you know, not needing to share it, not needing to give the the minute by minute agenda. Cause in agile teams a lot of times the timebox is really important, in Scrum we have a one week or two week time box or we time box the daily Scrum to 15 minutes or less. And so for me anyway, that that time box becomes important. So if somebody says, we’re 30 minutes on this, I’m like, Damn, you’ve spent 35 like, like seriously, what are we doing here? Um, and so as a participant at it can be too much level of detail.
Rebecca Sutherns: [12:03] Well and therefore I make the boxes a bit bigger. But at the other, the other thing I do is that I set objectives for each chunk. So if you’ve got these time boxes like say it’s a day, we don’t very often have a whole day. But if we had a whole day just for easy math, I set that up as four 90 minute chunks because it’s before the break, after the break, after lunch, after afternoon break. And so if I know what my objectives are for each of those little chunks, it keeps me on track because I might know the overall objective for the whole day. But if you don’t break that down into smaller pieces, you know you can be off by a little bit at the in the morning and by the end of the day you’re way off. Whereas if I know what I need to accomplish in each of those discreet chunks of time, even if one of them goes really badly and we’d really don’t accomplish what I hoped, I can find my way back. It’s like a blaze in the forest, right? In theory you’re supposed to be able to see the next one from where you are. I set those up for myself so that if one of them doesn’t work, hopefully the next one will.
Dan Neumann: [13:05] That’s very cool. And has he said that I got to thinking you’ve broken the the act of facilitating into three it kind of phases by time. So I often think of facilitation as the stuff in the room. And obviously there’s some prep which you call the, the anticipation or the, the in advance anticipation you’ve got in the room agility and then the afterwards absorption which I think the absorption and the afterwards is a piece that, sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t. And could you maybe talk about that? So you’ve done some planning, maybe you’ve come up with scenarios A and B and you’ve, you’ve done the thing in the room and then there’s the afterwards.
Rebecca Sutherns: [13:47] Yeah, I think this is the piece that most of us miss and yeah, part of what helps us get better. So this is the part that helps us learn and it might be the part that helps us salvage something if things went badly. So, um, but the learning piece I think is more important and part of it starts with saying how, how did it go and how do you know how it went? Because sometimes we’re our own worst critic and we don’t have a lot of distance or objectivity around how it went. So my first piece is following up with the people whose opinion mattered to you about how it went and making sure you’re triangulating your own opinion about it. Because if you’re only listening to the voice in your head, you may have a bit of a skewed understanding of how it went because we’re pretty hard on ourselves. The second piece around that reflective practice, and that’s really what I’m talking about, is becoming a reflective practitioner, letting the lessons sink in and be used for next time or that if I write a facilitation plan of how I think things are going to go, if I’m asked to run a similar meeting another day, the following month, if I go back that original facilitation plan, I’m planning using a tool that was my best guess at the time. And yet I’ve had the real session in between, so I need to make sure that I update that plan with the actual, you know, with the, what actually happened. It’s like a budget, you know, this was the plan and this is what it actually costs. So if I can update my plan with the actual of what actually happened when I go back to, to do a similar meeting next time, I can learn from what actually happened in the room, not from what I thought was going to happen. So those are just a few examples of really, um, setting up some disciplines in your practice, both to check in with other people and to keep good records for yourself about how things went so that you can learn from it and the next time you’re not repeating it, you are moving forward from it.
Dan Neumann: [15:38] Yeah. And I think that discipline can be tricky. I don’t know if there’s any secret or if that’s just all individual, but you know, it’s like a, I’m going to go to dinner tonight and I’m going to have a salad and some fish. Well, okay, you know, a burger and some fries later. I’m like, Oh yeah, whatever happened to that plan. But um, have you found a good way of kind of maintaining that practice as you go?
Rebecca Sutherns: [16:01] Yeah. I have a really good business manager who’s much more detailed oriented than me. And I asked her to do it.
Dan Neumann: [16:07] That’s fantastic. So a part, a partner, right? I mean you’ve got.
