My Facilitation Mindset

It all started with a tweet by Tobias Mayer:

“Don’t make assumptions” says one school of wisdom, “Assume positive intent” says another. I choose the first. You?

I’m a card bearing member of the second tribe (at least I thought I was) so I answered:

The second one. Makes me kinder.

Going into difficult conversations assuming positive intent has rarely left me disappointed.

Or as Gitte Klitgaard so beautifully put it:

I find that I get what I expect. So if I expect good, I get good.

My experience is exactly the same. Whenever I don’t manage to assume positive intent and give in to blaming thoughts it leads to more disappointment. My beliefs always always leak into what I say and how I say it.

That’s why I ask someone else to facilitate / mediate in my place when I cannot honestly assume positive intent for each party.

The “don’t assume anything” school of thought has never helped me to prep angry people for constructive conversations. When someone thinks others to be malicious, countering their theories by saying “You don’t know that. Don’t just assume that” only helps for about 2 seconds:

They rake a hand through their hair and say “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know that for sure.” Pause for effect. “But I swear, they’re just doing that to fuck with us!” Aaaand, back to square one.

What did help multiple times is giving a couple of scenarios in which the enraging behaviour is a result of good helpful intentions of the other party and doesn’t manifest their evil and / or stupid nature.

Giving examples of how something might have had positive intent opens the door to really talk. I’ve established a possible alternate reality 🙂

What’s really going on is something we can try to find out during the facilitated conversation.

After I laid out these thoughts, Tobias remarked:

Talking “of how this might have had positive intent” is very different to making the assumption, isn’t it?

Huh? Hm, I guess that’s true. Apparently I fall inbetween the two schools of thought and my mindset when preparing to facilitate is “I assume that positive intent is possible (while not actually assuming any particular motive)”. And I can come up with at least 2 positive intent scenario for any given situation.

Assume positive intent is possible

Learned something about myself there. It’s a mindset that has served me well so far. What’s your mindset for crucial conversations?

How to get a very dirty whiteboard sparkly clean

When you let the writing on whiteboards stay on for long enough – say, a couple of month –  dry-erase markers stop being “dry-erase” and start being “leave unwipeable shadowy traces behind”. You’re left with an unsightly board, no matter how often you wipe. Water doesn’t help, at least not against dried up German Edding markers.

Even worse are traces of the slim tape that some teams use to create tables on their boards. Its remains are stickier than candy floss and way uglier.

wepos-kunststoffreiniger Fear not, my colleague Frieda has the miracle cure: Clean your whiteboard with “Wepos Kunstoffreiniger” (= Wepos plastics cleaner) and it will become perfectly clean and smoother than a baby’s butt. Way smoother, actually.

That’s also the catch: After wiping your board with the cleaner you have to wipe it with water. Otherwise no sticky note will stick to the board. Try it, it’s quite fascinating. The sticky notes fall right off of the infinitely smooth surface.

If you don’t have tape traces you can also get rid of the old marker markings with a wet microfibre cloth. Again, kudos to Frieda for finding this trick.

The very last resort, for people without any equipment, is ye olde overwriting trick: Retrace the old writing with a whiteboard marker. The solvents in the marker’s color will also work on the old markings and make them wipeable again. It’s works, it’s just tedious.

Do you have any neat tricks for cleaning dried-in markers?

Story Cubes for Retrospectives

Sometimes we have guests over who want to learn more about our Open Friday and see it in action. Lately we’ve been asking for a session in return so that visitors add to our pool of knowledge. These guest sessions are often interesting and sometimes you strike gold: Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as a speech bubble, a sheep, a star, a hand or a walking stick figure. The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

3 Story CubesThis can easily be turned into a fun activity for agile retrospectives if players answer a question instead of just telling a story. Cynthia and Kevin already had a couple of ideas:

  • What was last sprint like?
  • How do customers view our product?
  • What’s the state of agility here in our company?
  • What was your carreer path? How did you get here?

We spend the hour-long session answering questions in groups of three. It was very interesting because the cubes prompt you to talk about aspects you wouldn’t normally have touched on – you tell the truth and still have to incorporate the 3 images. Among others, we used the “Customer View” question and it was quite revealing. Story Cubes help with changing perspective and add a fun element.

Thank you Cynthia and Kevin for introducing us to story cubes!

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!


Bonus shape for sticky notes

One of the topics in Darci Dutcher’s session “Running Killer Workshops Without Killing Yourself” at Agile on the Beach was promisingly called ‘Sticky note party tricks’.

“Don’t really use them at a party. Other people do not get excited about sticky notes.”
– Darci Dutcher

Well, I’m the kind of person who does get excited about sticky notes and that’s why I present to you the sticky note bonus shape: Diamonds! (Is “Diamonds are forever” now stuck in your head? You’re welcome! *evil laughter*)


This is super handy for when you want to color code stickies and don’t have enough different colors. Yeah! I’m excited! Aren’t you? 😉

Credits: Learned it from Darci Dutcher who learned it from Adrian Howard who learned it from Jeff Patton

Retromat is not meant for beginners!

