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When, Why and How Facilitation Skills Help Scrum Teams

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Key Takeaways

  • Healthy and self-managing Scrum Teams don’t always need explicit facilitation. Two factors that can help a facilitator decide the level of facilitation (none, light, medium and strong) they should apply to an interaction are the team’s effectiveness and their contextual complexity;  
  • Effective facilitation is participatory, promotes a healthy environment, transparent, focused and purposeful, which are principles that provide a backdrop for the techniques a facilitator can use;  
  • Silence is okay and acceptable as an opportunity to invite silent reflection if a facilitator helps participants offer their opinions and ideas in alternative ways ensuring that they are heard, especially in a sea of louder voices;
  • Facilitators should not quash conflict in team discussions for the sake of "harmony," because not only will the tension escalate, but conflict is a mechanism for discovering diverse ideas;
  • Facilitation requires mindfulness and adaptability and is a skill that can be developed to help teams focus on reaching their desired outcomes, not just many elaborate techniques.

Scrum provides guardrails and context for a Scrum Team’s work, freeing them to focus on contributing their collective experiences and diverse perspectives to solve complex problems. This collaboration can be very powerful, but isn’t always easy when it exposes conflicting ideas that lead to disagreements about what to do and how to work. Teams who do not address these issues can live in a cycle of indecision that impedes both their creativity and productivity. 

Effective facilitation helps teams to leverage creative differences in a positive way, guiding team members to frame their discussions with clear purpose and to more effectively engage with one another. This allows them to reach consensus (shared agreement) without dictating a solution and create shared responsibility for their results. Of course, facilitation done poorly is worse than no facilitation at all, and it’s not always required. Ineffective and misused facilitation can be annoying and intrusive, impeding effective conversations rather than enabling them. 

How to be Deliberate with Facilitation 

Facilitation is intrinsically built into the Scrum framework with its 5 events (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective and the Sprint itself), because they each prescribe a purpose and have a timebox (a maximum amount of time for the event). In Scrum, the person facilitating typically uses a light touch, nudging the team just enough to empower them to collaboratively find their own answers to problems.

How much facilitation?

People with higher emotional intelligence naturally sense how much facilitation is needed, when to pull back and when to apply more structure. But, mindfulness and good communication skills are not always enough. Facilitators should still consider “how much facilitation?” and “what type of facilitation?” when facilitating Scrum Team interactions.

We find that the level of facilitation varies from none to strong, depending on two main factors as shown in Figure 1:

  1. Team Effectiveness - A team’s ability to collaborate effectively,  deliver value, self-heal and self-manage 
  2. Contextual Complexity - The complexity of the situation, the type of agreement, consensus and commitment the team needs within their context. Factors include the internal and external environments teams operate in and where individual team members are located (all face to face or remote vs hybrid)

Figure 1: Levels of Facilitation, by Patricia Kong and Glaudia Califano

Keep in mind that the state of a team is not constant, so a team needs different support based on its own effectiveness and context. For instance, imagine an all-remote, globally dispersed Scrum Team who is highly effective with a track record of great collaboration and value delivery. During a brainstorming session, they probably do not need any facilitation. They live in the upper left hand quadrant of Figure 1. As they plan for the MVP for a new product and create Product and Sprint Goals during Sprint Planning in a complicated hybrid session, the increased contextual complexity moves them to the upper right hand quadrant, so light to medium facilitation would be appropriate. If we fast forward and this same team struggled through a terrible Sprint and just received news that their company is laying off 10% of its workforce, a facilitator will likely find that they need to apply stronger facilitation because everyone is to some degree stressed and distracted. Their effectiveness has lowered moving the level of facilitation needed to the bottom right hand quadrant. 

What type of facilitation to use?

You can find many useful facilitation techniques on the Internet such as Graphic Facilitation and Liberating Structures. Many facilitators assume that they should know as many of these as possible, but that’s not the case. Icebreakers, cool drawings, and other different facilitation techniques only work when they are applied purposefully toward an objective. 