Rebecca Sutherns: [16:10] Right, you’re finding, you’re making sure that you are focusing on the things you’re good at and you’re delegating the pieces that you’re less good at. So in practice for me, it may not be that exact discipline, but there are other ones like that where I tried to systematize things to make them less conscious. If I have to choose every time, whether I’m going to do it or not, the chances are higher that I won’t do it. Whereas if it’s just built into my practice that it’s just becomes unconscious, then um, then it’s much more likely to happen. And one of the ways that I can take it from a conscious place to an unconscious place is to ask her to do it for me.
Dan Neumann: [16:47] In the book and as we were talking this, this is kind of a visual thing. So maybe people can close their eyes and pretend we talked the in advance there’s anticipation and then later on there’s in the room agility and the afterwards absorption. The piece that also stood out to me is then you have below that you have the aspects of people, process, place and purpose. I actually got those a little bit out of order but yet people purpose, place and process, so four facets each of those phases. So it’s not just about the people in the room or the process you follow in the room. Could you maybe talk through the importance of the people purpose, place and process?
Rebecca Sutherns: [17:37] Sure. I think the people part we talked about a little bit already because the people involves you as well as the group, so I think that’s the insight there. As you’ve got that self awareness as well as awareness of what’s going on in the room. And I think people think of facilitators as people who are good at reading the room and we are, but you also want to anticipate who’s going to be in the room ahead of time. Who do you need there? What happens if a certain combination comes? What are the dynamics? Are you, addressing information from multiple informants ahead of time so you’re not just taking one person’s word for what’s important in the room, so all of those dynamics can happen in your planning and in the room. The process itself I think is what most people think facilitation is about. Those are the activities, methodologies that you’re using in the room. We can go into more detail about that, but that’s kind of the guts of what most people think of. The purpose, which I often would talk about at the beginning is really the key thing because if you think about the purpose as a destination, think of going on vacation, you might agree that you’re going to go whatever. You’re going to California for vacation, everyone’s onboard to go to California, but you have some some discussion about is this a road trip? Are we taking an airplane? Is there a train that goes there? Are we taking a hot air balloon? Whatever you agree it’s a road trip. Well then there’s lots of different ways you can drive to wherever it is you’re going in California, you haven’t wavered on this California piece, but as you’re driving, you take a detour, there’s construction, whatever. You don’t actually care that much what route you take to get there, but you really care that you arrive in California in time for, you know, whatever thing you’ve said. That’s how I imagine the facilitation process. In terms of purpose. My job is to guard the destination. California is my job. I got to get that group to California. Whether we go this route or that route doesn’t matter to me, as long as by the end of the session we arrive in California. So I am the guardian of the purpose and if I haven’t asked the group what the purpose is really clearly, I can’t get them there. So it’s really important we do that in advance, but also that we’re checking in in the room to say, are we still on track for that? Has the destination changed at all? Um, you know, keeping people, keeping the purpose visible to people, reminding them what we’re trying to do, all that kind of stuff is purpose. And then the other one is place. And the key takeaway here is that the environment you’re in shapes what happens in that environment. So if we can, if we do the same old thing in the same old room, the uninspiring, windowless, boardroom leads to uninspired, non-creative, you know, predictable outcomes more than if you change it up a little. So it doesn’t have to be that you go somewhere fabulous every single time. But do you have to have that meeting in that space even if you had it in a different space, even if you sat in different chairs in that same old space and changed your view or you sent people outside, you know, go walk in pairs and talk about this for five minutes and come back or you know, I’ve done things on, I work in food security sometimes if we have meetings on food security at a farm, we are more interesting in our outcomes and more creative in our outputs than if that same meeting is held, you know, in a, in a hotel meeting room someplace. So treat place and venue as a planning variable, but it also, the place also encompasses kind of the vibe in the room. And so you’re also the guardian of the energy. And so that’s another whole area of facilitation and facilitating nimbly is monitoring the energy in the room and deciding what you’re going to do about that, both in terms of how you set that energy and how you kind of receive it. Because if something’s happening at two o’clock in the afternoon, that’s really different. The 9:30 in the morning and different again, the nine o’clock at night, different if your participants are jetlagged, you know, so you’ve got to pay attention to that and sometimes you need to give into it and just be like, we are not getting anything done right now and everyone needs to go take a break or you give into it by doing something fairly passive. Watch a video, you know, watch this Ted talk on this and then we’ll come back to this. Or you want to really offset that energy by injecting a ton of enthusiasm and physical activity to offset that after lunch slump. So the main thing is not to be oblivious to it, but actually to work with it in your plan.
