Facilitating meetings or retrospectives is something we do quite often nowadays. Meetings can add a lot of value, but at the same time are expensive (have you ever calculated what was the cost of a meeting for your company in 💸)? If not, you should do that, it can be surprising).
Over the years, I have learned some practices and techniques that helped me improve what we get from the time invested in the meeting.
Goal & Agenda
Whatever activity you are going to do, the facilitator should know what the goal is so it can help achieve it. A very good way to increase your chances is by letting everyone attending know what the goal is too, and this better be done at the beginning of the session.
Apart from letting people know the goal, I like to share the agenda. People gain consciousness of the time budgeted for every step and everyone is in sync. It can also raise discussions like "Sorry, but I don't have enough energy to do this now"
, which is something you'd like to know at the beginning of the session and not half-way through.
Know the group
If you have silent people and vocal people, prepare exercises that allow every voice to be heard, like post-it exercises with hidden voting. If you have a high trust and respect group, you can go for more open activities.
If I have no clue who your group will be, I like to do two activities when the session starts:
ESVP - A classical exercise that allows you to know the mood of the people who are coming. Very important that replies are totally safe and anonymous.
Ask people what their questions/expectations for the meeting/training are and share them in a board. Move the post-its of the questions/expectations that have been answered/covered.
Give voice to the underrepresented
As facilitator (or participant in the discussion) you should be aware of the composition of the group and weight the tempo so every collective feels represented and has time to share their point of view. Make sure everyone has its space and impact. Plain said, and using dot voting as an example (see below), sometimes you should hack the voting result and force a topic even if it doesn't have enough votes.
Special mention to the fact that sometimes we have missing people, which is even harder to manage. If you know in advance a collective will miss the session, consider rescheduling or asking their input in advance.
Very personal stake, so play it sensibly.
Any activity involving persons will have conflicts or different point of views sooner or later. I found Non violent communication (NVC) to be very helpful when dealing with opposing points of view and trying to facilitate agreements between them.
In fact NVC is very useful whether you are the one discussing or facilitating.
I don't let meetings run for more than 2 hours, never. It's a waste of everyone's time. My ideal window is hour and a half, I think that time frame allows for deep thinking while taking good care of people's energy. My breaks are usually 10-15 minutes.
Facilitator decides the unimportant
Don't ask questions to the group which barely add value. This is one of my weakest points, as I like to include everyone in most of the decisions. Over time I learned that sometimes being a benevolent dictator it's a win for everyone. Is it very important to decide if people need 2 or 5 minutes to do something together? Getting a whole group to agree on something is expensive, it's easier that you decide something and let the meeting move. If you decided 2 and they needed 5, you'll see how they are frantically writing post-its and you can decide to extend the time period. Otherwise, if you decided 5 and they needed 2 you'll see they are idle after the second minute and can cut the activity to move on.
Ice breakers are silly activities that distract people and energyze the room. You may ask yourself what can be the point in distracting the people? Well, sometimes people rush into your meeting from another one and carry all their headaches from the previous one or come stressed for whatever reason (kid school delivery). In both cases it's good to slow down and chill. Using an ice-breaker reduces bias and stress from whatever previous situation people came from, and if you choose a funny one it can also activate people or even improve team bonding. On the risky side, I've seen retros being absorbed by party-game ice-breakers and then you just defeat the purpose. Of course you have a great time, which is always interesting, but ... the initial goal was to have a meeting, wasn't it? Keep the ice-breaker to 5-10 minutes top please.
FYI - There's a list of online ice-breakers at the bottom of the article.
Fist of five
Fist of five is a very fast way of asking people to vote. You ask them a question with a rating, for example, "How much did you like today's retro? 1 is horrible, 5 is excellent". Then, at the count of 3, they use one hand to show from one to five extended fingers to respond. It's important that everyone shares the response at the same time, as one of the purposes is to avoid anchoring or priming other people's opinions.
Once the audience gets used to the method it is a very fast mechanism to get feedback as you are usually not explaining that the more fingers the better. BTW, if you ask the retro question or similar, you should also ask afterwards the reasons behind the bad grades so you can improve.
Confidence vote is a special case of fist of five. When you are making a decision or estimating, ask the team "How confident are you on...", it's surprising how many times people respond with averages of 1-2 (so not confident) to this question considering that most of the times they have just reached an agreement on that. I've seen 1h Scrum sprint plannings that defined sprint scopes that the team didn't believe (although the team was the one deciding what to put into the sprint!). I find it's an excellent mechanism to ask people to step back on decisions they have been zooming in for a while. If individuals don't trust a team decision, they better reconsider it.
When people tend to overlap and collide in the conversation, the speaker token is a handy technique to slow things down. Just pick a token in the room (anything, a pen, a post-it, something easy to grasp with one hand) and only the person holding it can speak. The token can be retained as much time as necessary, even if that means that the person holding it is silently thinking about what she/he wants to say. When the person is done speaking, the token is returned to a public central space where one of the others can pick it up and speak.
The speaker token can slow down conversations a lot, and can create frustration if there's a long queue of people who want to talk, so use sparsely.
