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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Stop Having Meetings that Suck - Patricia Kong on Why Facilitation Should be a Core Competency

Stop Having Meetings that Suck - Patricia Kong on Why Facilitation Should be a Core Competency

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Patricia Kong of about the importance and value of facilitation skills for collaborative teams.

Key Takeaways

  • Evidence based management is based around empiricism
  • Facilitation is one of the core skills needed for effective teamwork
  • There is a vast difference between running a meeting and facilitating an effective collaboration event
  • Effective facilitation helps ensure time spent is focused on achieving clearly identified outcomes
  • There are techniques which people can learn to become effective facilitators


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I'm sitting down with Patricia Kong. Patricia is the Product Owner for Enterprise Solutions and Learning Enablement at and has been a guest on the podcast before. Patricia, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Patricia Kong: Thanks for having me back, Shane.

Shane Hastie: As I said, you've been on the podcast before, but there's a likelihood that some of our listeners haven't heard that previous episode. Probably good starting point, give us a bit of background. Who's Patricia?

Introductions [01:09]

Patricia Kong: Patricia Kong, which is me, is based in Boston in the United States. I've been a part of, which is the company of Ken Schwaber who co-created the Scrum framework. We've been together now for about 11 years, and prior to that, I actually come from a finance background, organizational behavior, and then basically moved from large companies into smaller companies, and I have all those scars. And so that's why I've found this lovely home at, and a lot of what I've been focused on is thinking about the good things that we see at the teams. How do we help enterprises in terms of enterprise agility? And so this framework that I was talking about last time we were together is called evidence-based management, and the focus of that is really thinking about, "What evidence do you have or do we use to know that we're doing well and how to progress toward our goals?"

Evidence based Management [02:07]

And so the focus really around that is around empiricism, and I think that that is actually, more than ever, so important when everybody is producing their own opinion of what is fact now. And so evidence-based management, especially when we get into things like Agile, is Agile working well for you, and how do we know if that's the right direction that we should be moving in rather than just having the loudest person in the room saying what's important. So that's what I've been focused on for a while, and now here, what we're going to talk today, is a little bit different in terms of why I'm thinking about individuals and how does that come into play with something like learning enablement.

Shane Hastie: Let's explore first, isn't Scrum old hat now? Aren't we past Scrum? Isn't there something post scrum that we're all doing now?

The biggest threat to Scrum is Scrum itself [02:57]

Patricia Kong: Yeah, I think we're all doing ScrumAnd or ScrumBut. So that's a really good question, and I've always thought that the biggest threat to Scrum is Scrum itself. And for me, I think some of us may have found ways of working that are really great, and I think that a lot of us are still trying to get those things right. And for me, what that settles back into is not so much the dogma of the Scrum framework, which I can be dogmatic about, but the principles and the mindset that those things are really resting on. So I would say that I would not be one who would shy away from saying, "I think there's too much overhead for us to use Scrum right now. This isn't complex. We need to focus on the value of the company, and especially with those organizational alignment problems, let's think about what's most important to achieve our goals." So if we can think about Scrum in those ways, I think that that might be interesting, but that means that you have to understand Scrum first.

Shane Hastie: "Easy to describe, but hard to master," is how it's often spoken about. That mastery is helping teams be effective, and you are working a lot in facilitation. Why should we care about facilitation?

Facilitation as a key skill [04:11]

Patricia Kong: It's a good question. So when I was thinking about the enterprise and we're trying to turn the Titanic. Literally, you're not trying to do it that way. Don't turn the Titanic if you're trying to do business agility, but when you think about the company, those four walls will stay the same forever. So when we start to look at the teams, because if we believe that it's the teams that create value, what can we do to help these individuals? I think if we say, "Hey, it's a small self-organized team and they should be able to do all these different things and have these conversations by themselves," let's just leave it at that. What we're really seeing in the market, and especially the need, is that people are looking to develop more skills that can make them more effective and that they can use to advance themselves in their careers, and that might be something like coaching, it might be something like facilitation.

But the reason that I've honed down on facilitation as a test of, "How can we help people develop their skills and really help them be more effective in their own lives?" is because I think a lot of times, and I don't know what you're seeing, Shane, is that there might be this conflict that exists in a team or in a group. And everybody goes, "Oh, there's a big conflict problem. Oh, there's a big conflict problem. There's so much tension," and a lot of times that can be solved with just a little bit of better facilitation, a little bit better focus on outcomes of what we're trying to do together. Two other reasons, and then I'm focused on facilitation, is because one, there is this, I think, misunderstanding of stances.

