Facilitating Fast Team Building and Consensus

In comments to my last post about making faster and better team decisions, Europe-based agile coach Yves Hanoulle asks me to list examples of the large group consensus techniques I know. I’m not sure I can do that or that it is important to me to make a list.

More importantly, my success depends not on techniques but on

  • my stance or attitude (how I hold myself in my mind and the vision and possibilities I hold for the group)
  • the purpose of the group
  • my first principles (responsibility, collaboration, servant leadership, value, choice, etc.) and
  • constraints (time, space, authority, etc.)

Here’s an example: Last May at the RallyOn conference in Boulder, CO, Rally’s VP of Products Todd Olson asked me at the last minute to facilitate a lunch meeting of about 10 VIP customers.

Todd’s goal (purpose) was for the VIPs to become a team-based counsel that would meet regularly, prioritize a requested-features backlog, and speak to Rally with one voice.

Our principles included collaboration, participation, servant-leadership (Todd spoke for two minutes at the beginning and later acted as group recorder; other Rally attendees served and bussed tables), value, and inclusion.

Constraints: We had 60 minutes between conference sessions, were in a 7 meter by 5 meter hotel conference room with 15 people (including some Rally directors), and a plated lunch would be served — it was too late to switch the lunch to a buffet.

What to do? I recommended a World Cafe style rapid round-table conversion around three questions from my Team Orientation Process℠ (for more about orienting teams, see my teamwork book or workshop):

  • What’s our task?
  • What’s in it for me (to work with you on this task)?
  • What agreements do we want with each other?

I asked for the plated lunch to be served immediately at the start and that all the VIP’s be seated at two tables.

I cleared three tables for the World Cafe and equipped each table with large sheets of paper and felt pens for idea capture and doodling. I assigned one of the three questions to each table, wrote the question on the paper on that table, and circled it.

I gave VIPs 20 minutes to eat, meet each other at the table, and get ready to answer these three questions. Todd said a few words about his request for the group. I asked the other Rally folks to stand or sit on a counter along one wall.

When 20 minutes for eating was up I asked the 10 VIPs to self-organize around the three World Cafe tables. Instructions:

  1. One person agrees to “host” or “co-host” the conversation at that table for at least two rounds
  2. Dialog with others at your table to propose answers to the question assigned to that table
  3. Capture the ideas on the paper
  4. Change tables every five minutes with some people remaining to host the dialog at that table while the other members separate to different tables.

The idea is that each table’s conversation overlaps and flavors the conversations at the other tables and that everyone is deeply involved in each conversation.

I think we did five rounds of five minutes each. At the end I asked Todd to record on a flip chart as I attempted to facilitate consensus from the group. I was amazed when the VIP’s said that wasn’t needed — they had already done that at each table.

I responded, “Really?Are you really all on the same page with each other?” And they all looked at me and said “Absolutely.” So I said, then what are the next steps? And they said they had a conference call scheduled in two weeks.

Results? Todd was extremely pleased. The VIPs were energized.

Seven months later: I ran into one of the VIPs at an AgileNYC meeting last month and he told me that group continues to operate very effectively.

What might you have done? Or share one of your examples. Leave a comment.

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7 Responses to Facilitating Fast Team Building and Consensus

  1. YvesHanoulle says:

    thanks Christopher,

    that is the kind of lists I was talking about.
    Yes Why is more important then how.

    I am asking great facilitators for techniques so I can learn and use different ways when the Why I see are not compatible with the how’s I know.

  2. Todd Olson says:

    Christopher,

    That’s a great summary of the session you facilitated. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a tight time-box with good facilitation. It’s also amazing that you were able to pull this together in very short notice.

    Another great by-product of this technique is relationship-building. Our VIPs had never met nor had pre-existing relationships. Not only did we accomplish the purpose of the meeting, we formed bonds that have lasted almost a year later.

    I highly encourage folks to get creative and make use of facilitation techniques to maximize the value of large group meetings.

    Todd Olson
    VP Products
    Rally Software

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