This can be considered an ice-breaker, but I think it's more profound so I put it into a category apart. A check-in is an exercise done right when the meeting starts where, using the speaker token, anyone in the room can share "how are they checking in the meeting". IMHO it's an exercise where information that would hardly flow otherwise tends to be shared, thinks like "I had a horrible night so I come with low energy", "I'm very excited because after the meeting I'm doing activity X with my friends" or "I have my head in another place because personal problem X popped up" can be shared in this safe space. If such things happen it's phenomenal, the audience bonds and generates empathy and understanding, I may have been offended had I seen you yawning the whole meeting, but if I understand why I will probably have more patience. This activity can have a huge impact on the session. Highly recommended.
The cousin of check-in, also called check-out. Using the speaker token, people who'd like to can explain what they have obtained from this meeting/session (be it knowledge, ideas or just laughs). A good moment of reflection, even if you don't wanna share, at a personal and team level.
Acronym of "Enough, let's move on" is one of my favourite ones, as I'm a professional ELMO dispatcher (professional indeed, I get paid for it!). To do an ELMO, you need a token, if budget is available the token is a Sesame Street Elmo plush in the room (or next to you if you are remote). Anytime anyone feels that the conversation deviates from the topic of the session and going on an errand, that person should raise the ELMO. Most of the times people agree on that, and the conversation is redirected by the group towards the focus.
What I like about ELMO is how non-intrusive it is (for me it's easier to raise a toy than to interrupt someone talking) and how, in general, there's consensus on the fact that the topic at hand was not the originally intended.
Simply put, when you have multiple options and the team needs to choose (topic to discuss after a retro ideation part for example), give everyone in the room a specific number of votes and some time to use them. Called this way because usually people put dots in the cards they want to vote, one dot for each vote. Beware of the pattern where someone waits for everyone else to vote to decide the winner with his/her votes, the goal of the exercise is to give voice to everyone, not a single person. Secret voting is possible (online tools make it easier) but if you need that in person it's just a smell of bad cultural practices IMHO.
Another problem of dot voting is that favours the collectives which have more representation in the group (developers in my personal experience).
When doing a Lean coffee, you have a set of prioritized topics you wanna talk about. Set a timer, 5 minutes is usually a good timeframe, and let the group discuss the first topic. After the timer finishes, ask the participants if they would like to extend the timer 5 minutes more or they are done with this topic and would like to move to the next one. At the count of 3, people should show a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Majority of thumbs down? Move to the next topic.
This is an attention grabbing technique. Whenever you start an in-person event with a lot of people, let them know that if they see any person raising both hands they should silence and also raise their hands. As people raising hands are usually pretty easy to spot (even if they are silent) the silence usually spreads very fast compared to a bunch of people shushing. Simple and practical.
Jumping out the window
Anyone jump out the window if we make this decision? Achieving agreement with multiple persons on the "right solution" is way more time consuming than agreeing on the fact that a solution is "not bad". And sometimes you don't need the right solution, sometimes not bad is good enough. Being aware of this is important, whenever you feel you can live with the good enough, paraphrase your question with the "jumping out of the window" version and move forward, everyone will appreciate it (worst case they will jump out the window 🤭).
Appoint the next
Whenever you are doing something where everyone needs to do that once and the order doesn't matter, pick a random person and let them know they have to choose the next one whenever they finish their part. Sometimes I've seen this with a token, that people physically pass to each other (it can be the ELMO, so you make the most out of your money).
I like the idea I've seen in Scrum Poker voting where one of the voted options is a coffee mug, meaning "I can't answer now, I need a break". I think it's interesting to have a team agreement where any question or poll can be replied with this answer.
Whenever you feel that a discussion can become a rabbit hole propose to the attendants to find a solution in a defined time frame. "I see this is an important decision, do you think we can find a way to move forward within 10 minutes? I think this would leave us in a good position to reach the meeting goal?". This is usually a reasonable petition and helps people focus.
A list of online ice-breakers I've used lately that do not appear in typical ice-breaker websites (2 truths and one lie kind 😛):
As a board game fan, a bunch of board games can be abused as ice-breakers. Set, a game where you should spot sets of cards with a specific un-commonality, is a great one. Not for an ice-breaker, but for a team activity, you could also play codenames.
Based on another board game, black stories are riddles around sinister gloomy stories. With a small tip, the participants should be able to discover what the hell happened and they can only ask Yes/No questions. No need to buy the game, there's an app which is very handy.
PictionaryDrawize is an online pictionary. Always funny to see the drawing skills of your colleagues under pressure.
The Telephone game
Yes, as old as it seems, there's an online version of the Telephone game called GarticPhone. Write a silly sentence, another person draws it, next one describes the previous drawing, and so on. At the end of the game you can see how the sequence deviates from the original in a fancy animation. We always laugh with this game.
Joking hazardJoking hazard is a card game by Cyanide & happiness, so I would only recommend it for teams with a very specific sense of humor (and only if everyone in the team feels safe playing the game). Usually teams which appreciate this kind of sense of humor are not very fond of Pictionary or the Telephone game (although they may chip in for black stories). If your audience is into this one, they may also like Trial by Trolley.
Tool to prepare retrospectives. Plenty of ideas of activities.
Awesome book/Website full of games for everything (opening, planning, presenting, closing, ...)
Spotify retro kit
Spotify tool for teams to start running their retrospectives on their own in a fun and easy way
Agreements: Marten Meij, Amon van Mechelen, Jose Carlos Gil, Jose Torres, Pau Trepat, Ingrid Astiz and Manel Ibañez