Dan Neumann: [22:05] Yeah. You used the phrase oblivious facilitator within the text quite a quite a bit and, and it kinda, it stuck with me. Right? It’s the facilitator’s not tuned into things are going on and they’re just, they’re really hell bent on what they have in mind.
Rebecca Sutherns: [22:19] Yeah, it’s true. And it’s worse almost than, I’ve been in a situation where a facilitator asked a group of question. The group answered the question and then he carried on as if he hadn’t heard that answer. And it was so much worse than if he hadn’t asked it at all. So to me, that’s my kind of metaphor in my head or my iconic sort of oblivious moments of if you’re not going to adjust based on the feedback the group’s giving you, don’t ask for the feedback because again, it lowers their trust in you. Because as a, as a participant, we know what it feels like to sit in a badly run meeting. It’s terrible. And that’s one way that the meeting itself becomes worse because you started thinking this person really isn’t paying any attention to me at all. Um, and so yeah, I would rather, I would rather a facilitator be neutral then oblivious. And if you’re not going to listen to what people say, if you can’t hold your script that loosely, don’t ask them.
Dan Neumann: [23:10] Yeah. To me that sounds very well in line with something like if you do an exercise and you aren’t tying that activity to the learning objective or to the outcome, like don’t do the activity. Like if it’s just maybe the activity is to inject some energy, maybe that’s okay. But if it’s just totally like we’re doing a thing cause right because it’s fun there or whatever. Yeah. Feels a little bit off track.
Rebecca Sutherns: [23:34] And that’s part of purpose in the room. Right. And even in your planning that you do align your activities with the reason you’re doing them. So if you are doing a, if you need to make a decision, don’t ask people to brainstorm because brainstorming is about creating ideas. It’s an ideation phase. It’s opening the funnel wide. And choosing is narrowing the funnel, it’s converging and so you want your processes, you choose to be aligned with the task you’re trying to do. So here even in that you might have your big purpose for the whole meeting, but even for that little chunk, um, it’s important that the activity aligned with what’s going on.
Dan Neumann: [24:11] No, that’s a good point in that kind of a, the fractal nature of you’ve got the big purpose and then the smaller purpose as you go through. So lots of extra detail on those phases in the book and definitely encourage folks to get that. I was curious to like some of these scenarios that commonly come up, like you’ve got a naysayer in the audience or a heckler or you know, people usually aren’t in, they’re like you suck. But you know, sometimes we have, with agile we get the people who are like, well agile is never going to work or well agile is nice in theory but we live in the real world or, or those kinds of things that I’d be kind of curious tips folks might benefit from with leave the naysayer slash heckler types?
Rebecca Sutherns: [24:52] Sure. And I can’t speak specifically. As you said, I’m not an agile practitioner specifically, although I’m familiar with pieces of it. But the whole idea of um, someone needing to kind of cut down what’s going on, I’m wanting to know why, where’s that coming from? And sometimes it comes from not feeling heard in the process. So if you are, I always, I often say that good process offsets the need for people to behave badly. So if I feel like I’m able to participate, I have some way of influencing the outcome. I feel like my words are being used, I’m being heard in the room. I don’t need to kind of posture and flex and you know, be disruptive in any way because I can see a sight line to the purpose. I understand why we’re doing this. I can see that there’s alignment between that purpose and the activity. I’m being asked to give my 2 cents worth. I can see my words reflected up on the flip chart or on the post it notes or visibly on the slide and therefore I don’t need to be difficult. Um, that it’s a little bit Pollyanna-ish in some ways, but I want to say that people who are getting newly into facilitation, this is the thing they’re most afraid of, is the participant that takes you off track for whatever reason. And my experience is that the fear of that is way greater then the likelihood of that happening, particularly if you facilitate well. So I trust good process and good facilitation to be the best antidote to that kind of behavior.