 An effective facilitator can rely on five core principles: participatory, healthy, transparency, process, and purposeful to understand what technique might be useful as they adapt to different team situations. 



Focusing on the intention and purpose of the interaction is especially important as teams increasingly exist in remote and hybrid environments.

Facilitating to Engage Individuals and Help Teams Make  Decisions that Stick 

A team builds trust when they are able to be transparent with each other in a healthy environment where each person feels their voice is heard and appreciated. Team members take into account each other’s differences and resolve disagreements in the pursuit of building on each other’s ideas for something better, but it’s hard work. One way a team can manage themselves is through a working agreement that they co-create for their ideal working environment. The team can inspect and adapt and fall back on that working agreement when interactions go amiss. 

With or without a working agreement, the Scrum Team still discusses their work and interactions during the Sprint. But what happens when not everyone participates and conflict builds? What can you do as a facilitator to help a team bond and make decisions that everyone can stand behind?

Silence creates space for people to speak

Mary, a Developer on the Scrum Team, volunteered to facilitate Sprint Planning to help the team plan and create a goal for the Sprint. Last Sprint, some of her Developer colleagues didn’t speak much during planning, except to answer the Product Owner’s questions, and even that was a struggle. She did notice that when they started working, team members complained about the Sprint Goal and how they didn’t feel like it was relevant to the product. This Sprint Planning session, Mary wants to encourage the team members to engage and speak up. She begins by asking the Product Owner to present the objective and asks all the quiet team members to talk one at a time.

In this scenario, Mary knows she should encourage participation, especially with quieter team members. What she may not realize is that even if the team members speak and participate in conversation, it does not necessarily mean that they feel they are in an environment where their ideas are welcome and valuable. As a facilitator, Mary needs to create space for everyone to explore all ideas in order to build a shared understanding and consensus by allowing enough time for each individual to express their different opinions. A participatory style of facilitation allows the entire team to commit toward the Sprint Goal.

Giving quieter people the space to speak first is well-intentioned, but will surely be awkward and may backfire on Mary. Groups typically have people who are more vocal and quick to offer their points of view and also people who are more quiet and introspective. This balance can be complementary. More often than not, dominating voices push more passive members into a decision that they don’t entirely buy into, so they fall into groupthink. Groupthink can look like a person saying “yes” to agree with others (usually the loud and powerful) to not upset the balance of the team or setting. Or, it can look like a person not participating, ”I’m ok - whatever everyone else wants.” Down the road, these people will question the value of their input and the validity of discussions, ultimately feeling that decisions are forced upon them. In Mary’s scenario, it’s how the team feels about the Sprint Goal. 

...but that space has to be safe for people to engage

When I’m looking to encourage participation, balance the volume of the voices, honor a culture where silence is preferred, or to generate ideas, asking an open question and having everyone participate by silently writing their ideas on sticky notes (physically or virtual) is an effective way to kick-off and invite conversation. For instance, in the case of Mary’s Sprint Planning, she can ask the Product Owner to come prepared to share customer needs for the Sprint with the rest of the team and ask, “What do you think we could do as a team to meet these unmet needs?.” The team can respond by writing their opinions on individual sticky notes. When the team reviews the answers together, Mary could use techniques like fist of five or roman voting to gauge whether ideas are understood and also to open a discussion to trigger better understanding. In this case, Mary’s team is better aligned to make a decision and feels accountable for the Sprint Goal that is selected.

Facilitators can help struggling teams move through these types of experiences and learn to tolerate the stress of creative conflict, because they trust that their ideas are considered. The team builds a safe environment for themselves and members confidently offer feedback, ask questions and disagree, without the fear of rejection and embarrassment looming over them. Sam Kaner describes this experience as moving through the Groan Zone in his book, “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.” 

