Online facilitation: session design

Enrico Teotti Focus On Sep 09, 2020

This is a series of 4 blog posts for scrum masters, product managers and product owners, tech leads, and project managers who want to ramp up their facilitation skills in the online world.

This is a complex subject, I don’t believe in posts claiming to be “complete guides to online facilitation”.

What I hope to achieve is sharing some of my knowledge, foster interesting conversations and point to more resources about this fascinating topic.

Here is the list of the articles which I recommend you read one after the other, starting from this very one on session design:

I believe those topics are sequential. Good online facilitation starts with having clarity on why a session is happening and what people will get out of it. Once you have that, you can think about the session structure and then you can decide which online tools to use. When the session starts the role of the online facilitator has a few important differences to keep in mind.

What's the purpose and outcome of your session?

Regardless if someone--which I’ll refer to as stakeholder--has asked you to run a session or if you want to hold a session, it should be clear what the purpose and outcome of that session is.

Even if you think “everybody knows what a strategy session is about” it is important to put its purpose out in writing for at least two reasons:

  1. You can read it and hold it in front of you instead of just in your head
  2. The people invited to the session will understand why.

Reflecting on what would be the outcome of this session is equally important. What are we getting out of this time together? Even if you think “yeah it’s already clear in the purpose” or “I have no idea what we’re gonna get… it’s whatever gonna come” it’s very important to put it on writing.

If you don’t have a clear purpose and outcome, how can you tell if your session went well? The first question that people invited to your session will ask is “why are we here?” and you better have a good answer to that or they will be disengaged from the start.

You shouldn’t get into analysis paralysis on the purpose / outcome. An example of purpose would be: "Review the current policies we follow for our software development backlog and look at possible improvements".  Its outcome could be:

  • A shared understanding of where the current policies come from
  • A shared understanding of how the team feels about the current policies
  • A possible experiment to make those policies even better

Who is coming and why?

Some other great questions to ask yourself before the session are “who’s coming to this session?”, “What are they gonna get out of it?”, “What would they like this session to achieve?”. What if this clashes with your--or your stakeholders--opinion of the session purpose and outcome? Highlight and acknowledge there is an imbalance in expectations.

What’s the level of psychological safety?

“Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” (Kahn 1990, p. 708)

Psychological safety is critical for people to speak up. If they feel there will be negative consequences, they will stay quiet or say what’s keeping them safe.

You can foster psychological safety during the session but I try to assess it before.

A quick way to do that is to ask anonymously how comfortable you are to speak without negative consequences in this session. Give a range of 4 options with prisoner (kinda self-explanatory) at the bottom of the spectrum and on the opposite side explorer (can speak freely and is very engaged). Remote makes it easier to have anonymity, during the session you can use a shared online document, or send a form before the session. If you use the form approach have an optional “what would need to change for you to be feeling more psychological safety?”

If the group feels like prisoners of this session, I like to tackle that before the original session purpose. Making sure the group has a level of psychological safety will yield more participative sessions and sustainable agreements.

This topic can be harder to manage depending on your mandate (ie. if the group reports to you).

What’s your mandate?

Another important piece to clarify during session design is: what is your mandate? Who are you? A scrum master? The team’s product manager? A contractor helping the stakeholder facilitate the meeting? What’s your relationship with the group? Are they reporting to you?

Clarifying your stake is critical so the group can be aware of it and of your bias. This is also a time to understand not if but how much your bias is gonna affect your facilitation. Depending on the context, other options might be to co-facilitate, to get another team’s facilitator or to hire someone external.

Who’s the decision maker? What decision mechanism is in place?

It’s important to clarify if this type of session requires a decision at the end, and if it does, who's the decision maker? The stakeholder? The group? Flip of a coin? What decision mechanism are we gonna use? Consensus? Discussion then stakeholder decides?

These are things to clarify before you’re in the session so the group knows what’s expected from them.

It’s not ideal when you invite 10 people to a session, they think they’ll make a decision with you--or the stakeholder--and then they find out that’s not the case.

Is it a single session or a strings of sessions?

What!?! You don’t know what you’re talking about! All sessions must have decisions!!! Well, you might have an overarching goal and a session goal.
The overarching goal might include decision-making but before that it’s good to dedicate time to look at data and make sure people hear all prospectives.
If getting to a shared perspective goes missing you’d find yourself in the sea of premature convergence where decisions are taken for the sake of ending this dreadful 7h marathon meeting.

When the conditions are met you should schedule--and clearly communicate--the purpose and outcome for the overarching goal and for the following string of sessions.

Conclusions

What are your sessions looking like today? Are they designed as single sessions or a string of sessions? What's their purpose and outcome? Is there an overarching purpose? Is it clearly stated in their invites? Do you know your mandate and who’s the decision maker and decision mechanism?

Further Readings

  • If you’re a manager holding a session with your direct reports, Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a great book on how to get/give feedback to foster psychological safety before the session
  • Regardless of your role, a great book on how to hold purposeful sessions is Where the Action Is by J. Elise Keith
  • Sam Kaner’s book Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making is in my opinion a bible for facilitation and, regardless of your role, you’ll get a lot out of it.

Learn with Enrico Teotti

Enrico is the author of Online Facilitation Praxis Camp.

And... don't miss our meetup with Enrico on Facilitating Online Agile Retrospectives (online, 29th September 2020).

Enrico Teotti

Enrico is an agile coach and (visual) facilitator with a background in product management and software development starting in 2001.

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