Dan Neumann: [26:30] Oh, that’s a good tip. And when you mentioned the fear piece, well we talked a little bit about your, what you shared about the concept of fear versus danger. Right. So I’m afraid of spiders. They’re really not that dangerous in, um, you know, we’ve got like one dangerous spider in the whole state, but, um, man, I just don’t like him. Yeah. You know, and, and so this, this, the fear of the heckler or the fear of the Naysayer, perhaps greater than the danger of the, the Naysayer and really disrupting the, the objective or the purpose, right?
Rebecca Sutherns: [27:02] It absolutely is. And so the evidence would say the likelihood of that scenario happening is low. However, as you said, we don’t like spiders. If we don’t like naysayers, our fear of that and our discomfort at the possibility of it can throw us off track. And so part of skillful facilitation is self regulation, right? And so part of it is that mental discipline of saying, I’m not going to let that bother me unless it actually does happen in the room. I’m not going to let the possibility of it happening, throw me off, but I’m also going to do my preparation so that if it does start to happen, I know how I’m going to respond. I have my plan B and plan C ready to go and um, I’m ready. So, and, and because if you’re somebody that really is on the highly scripted end of that continuum we talked about before, you’ll know that the way you get less stressed is by planning a lot. For those people that like winging it, planning a lot does not relieve their stress, it creates it. So you need to know yourself for that reason too because it’s really important that you do whatever’s gonna make you feel most relaxed in the room.
Dan Neumann: [28:13] Yeah, definitely having a relaxed facilitator helps cause that tension is contagious. Something that’s a bit of a topic in, in our agile groups is that of psychological safety now, like is it safe to provide your feedback? Um, is it safe to take risks? And it feels like that’s pretty closely coupled with power distances in the room. So if the really big boss or the hippo, the highest paid person is in the room. Yeah. Um, yeah, that can also get into the psychological safety. Am I actually free to express my opinion? What kind of tips do you have for either establishing psychological safety and or specifically handling this, the power differential scenarios.
Rebecca Sutherns: [28:57] Those are such good questions. There’s two things I would say about it. One is that we know about psychological safety from the where I’m, I’m drawing on some work by Amy Edmondson here who’s just great and I would highly recommend her book, “The Fearless Organization,” and uh, she draws on work that Charles Doohey. He did with Google and other people around what it takes to create safety and teams and yeah. One of the things that’s really relevant to facilitation in that is equal air time. One of the things that over time helps team members feel that they are safe. Because if one person or two people dominate all the time, other people feel like they don’t have space. So a facilitator can help with that. You know, we make sure that that participation is roughly equal. Maybe not in any given conversation, but over the long term, roughly equal airtime helps. Another thing that helps is knowing that the team has your back. And that means that respectful behavior is really important. And a facilitator helps with that too in setting norms in the room and not allowing inappropriately nasty behavior to happen. And then another thing that leads to that safety is shared purpose. And so we need to make that purpose as we’ve talked about really explicit. Um, but more I guess more specifically than that when you were talking about power differentials in a room, we all know what it feels like to have, um, sort of the head Honcho there, dominate the conversation. So I would say if you are that person, um, if you are the most powerful person in the room in whatever way, maybe informally, maybe formally, um, be careful of how often you speak and be careful of when you speak because there is also a tendency for that high power person to kick things off and end things and those beginnings and endings are powerful. So you set the tone at the beginning and you can end things as if you have the last word. And so be really careful if you’re the leader, about maybe surrendering your role as opener and closer. If you’re the facilitator in that room and there’s all kinds of power differentials. Let me describe one quick technique that I find makes all the difference. Imagine how it would be if I said, you know, we’re going to choose, I don’t know where to go on vacation. Uh, okay, everybody, what do you think? And then it’s kind of this open mic free for all. What do you think? So then there’s this weird silence and then there’s more silence and then the extroverts in the room talk and or the powerful people in the room talk. And sometimes those are often the same people. Okay. So think of the difference between that versus me saying something like here everybody gets two orange post it notes. Put two possible vacation ideas, one on each, post it