The Importance of Facilitation in Retrospectives

Facilitation is everywhere. The crossing guard facilitates safe and easy travel of children across the street. The doula facilitates an easier birth for the birthing person. Teachers facilitate learning. Everywhere we look, we see the helpers. Those trying to make things easier. 

Melissa Boggs

April 11, 2022
4 mins

The word “facilitate” traces back to the Latin adjective facilis, meaning "easy." In the workplace, facilitation often refers to someone who is tasked with leading an interaction or event to make communication easier. They often have a keen awareness of the situation at hand, connection to the goals of the event, and the ability to design an event that takes both of those things into account. A talented facilitator will be able to invite engagement from everyone involved, being careful to respect their boundaries, communication style, and ability to contribute. 

When I first became a ScrumMaster, I remember reading or hearing someone say that the most important skill a ScrumMaster could have is their ability to facilitate successful retrospectives. That stuck with me, as it highlighted just how important the retrospective is - and how intentionally we must approach it. If you really think about it, the retrospective is linchpin for everything else in a team. If anything else is going awry (communication, teamwork, collaboration), the retrospective is our opportunity to correct it - if we are able and willing to recognize and address it.  

It is easy to see, then, why facilitation in a retrospective can improve the outcome and experience of the event. We engage in retrospectives because we seek continuous improvement of our products and our teams, and that continuous improvement requires constant reflection and introspection. Let’s be honest: reflection and introspection is not always easy. It requires a certain amount of vulnerability to share with a team member that their behavior is hurting you, or to admit that you have had a difficult time being engaged with the work as the company goes through hard times. A facilitator can help to create a safe space for everyone to show up as their more authentic selves to have the most honest conversations possible. 

A facilitator can help us have crunchy conversations, dig deeper into important topics, and even have a little fun!  

While the prevailing thinking is that retrospectives follow a pattern of “what went well”, “what didn’t”, and “what next”, there is a tremendous amount of creative opportunity in facilitating retrospectives. They don’t have to be boring, and they don’t always have to be serious. I’ve seen hilarious themes like Marvel, Star Wars, and A Christmas Story. I’ve seen deep retrospectives that really focus on connecting the teams to their inner and organizational purpose. I’ve seen outdoor retrospectives and virtual retrospectives. A talented facilitator will design the right retrospective for the team depending on their needs and current state of being.

It’s important to note that facilitation is a skill, but doesn’t necessarily have to be a full time role. While professional facilitators do exist, facilitation is a skill set that any team member can choose to dig deeper into and sharpen. If you do not have a designated role on your team that includes facilitation, I highly encourage you to have a conversation as a team about how one or two people might want to increase their facilitation skills and begin to facilitate your retrospectives. If your retrospectives are feeling stale or you feel like you have the same conversations every time, a facilitator just might be the key to unlocking more successful retrospectives. They might just make it easier.

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