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How to facilitate meetings: a guide for Team Playbook users

by Bernie Ferguson, Sr. Program Manager, R&D

A skilled meeting facilitator can get a group to discuss, debate, and, above all, decide a lot of stuff in not-a-lot of time. Trouble is, most teams don’t have dedicated program managers or agile coaches to step in and fill that role. So as the modern workplace becomes ever-more collaborative, it’s increasingly important for all team members to know how to facilitate meetings.

This is especially true for teams using the Team Playbook. It’s by teams, for teams – not by teams, for managers. Individual contributors can and should facilitate Health Monitor sessions and plays, too.

But lack of experience with facilitation and fear of being judged harshly can deter even the most confident-seeming person from leading a session. I’ve been doing this for years, and doubts still creep in. What if the pace is too fast, or too slow? Is the agenda pitched at the right level? How will the vibe in the room change if I “double-click” on an uncomfortable truth that gets raised in a Health Monitor? Will I be able to get the inevitable strong personality in the room to button up and listen to their peers? Sheesh. So many x-factors to keep track of.

The good news is that meeting facilitation is simply a skill you have to practice. To help build your chops and conquer your fears, here are some pointers and pro tips that will increase your confidence.

Bookmark this post so you can review it quickly the next time you’re about to facilitate a meeting.

Shut down to open up

People are far more engaged in discussions when they’re not firing off an email or checking Facebook. So take a hardline approach and ask for all laptops, tablets, and phones to be turned off. The only exception is the meeting’s scribe, who gets a pass to use their device of choice for taking notes. Don’t start the meeting until everyone is tuned in and ready to contribute.

A laptops-closed/phones-off policy is critical for sessions that revolve around active listening and flat-out, transparent sharing. Can you imagine someone working up the courage to share brutally honest feedback in a Health Monitor while their teammates pecked away on a pull request? Not so much. Same goes for retrospectives and sparring. For sessions like these, it’s best if the facilitator takes notes so all participants are fully engaged in the discussion.

If someone insists they need to be working on something else during the meeting, then give them permission to leave the room and go do that work. They’ll have an easier time of it without the distraction of people talking around them anyway.

Use the power of the pen

Sometimes there’s a “celebrity” in the room: a strong personality with strong opinions who is highly respected by other people in the group. They can dominate the discussion (usually without intending to), or even disrupt it by driving their own agenda.

Give them a pen, and ask them to take charge of capturing ideas on the whiteboard. Not only does this intrinsically task them with listening (i.e., creating space for others to speak), you also avoid the scenario where they sit in the back of the room trashing ideas that diverge from their own. No hecklers, please.

If they’re a strong detractor, or feel particularly strongly about the session, share the agenda and purpose in advance so you can get their input before the meeting. Help them walk in ready to make a constructive contribution.

Pro tip: Try this technique next time you run the 5 Whys, Goals Signals and Measures, or Rules of Engagement plays.

Operate in questions

Many of the plays in the Team Playbook are essentially problem-solving workshops (5 Whys, Experience Canvas, Premortem, Empathy Mapping… the list goes on). As facilitator, it’s not your job to have all the answers. It is your job, however, to lead the group to answers. That means posing the right questions at the right time. When done well, pointed questions will challenge assumptions that may be preventing them from getting to that “ah-ha!” moment.

Even if you think you have The Answer™, resist the temptation to offer it up. Instead, ask leading questions that guide the group to that answer (it’s more meaningful if they arrive at that conclusion themselves). Here are a few generic old favorites that you can customise:

  • Can you expand on that point?
  • Is this conversation moving us in the direction we want?
  • Your last point intrigues me, but it feels counter intuitive – in what context could you see that applying?
  • How would you summarise that?
  • What would that look like?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • Why?
  • How would you measure success in that instance?

Of course, asking the right questions requires you to listen intently. Give the group space to burn through the ideas that come quickly, and pay attention to what they’re saying so you know which questions can get them to think deeper. But generally stay out of the discussion until it stalls out or starts going in circles.

Read the room

Tune into the energy of the room and look for visual queues like body language. Are people fidgeting in frustration? Do looks of discontent or disagreement abound? These are signs you need to intervene. It’s also ok to gauge sentiment in the room by simply asking: Is this resonating? Do we feel comfortable with the progress we’re making?

Bringing focus to the group’s emotional state helps you understand whether they’re engaged or disconnected. And if the group is disconnected, it’s time for you to jump in and lead them down an alternate path.

Pro tip: Pay especially close attention in sessions that tend to be highly emotive like Health Monitors, Goals Signal and Measures, and Trade-off Sliders.