So a lot of times people jump into a coaching stance. Everything needs a coaching stance, and coaching is really important and it should be applied correctly. Sometimes it's not always the most effective thing to do for a team is not first jump into coaching. And the second reason is because I think there are a lot of great facilitation techniques that exist in the market becoming really popular, visual facilitation, liberating structures, all these different things, and I think they're being used poorly. So what happens is that a lot of people come and they over facilitate and you border from having liberating structures to irritating structures because they're just used so haphazardly, and so I want to help people be more effective with that and get the goodness that they're trying to get.

Shane Hastie: For those that haven't experienced a lot of good facilitation, what's the difference between running a meeting and facilitating a meeting?

The difference between running a meeting and facilitating collaboration [06:36]

Patricia Kong: I think for effective facilitation, it's easy. Let's talk about something that's a bad facilitation is, I think, many of us have gone to a meeting and don't know why we're there or that meeting lasts too long or that we are maybe in a retrospective and we agree on all these things that are important to work on. And then the things we decide, "Okay, these are the things that we need to improve," and somebody else decides for us or worse, we just don't care.

And so when you're looking at effective facilitation, there's something that's really powerful that can happen when done correctly because what you're trying to do is not only make sure that there's purpose, it's effective, but you are trying to let healthy conflict, diverse perspectives exist so that when you go through that, whether it, again, be it the retrospective or maybe it's something around refinement planning, what we're actually going to do, what our goals are, when we come to the decision of, "These are the things we're going to pursue or this is the thing that we're going to pursue," that everybody has a shared understanding that that is the thing, and we all agree with it on why it is the thing.

And a lot of times that's lost. And I think the other thing is just in terms of engagement, and I don't mean a dog and pony show, but I do mean asking relevant questions, focusing on it. So for instance, in Scrum, when we have those events around planning or when you're reviewing something or you're planning something or we're talking about how to improve, that is money on the table and those are timeboxed and they should be run effectively so that we can really progress.

Shane Hastie: Why is it so hard?

Patricia Kong: Effective facilitation?

Shane Hastie: Mm.

Why is effective facilitation so hard? [08:11]

Patricia Kong: Because of people. There's something interesting I was reading is that during meetings, I actually have a blog about this, but during meetings, and especially I think in the remote world right now that we're doing Zoom and all these things, is that 90% of people during are in meetings are daydreaming, and 73% of people are usually doing other work. It is really hard to maintain people's focus, and I think the other thing is that a lot of people who are leading facilitation and leading events, they think that they're doing it really well and, "We've read this thing," "We're trying that," and it's not, and so we have this effect.

Actually, here's an interesting fact is that managers and executives, they think they're doing a great job when they're facilitating and leading an event, and that's usually because they're the ones that are just talking. Those kind of things can lead to really frustrating meetings. And so for us, and for me specifically, what's important about facilitation is not just acquiring a bunch of techniques, but having some rigor around what we have as principles that really correlate with the Scrum values, but, "What are we trying to do?" And, "What are we trying to achieve?" Then reach into, "What is that technique that we need here?" Otherwise it's like, "Oh, that was fun. Now what?" That's the feeling that a lot of teams have often.

Shane Hastie: You touched there on remote and there are challenges today with, "Should we be remote?", "Should we be in person?", "What does this hybrid look like?" How does facilitation change when we are shifting through these various modes?

Facilitation is different when the participants are remote or hybrid [09:49]

Patricia Kong: I think it becomes even more important and to having an agreement of how we're going to work together and what we're working on, and so the purpose and the process of this becomes really important. The other balance of that is the openness and the health that we have in that environment. So people talk about, "Let's all be remote," or, "Let's all be together," and that creates a safer environment because you're not worried about what's going on and what opportunity you're missing or not. If we're on remote and we're doing Zoom, maybe everybody's back-channeling and you just agree with that thing. That doesn't happen when you're all in person. So there's all these different experiences that you know the foundation for, and it's really hard.

Something about hybrid has existed, and we've talked about this, all the time because teams are not all located in the same place, so you have to have that. But it's something that I think that people have to really understand, an agreement of what that purpose is for. And I've seen a lot of companies recently, because we're going through the pandemic saying, "We want people back," and they're saying, "Let's get the kegs in. Let's do this. Two days, whichever you want," and what they see is they see a loss of talent. They see people moving into other places of working because they said, "We've proven that we can get stuff done. We can get good stuff done, so why are you trying to change this?" And those are the questions that management has to be prepared to answer.

Shane Hastie: When should we be in person?

Bring people together for events where they get value from the in-person interaction [11:21]

Patricia Kong: I think we should be in person for birthday parties and celebrations. What's beneficial to me, and this is my opinion, is when we're brainstorming, generating ideas, putting things together, and maybe when we're trying to have conversations to retrospect on some things. That being said, I've done both of those things over the past two, three years now like this, just over my little laptop and it's been okay. But for me, I really think that those deep conversations, trying to get to know people, those same interactions that I would value in person, are good. I think people who are thinking about those circumstances need to understand the different one, personality traits and preferences that people have, and also some mental health things.