note, stick them on that wall over there. What does that do? Well, it gets everybody participating. Nobody can be passive or quiet. And certainly where I come from, everybody would compliantly do that. So they would do, they would, you know, obediently fill in their two things. So it gets everybody involved. It gets them equally involved because everybody gets two post it notes. You don’t get to barter for an extra one, you don’t get to give one away. So the quiet people are now doing too and the loud people are doing too. So it equalizes that. It also anonymizes it because once we’ve stuck those post it notes up on a wall, as you would know from some of the agile work that that gets done. You’re dealing with the wall, then. You’re dealing with our output and we’re all looking at the wall. So unless you want to be some sort of handwriting, forensic analyst person, uh, you don’t care or you don’t know who put what up there. And so there’s no personalities attached at that point. It depersonalizes, it democratizes it in a sense. And it lets you use your own words so you don’t have that sense of the facilitator editing on you and you get to pick what to put up there. So for all those reasons, that little tweak in instruction changes the whole thing. So if you can think as a facilitator, I’m walking into some minefields here, power wise, um, I don’t want to be spending my time as a facilitator having to ask people overtly to speak less or speak more. I don’t want to put the quiet people on the spot. I don’t want to put the noisy people on the spot either by saying, Hey, can we have somebody else speak now? I would rather create a process right from the start that equalizes that. Um, but if I am in that kind of room, I also don’t want to be oblivious to it. I would rather name it and work through it with the group, than pretend it weren’t happening. So, you know, judgment call on that one.
Dan Neumann: [33:31] I love typically would call that a silent writing where we’re going to start. The first speaker is an anchoring that conversation on, I’m their idea. Especially if there’s, they’re the, the big boss in the room. Um, and then you touched on something, nothing else in there. Okay. I’ve seen be a pretty harmful facilitation technique, which is the facilitator editing the content that they hear. Cause then, you know, it often looks like if you close your eyes and pretend it’s okay, the room is talking, the facilitators up at the board with the sharpie or the, the marker and things they don’t like don’t get written. Things that are close enough, they reword them to match what they want. And it’s brutal to be a participant in a session like that. That, yeah. And so, um, maybe just little self-awareness if somebody is like, oh my goodness, I’ve done that. Like it’s now you’ve got everybody putting their own words up and it, it takes that facilitator editing out and I forgot how bad that feels to be a participant when that’s happening. It’s just not good.
Rebecca Sutherns: [34:35] It feels terrible. And I think you noted, I mean the person with the pen has enormous power. So if we give everybody a marker, it’s different than only if one person has it, you know, as you said, I need to use your words when you’re talking. Now obviously I can’t write down every single word you say. So if I’m not sure if I’ve captured it properly, I would always ask, you know, or I will say something like, Hey, I just put this up there as shorthand. I want all of you to remember what Joe just said. When you read that, hear Joe’s voice, hear that whole paragraph. He just spoke. When you see that on that board over there. And so I put the responsibility back to the group to interpret the notes correctly to Joe’s words and not make it about me, but also my, my commitment is to Joe, but it’s also to the whole group. They don’t want to sit watching me write. So I need to only write what I’m quick enough at writing that I don’t slow them down. And when I teach facilitation skills in person, we do a bit of a game of, you know, it’s kind of people. We have multiple flip chart stands and people are all things down and we see who can do it quickly enough and accurately enough and legibly enough. It only takes a couple of minutes, but you realize that it’s a really tough skill to be the scribe. And um, some people are not very good at it. So the other thing you have to be careful of is it’s not a skill. It’s not a rule that I’m willing to delegate easily. So if I’m facilitating, I don’t say, Hey, you know, Sarah, do you mind describing that marker? And you can be our scribe while I do this with the group. I would never do that because Sarah might be really bad at that game, but we haven’t played that game. So I don’t know that Sarah is bad at the game. And then I find out she is and all of a sudden our notes, our documentation for that meeting have dropped in quality by 60% because Sarah can only catch every four thing. And her writing is illegible. And she skipped a couple of comments and that’s not helpful to us because what happens on that flip chart is critical to the meeting. And so I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the flip chart.