Getting your energetic radar calibrated will take time, and you’ll get it wrong once or twice. Being mindful and observant are the first steps.

Focus on outcomes

Every session you facilitate needs to have a clear end point: an objective to achieve, or a decision to make. Make sure your agenda covers this so participants know why they’re there, and (importantly) what it would take to finish the meeting early.

Pro tip: Each plays in the Team Playbook states the outcome you’re shooting for. All you have to do as facilitator is make sure people are clear on it.

It’s worth reiterating the goal at the start of the meeting, too. Heck, you could even write it on the whiteboard to serve as guardrails for the discussion – especially if you’re likely to have detractors in the room. If the discussion heads down a rabbit hole, you can pull the group back out by reminding them of the meeting’s objective.

Speaking of off-topic ideas…

Create a parking lot

If a idea pops up that is valuable not off-point, offer to create a “parking lot” and jot it down (usually on the whiteboard or in the meeting notes). Because today is all about nailing your objective for this meeting.

Knowing their thoughts aren’t lost forever to the aether helps people return their focus to the outcome you’re striving for.

Know your audience

If you’re facilitating a Health Monitor session or a retrospective, be on high alert for people who need to be drawn into the discussion. Consider the personality types amongst your participants, and try to get everyone to contribute to the discussion evenly (more or less). The quiet people in the group might not be shy, per se. In fact, they might have a lot to say, if given the opportunity. It’s your job as facilitator to carve out space for them to speak.

A veteran facilitator might even observe people as they enter the room, mentally noting who they sit next to or who they avoid. It’s ok to use your judgement and re-arrange chairs (or who sits where) if that’ll help bring out the best in everyone.

Also, understand who has the final say on whatever decisions you’re making, and use them as a tie-breaker if the group can’t come to consensus. That person can come in especially handy when deciding who owns follow-up items.

Hit your feet

Don’t hit them physically – that’d hurt. I mean stand up, congregate around the whiteboard, and bring some dynamic energy to the room. This isn’t the UN General Assembly, after all. (Unless you actually work at the UN. In which case, good on ya.)

One dead-simple facilitation hack I like is having people write their thoughts on sticky notes, then walk up to the front of the room and post them a whiteboard or butcher’s paper. Once everyone is done posting up ideas, take turns coming up front to present those ideas to the group. Works great in problem-solving or brainstorming-flavored sessions like Mindmapping, Premortem, or Disrupt.

Incidentally, when paired with coffee, a whiteboard is easily the most innovative tool in the knowledge worker’s tool kit. Seriously!

It’s not about you

Me, I’m your classic “talker”. So standing in front of a group to lead a Health Monitor session or run a play from the Team Playbook isn’t much of a stretch. (In fact, when I was learning how to facilitate meetings, the hardest part was getting myself to shut up so the rest of the group could speak.)

Being an effective meeting facilitator while simultaneously being a meeting participant is near impossible – you can’t be emcee and performer at the same time. Embrace the facilitator’s role of managing time, encouraging participation, and asking juicy questions. Let the other people in the group be the stars of the show.

Structure your agenda such that there are opportunities for different people to lead parts of the discussion. This lets you sink into the background, observe the group, and focus on driving the group toward that outcome or decision.

. . .

Running meetings and workshops will be clunky at first, and you’ll make some mistakes. That’s ok! You don’t have to be an ace facilitator to save your team weeks’ worth of time spinning their wheels.

Your skills will improve with practice. So you know what’s next, right? Get out there and start practicing! Browse the plays and Health Monitors, get your team together, and run one.

Browse plays in the Team Playbook


Gonchik Tsymzhitov
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
January 3, 2021

Thank you for your article? 

@Christine P. Dela Rosa  Do you have the same advice  for the remote meetings and distributed teams?

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Christine P. Dela Rosa
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
January 4, 2021

@Hi @Gonchik Tsymzhitov - I do have the same advice for distributed teams. I think all of these concepts can still be applied to colocated or remote meetings.

In the latter, dominant voices are even more difficult to facilitate because reading the room takes even more energy over video or audio-only calls. It might be even more difficult to feel intimate and without the closeness of physical space, and drawing out conversation can also be more difficult. Simply because working remotely may not be as common nature as it is in colocated meetings. So, use the power of the pen to document, to increase confidence as attendees write answers before sharing, etc, is something I stand behind no matter what meeting circumstances. 

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Gonchik Tsymzhitov
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
January 4, 2021

@Christine P. Dela Rosa  Thank you for the additional clarification! 

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