Aaaargh, I recently found out that there are indeed people who just use whatever random plan Retromat spits out. Errh mah God! I was in serious denial about this, despite evidence to the contrary.

I never, ever meant for anyone to do this. The random plan was always meant as a starting point from which everyone would merrily click left and right to create a plan that fits their and their team’s needs.

That’s what I meant with the “tweak it” in “Planning your next retrospective? Get started with a random plan, tweak it, print it and share the URL”. It’s a little too subtle. To me it’s obvious that most random combinations will not work well together. It’s obvious to me, because I’ve facilitated retros before and I’m experienced. It’s not obvious for someone new to retros. So here’s a handy note to self:

What is obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. In fact, it will be least obvious to the people who need the clarification most.

How could I not realize this for so long? I guess I only get emails from people for whom it works. I don’t hear from those that fail with a random plan or those that “have to pick up the pieces after an inexperienced colleague unleashed a random retro on a team” (actual quote!). I’m so sorry!

I’ll try to find the time to beginner-proof Retromat ASAP. I’ve also thought about the best out-of-the-box, beginner-friendly retro plan I can come up with. It’s practically guaranteed to be better than a random plan.

To reiterate: Retromat is a great source of inspiration for people who know what they’re doing. It’s not a good place to start for people who lack the experience to know whether activities go together well.

In theory Retromat offers millions of plans for retrospectives. In practice only a fraction of these combinations work well. A random plan is highly unlikely to work out!

When you plan a retrospective with Retromat you have to make sure that you know how the results of one activity will be used in the next activity. That’s what the arrows at the sides are for: To flip through the activities for one that fits to the activities before and after it, as well as your team’s situation.

Retromat needs some experience. Please do not recommend it to beginners! At least not without fair warning. Recommend Agile Retrospectives instead and if it’s urgent, this plan. Thank you!

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

Self-Regulating Discussions with Jeff Patton’s Cups

Do you know this inner debate when you’re facilitating and somebody keeps monologuing: “Is this still relevant? Should I stop him? Do the others look bored? I should cut him off …”

That makes me judge and jury about whether something is still relevant to the whole group. I don’t like to make that call. If you’ve got a team (or team member) that’s prone to rambling you can make the team facilitate themselves with Jeff Patton’s Cups (Jeff himself credits “Katrina”):

Write “Tangent” on several styrofoam cups and distribute them around the table. Whenever someone verbally wanders off one of the other team members can signal it unintrusively by raising one of the cups. Upon the signal ramblers usually cut themselves off and the team can decide whether to park the topic for later.

Other possible cups are “Sold” for people still arguing when they’ve already convinced everyone, “Too much detail”, “No solving” when you’re still trying to frame the problem, and so on.

Keep cups and pens ready. Whatever the team is struggling with, approriate signal cups will evolve.

Obviously the signal doesn’t have to be cups. Paper would also do it. But cups stand out more (figuratively and literally) and are a great visual reminder that each team member can help keep the discussion going.

PS: For something more specific and even more playful check out the Rathole technique by Sandy Mamoli.

Open Up Solution Space by Reframing

Last year I shared Reframing advice from Esther Derby, about how you can change your own thinking about “difficult” people.

This year it’s advice from Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka about how to open up solution space in other people’s thinking:

When someone says “My boss never listens to me” this is a very definite statement. “Never” and “always” imply that it’s a done deal, no use trying. You can open up possibilities by reframing this to “Aha, up until now, you  have not succeeded having your boss listen to you.” “Up until now” introduces the idea that this can change. There’s hope, hooray!

Cluster stickies next to each other

Here’s another tiny facilitation coconut for something I’ve handled wrong suboptimal in the past:

When it’s clustering time, related stickies often ended up on top of each other. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka remarked that this is not very appreciative of the bottom sticky and its author. It’s just a tiny detail but it makes sense to me. Most people probably don’t mind, but some might, especially in power imbalanced situations. Since it’s not making things worse for those who don’t mind and makes it better for those who do, I vow to cluster related stickies next to each other from now on.

This will also create a more accurate visualization of support for a topic 🙂

All eyes not on you – Chain Question

As a facilitator, I think it is my job create opportunities for others to speak. I try to keep in the background as much as possible, which isn’t always easy. Participants focus on me more often than I’d like. That is to say, not only when I talk about meta information like instructions, but also when they themselves talk about the subject matter.

One simple technique to connect participants to each other, rather than to you, is to create a questioning chain. This works well when the group forms a circle and there’s a question everyone should answer. As the facilitator you can start it of by asking the question to your neighbour. Then they ask their neighbour on their other side. It works best, when the asker actually waits and listens to the answer 😉

Just like Role Play for One this technique is popular with language teachers. I relearned it in Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka’s workshop on solution-focused coaching.

I hope it’ll help you get attention off of you and on the content your participants bring to the table.

Do you have tricks you’d like to share?