Dan Neumann: [36:32] So despite being a control freak, in a scenario, if you had somebody you were comfortable with in that role where I’ve co-facilitated and one of us has led the conversation so they can hear and stay engaged and the other one is doing their best to capture quickly and accurately. So I’ve done that with somebody where I’ve had a comfort level with them. But yeah, I could not imagine just randomly picking a participant and asking them to be the scribe for the group.
Rebecca Sutherns: [36:58] Yes. Talking to just the participants sometimes as, I’m an external facilitator and that’s one of the things when you were talking about the non neutrality of the person with the pen, I come in from the outside and so that can also mean I don’t understand acronyms and there’s stuff I miss, but I’m not likely to influence the content in a particular way because I have no vested interest in it. But sometimes what happens is as an outsider, my client will say, oh, we will supply someone to take notes. Um, and earlier in my career I would have thanked them and now I thank them and say no thank you.
Dan Neumann: [37:31] No, it’s a generous offer but you’ve got it.
Rebecca Sutherns: [37:33] I bring my own stuff.
Dan Neumann: [37:34] Fantastic. And I think you’d call those the difference between a verbal and a visual meeting.
Rebecca Sutherns: [37:39] Yes. That could be,
Dan Neumann: [37:40] Well I was thinking of the a the post it notes and some of those types of things to make the visual. Well I I want to thank you for your time, um, that we’ve had here together. We could go on for a very long time I think, but if people wanted to get in touch with you, they can go to RebeccaSuthernss.com or sage/solutions.org. If they want to get in touch with you. So yeah, fantastic. Really great content here. Before you go, is there anything that is, um, maybe inspiring you now? Is there a half of new energy that you’re bringing in, whether it’s something you’re reading, you alluded to one of the books earlier.
Rebecca Sutherns: [38:24] I am, yeah. The book that has me thinking right now is called “New Power.” And, um, the authors talk about, um, participatory power as being very different. So it’s, think crowdsourcing versus individual expertise and things that we thought, um, belonged only to single experts or inventors have now been turned over to the crowd. And can we trust the crowd to design or produce or create thing well. So as someone who does stakeholder engagement a lot, I’m really curious about this. Um, one of the examples they give is crowdsourced automobiles being built with 3D printers. And that just blows my mind. I have no idea what the edge is now of our collaborative creation. And so I’m, I’m into collaborative planning. So that was an interesting reframe of that for me because this comes out of a different different space. One of the authors is the guy that started Giving Tuesday, which comes right after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And then, so giving Tuesdays the next day and that has taken off and been tweaked and borrowed and morphed. And he uses that as an example of something that he kind of put out in the world. And it’s kind of a variation on open source, right? Putting things out there and letting the crowd make it even better. So as someone that’s really into collaboration, I’m pretty interested in that. But as someone with a phd and some expertise, it’s pretty threatening because it also makes you realize that when you’re old, the new people, you know the world belongs to the younger people and how do you stay relevant when sort of the wisdom of elders is not at all continuously relevant with maybe what the younger people of today need. So yeah, “New Power.” That’s what I’m reading right now.
Dan Neumann: [40:06] That’s very cool. And I think you touched on a wave for older people to stay relevant because I was a, I was a young person 20 years ago. Probably it is to continue bringing in new ideas and questioning your assumptions and continue to pursue. So fantastic. Now I’ve got something else to add to my reading backlog. Thank you for taking the time to share. Uh, Rebecca, appreciate it. Thank you.
Rebecca Sutherns: [40:27] Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Bye for now.
Outro: [40:32] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner Podcast brought to you by AgileThought and get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.
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