JAD: Facilitation Skills

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As Napoleon Bonaparte once quipped, “there is somebody wiser than any of us, and that is all of us.” Gathering functional requirements is a fundamental part of any software development methodology, yet many IT leaders seem to avoid honing their facilitation skills, something I consider to be a critical tool in this process.

IT leaders spend quite a bit of time (hopefully) focusing on process improvement and methodology. They spend a substantial portion of their time focusing on things such as Six Sigma, Agile, waterfall, RUP, SCRUM, eXtreme Programming (XP), and and a host of other silly-sounding names. However, even the most robust software development methodology will not save a project wherein the requirements have not been adequately defined. The process of facilitation is the linchpin on which the vast majority of current IT buzzwords and acronyms solidly relies upon, therefore it is in the best interest of the modern IT leader to examine and refine this aspect of their responsibilities.

Additionally, we hear so much buzz about IT leaders who can “bridge the gap” between the business drivers and the technology which brings it all to life. Sadly, too many people throw this jargon around loosely, without realizing that ramping up one’s facilitation skills is one of the best (and easiest!) ways to achieve this.

Facilitation is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as simply “to make easier” or “to help bring about.” The act of facilitation in a business context generally refers to the process of designing and running a successful meeting of some sort.

Specifically, facilitation concerns itself with all of the tasks needed to run a productive and impartial meeting, while serving the “needs of the group”. In the real IT world, the “needs” of the group will most often focus around some sort of business objective, such as gathering functional requirements for a software project or determining the best place to install a new data center. Typically, this is done by conducting a JAD requirements gathering session. I will most likely address the area of how to actually conduct a JAD session in a later article. In this piece, however, I’d like to spend our time sharing my thoughts on facilitation “soft” skills themselves.

Taking the lead in this process is the facilitator, whose primary job is to create and maintain the proper circumstances for discussion. In addition to monitoring and enforcing the discussion rules, the facilitator must make a decision every time a participant speaks. What do I say next? What if this current idea runs to a logical conclusion? Where will we go next? Should I call on another person to provide an alternative viewpoint? Should I stop this person from dominating the conversation? And so forth.

At the end of the day, the facilitator can choose to ask questions of the participants, make statements concerning the progress of the session, or simply remain silent. Questions are asked for the obvious reason. By asking questions, the facilitator is able to elicit responses, redirect the conversation (if it is going into a nontargeted or unproductive area), or to help the participants clarify, elaborate, or justify their statements.

By making statements of their own, the facilitator is able to invite questions, share thoughts, or to summarize things that have been said during the session (which benefits everyone). I can’t tell you how many times that potential problems have been avoided by the facilitator simply attempting to restate what has been said. It’s like that old game where you say the same thing to a room full of people, and ask them to then write it down. You always seem to end up with a variety of twists on the same story. It is probably meaningful if everyone understands that we are expecting to process 10,000 transactions a day from 100 customers, rather than 10,000 customers with 100 transactions each.

Perhaps the most important aspect of being a good facilitator is the concept of neutrality. It is imperative that the facilitator remain a neutral party throughout the lifetime of the session(s). As you can imagine, this is not always an easy thing to do, especially if your development team is on one side of the table, and your business leaders or clients are on the other. Nevertheless, be sure to introduce yourself at the beginning of the session, clearly define your role up front, and make an explicit agreement with the group that you will make every effort not to manipulate the discussions or become embattled at the detail level.

The group must have the understanding that you are there to serve them. If this trust level is breached, then the validity and integrity of the session could be in jeopardy. Don’t hesitate to ask the group how you are doing from time to time. Are things moving too slowly? too quickly? Are the discussions remaining on-topic, or can you do a better job keeping things together? Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to do this at the end of every segment. However, there is certainly nothing wrong with this practice, and it will reinforce for the group your sense of command, accountability, and desire to remain neutral.

Verbal involvement on the part of the facilitator is used to keep the discussion moving along its intended path. The level of verbal involvement by the facilitator will vary from one session to the next, due primarily to the changing needs, personalities, and group dynamic of the participants. However, the facilitator should be careful to balance his/her verbal participation with that of the group. If the facilitator is talking too much, then chances are, not enough content is flowing into the discussion from the relevant parties, and the right opinions are probably not surfacing. If the facilitator sits in the corner and says very little, then the session runs the risk of spiraling out of control, with off-topic discussions, lack of consensus-building, and so forth, eventually devolving into a full-fledged goat rodeo.

So how do you strike the right balance of verbal involvement? For starters, the facilitator should listen closely to the participants, and ensure that they are listening to each other. This will have the desired outcome spurring on conversation. Unless your participants are openly communicating with one another, then the session is a bust.

It is possible that not everyone in the room will want to participate. I recalled this one particular JAD session that I conducted a few years back within the radio industry. One of the stakeholder groups represented in the session were some folks whose jobs would be eliminated by the software solution we were designing. Suffice it to say, they weren’t necessarily forthcoming with ideas during the meetings.

Nevertheless, as a facilitator, you should encourage each participant to contribute to the dialogue. In situations where you have potentially adversarial groups in the room, you may need to take measures to protect certain participants from personal criticism. You may also need to prevent the focus from being on personalities, and concentrate everyone’s attention on the issues at hand.

Occasionally, the facilitator may walk into a situation where he or she needs to protect the group from one person’s dominance, or the dominance of a particular faction within the room. This is especially critical, given the overarching goal of soliciting as many ideas and as much feedback as possible, from all stakeholders in the room. In extreme instances, the facilitator may need to pull the offending person(s) aside during a break, and discuss the need for other views to be heard. Generally, though, this sort of thing can be avoided by simply calling out to other people in the room, to give them a chance to be heard.

Sometimes, you may sense that a particular person or stakeholder group is not being as participative as you’d like. These “silent” players often hold the key to breaking through an impasse, or bringing the convergence of ideas to life. Many of them want to be heard, but lack the courage, or desire to speak up on their own. You should respect their silence, but only to a point. After all, if a stakeholder is just sitting in the room and not adding value, then it is a wasted seat. The facilitator should provide logical “openings” for such people to insert themselves into the discussion. If you sense that someone has something to say, but for whatever reason, is biting their tongue, call ’em out gently, and see where it takes you.

Remember to be an energizer for the discussion. Get ’em fired up. Hopefully, the participants are all there to find help in solving problems or addressing the issues at hand. They are relying on you, as the facilitator, to assist them in navigating the waters and obstacles that lie ahead. If you lead by example, and set a positive tone for them, your session should go smoothly.

Click here for part two in this series: JAD Facilitation Workshop Basics
Cheers, and happy JAD’ing!

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