I think during the past couple of years, I saw some people really get depressed because they could not do it. They could not look at a screen and talk more than a few minutes. Their attention's elsewhere, and they needed to meet outside, their colleagues, in a park and all those things and able to feel a little bit better. So I think being aware of those things also. It might not be, "Here's a purpose of, 'We're trying to plan, do this really creative thing and we're going to do design thinking and all these things.'" It might just be like, "Hey, who wants to meet up?" and just see if that's something that people raise their hand for to create a little bit more of morale.

Shane Hastie: Thinking of our audience, technical influencers, technical leaders in technical teams, these are probably not skills that they've inherently been developed or been trained in. How do we help?

Everyone on a team should build facilitation skills [12:57]

Patricia Kong: I think that we should remove the facade that these type of skills like facilitation or this interest in coaching or any of these different types of skills that can really help us develop people and teams should be left to, let's say, Scrum Masters, Agile coaches, management leader, anything like that. I think that people who are in teams doing the work are great people to lead and facilitate conversations and have really great ideas about direction and strong planning that they can use to drive, I don't want to even say drive, to guide conversations within their teams.

So particularly in a Scrum team, if we're looking at the sprint review, I don't think that it's the product owner that has to lead the sprint review, and I don't think that they should be doing it every time. I think that yes, the scrum master could do it, but a developer could also do it too to really pull out the different opinions and to structure a conversation about, "What's the best value we can deliver?" I think deciding the environment and setting up the space of how a team wants to exist is something that the teams should be thinking about, and it doesn't have to come from left field, right field, above. It can be really be held there so that we can not only focus on our outcomes that we're trying to get toward, but also just stop having meetings that suck.

Shane Hastie: Stop having meetings that suck.

Stop having meetings that suck [14:25]

Patricia Kong: And I'll add to that because you're thinking about our audience are really strong willed people that are very smart. We have a fun icebreaker once? Okay. We have a fun icebreaker twice and we do these things. Okay. Third time, we're not showing up. We're disengaged. We don't understand the purpose of it. We don't know why we're doing these things. So having a little experience on this can help that experience and process. But also just being able to facilitate conversations when things get tough. So for instance, when we have refinement and we've agreed to these things and we think there's a sprint goal, and we come to planning, that is no longer the case. Everybody wants to work on things that are really far down the backlog. How do we facilitate that conversation? It could be great for a developer to chime in.

Shane Hastie: You have carefully not mentioned so far that has a new training class around facilitation. So let's do that, give you the opportunity to talk about that. facilitation training [15:19]

Patricia Kong: Okay. So everything I've said up to this point is why we have this class and what we're thinking about in terms of, "What skills can we develop to encourage and enable ourselves as teams?", "What mindsets we need to adapt?" So facilitation, it's called the Professional Scrum Facilitation Skills course, and it is a one-day experience. This can be virtual. It's in person. What I like about it is that it introduces the notion of principles so that really, what you can do in this class is think about how you apply facilitation when you are in, specifically for us, these tough Scrum scenarios. So we walk people through that. We walk through a lot of scenarios that honestly look very familiar probably in our day-to-day lives, and we say, "If you are looking to facilitate this, what would you do?"

We give them the toolbox to do that, and also what we do is we have them think about how this is going to help them immediately the next day. So it's not just, "Here's a bunch of techniques. This is really fun. Go through it." This is, "You are in this circumstance," just very much like what I said. "What do you do? How does facilitation help you here so that you're not stuck?" The course does, right now, have an assessment that goes along with it. It's a shorter assessment and it is closely related to the course at this point. So there's a certification assessment that goes along with it, but it's really interesting. It's an interesting course, and we're really dipping heavy into the application of skills, and again, for us, it's in that Scrum team environment.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Patricia Kong: They can find me on the internet. On LinkedIn would be a great place to reach out to me, and I think there's a lot more information if people want to learn on the website around facilitation. We have our Professional Scrum competencies. There's a bit about facilitation in there. What I'm trying to do is put out as much information as we can for people really to dip their toes and understand what it means to facilitate, "What could you be doing?", "How to make things better?" And then when we have experienced trainers, people with experience like yourself, like our professional Scrum trainers, when we get into a workshop or a class with them, we are really talking at the professional level. We are really talking about, "How do we manage this?" and we're thinking about different complex things. So really thinking about how to apply, and so there's a lot of information that people can learn about and they'll be seeing different webinars and opportunities to engage with me that way too.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Patricia Kong: Thank you, Shane.


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