Conflict can be positive, but you have to manage it

Stress levels run high when two vocal members in the team, Minal and Linda, clash during the Sprint Retrospective. Minal expresses her disappointment with how little progress the team made during the Sprint. She adds sarcastically that maybe it was because of how they decided to implement the work, which was originally Linda’s idea. Linda responds quickly in a defensive tone, and calls out that Minal is always quick to point out what’s wrong but doesn’t contribute many suggestions of her own. The Retrospective delves into a tense back and forth between them and the Scrum Master who is facilitating the Retrospective, firmly stops their argument. The Scrum Master moves the discussion to improvement ideas for the team, and many items around managing work in progress and exploring new technologies are suggested, but ultimately the team is stuck at an impasse of what to carry forward. The timebox ends and the Scrum Master calls an end to the Sprint Retrospective with no plans for the team on how to improve. 

When tensions run high in a conversation, one of the worst things to do is to skirt over or halt the disagreement, because if managed correctly, a team that can resolve the conflict will improve its integrity. Instead, a facilitator might suggest a temporary break to lower the temperature of the discussion and remind everyone that we’re all human and that the tense area of the Groan Zone exists. Facilitation does not always have to be elaborate.

Effective facilitation does not start and end with a session. Clearly Minal and Linda have pent up frustration that has been building at least since Sprint Planning. In this case, a facilitator should look back and consider previous conversations and events like their Sprint Planning and Daily Scrums. Were these issues brought up? If yes, how were opinions received and considered? If not, why not? The lack of alignment shows that the team clearly did not work through the Groan Zone. Following up with Minal and Linda after the Sprint Retrospective to gauge their working relationship and see how they felt about the outcome of the event could be helpful. It’s also an opportunity to ask them for feedback on how they thought the event was facilitated. 

…and you may have to sacrifice timeboxes and your agenda

I imagine as the end of the timebox approached for the Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Master felt weary and considered a few choices, one - scramble and quickly decide what the team should work on, two - ask the team to stay longer until they choose something to work on, or three - end the meeting because the timebox was over. By choosing the third option, the Scrum Master’s facilitation did not help the team meet the purpose of the Retrospective. 

When facilitators and participants run short on time, they tend to gloss over next steps. Managing time carefully is important, but a facilitator should treat agendas flexibly and not end valuable conversations just to adhere to schedule especially when they are advocating for next steps. A facilitator can have a good plan and focus but still come up short in effectiveness if the team did not make the necessary decision or create the results they needed to make a decision to progress. 

… to drive to decision

Teams should consider how decisions will be made to avoid the confusion and stagnation that Minal and Linda’s team experienced. Their Scrum Team made many suggestions on how they might work to improve their team, but did not decide on what ideas to move forward. The Scrum Master on Minal and Linda’s team could have asked the team members to group their similar ideas together and then use dot voting to select the top 3 ideas that they’d try. This activity works well in-person, and even better virtually with a virtual white board if team members would like to vote anonymously. However, this technique would only work successfully if they agreed in advance to vote and make decisions based on the majority sentiment. Majority vote is one way to make a decision, and has its pros and cons. A pro is that a team can make a decision relatively quickly, whereas a con is that not everyone may support the chosen ideas of the majority. 

Other common decision rules include: 

  • Unanimous vote (all)
  • Consent (no objection to moving forward)
  • Person in charge decides after discussion
  • Person in charge decides without discussion
  • Delegate
  • Flip a coin

Each of these decision-making rules has positive and negative effects. A facilitator and the team should consider the stakes at hand, consensus needed and time constraints. 


Whether a person is internal or external to the team, anyone the Scrum Team chooses, can facilitate. If you are a member of the Scrum Team and also facilitating, communicate the stance you are taking clearly. Otherwise, you risk confusing the team about your involvement. For instance, there may be situations during a Scrum Event, like the Sprint Retrospective, where you are facilitating but would also like to participate as a team member. In that instance, clarify when you’re participating as a team member versus facilitating. 

The next time you’re facilitating an interaction, keep the facilitation principles in mind as well as the level of facilitation the Scrum Team needs. Facilitation is only helpful when it enables a purposeful and participative environment in which people feel safe to engage, learn and collaborate.  

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