Don't just outlaw problems, facilitate a solution.

Don’t just outlaw problems, facilitate a solution.

The difference between facilitating and enabling is at the core of the Agile concept of self-organizing and self-managing teams. An effective scrum master should be a facilitator in a well functioning Agile team. However, when there is a breakdown in a self-organizing and self-managing team, sometimes scrum masters become enablers. This makes scrum masters more like project managers. A facilitator helps to unstick something that has stopped or creates an environment where progress can be made by the team.  An enabler provides the team with permission for making a decision.  For example, I recently watched as a team asked their scrum master if they were allowed to hold an interim show and tell/demonstration to prompt the product owner for feedback. The team saw the scrum master as an enabler rather than a facilitator.

Providing permission to the team to make decisions shifts the risk and from the team to the scrum master.  In the past we had a term for the decision maker role on a team: a project manager. The enabler is someone who sees a logjam and then provides the team with a solution and then ensures that the solution is taken.

On the other hand, a facilitator helps the team to make a decision.  A facilitator uses techniques such as asking questions and then helping the team to listen to the answers. Asking questions helps the team to frame or reframe the issue so that they can develop their own solution. By finding their own solution teams increase their ownership of the solution; it is no longer the project manager’s responsibility to make decisions for the team. For example, when a facilitator observes that a team is having issues working together, he/she will make sure everyone gets their issues on the table during a retrospective. During the retrospective, the facilitator will use a technique that will create an environment that will help the team get to the root cause.  The facilitator will continue to ask probing questions until the team identifies the issues.

In the same scenario, an enabler is apt to present the team with his or her definition of the issue (and potentially with a solution). While providing the problem and solution might seem like a more efficient use of time, it will not provide the team with a learning moment.  In the long run the team will become dependent on the enabler to identify and solve their problems. Having everyone on team learn to identify and solve teams problems leads to less time waiting for someone else to solve problems.

Here’s a quick framework to use in order to decide if you are a facilitator or an enabler:

  • Facilitators ask questions. Enablers provide answers.
  • Facilitators listen to understand. Enablers listen to act.
  • Facilitators help things to happen. Enablers make things happen.
  • Facilitators make strong teams. Enablers make strong individuals.

The primary role of a scrum master is that of a facilitator. Making decisions for the team creates a dependency that defeats the whole idea of a self-organizing and self-managing team.  A facilitator makes the team stronger by helping them to learn to make decisions and find their own voice.

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