A few years ago, I was teaching one of my clients how to run retrospective meetings with his teams. As this person ran more of these sessions, he shared a very interesting insight with me:
"What I am realizing is all I need to do is create a container for the discussion and the team will provide the content."
I knew what he was talking about: the container is the structure of the meeting. It is the plan for having the conversation. I had explained it in the past, but never quite in that way. Ever since, I started talking about facilitation more and more using those words.
In this article, we will discuss how to structure conversations with your team. We will explore in more depth the notion of the container and the content.
A container is a repeatable structure that you can use to drive conversations with your team. You can say it is a process to have a discussion.
Think back to your last team meetings. Did people interrupt each other, or not listen to one another? That is because they do not know how to talk to each other. Nobody is born with this skill. We all need to learn and practice how to have a productive conversation.
When you bring structure to a team conversation, it helps make learning faster. The team can repeat the structure over and over and get better at it with time. This is because the team is learning how to have conversations without derailing.
A container is a structure to have a discussion. The simplest way is to use questions that structure how the team will go through the topic.
For example, I learned the following container while teaching catechism to kids a few years ago. It was a container for them to learn to engage in problem resolution in their lives. It consists of four guiding questions:
You can have different kinds of containers for different kinds of discussions. When I want to talk about a shared team goal, I may use something like a Team Change Canvas. If the team needs to talk about how their transformation is going, I use the Moving Motivators game. When the team needs to create an experiment, I have a series of guiding questions for that too.
The idea is that the container guides how the conversation will happen. The team will bring out the relevant content by following the structure. By using the same container in the same context over and over, the team learns how to have this discussion. They get better, more efficient and a lot more comfortable at it.
Let me show you how I use the problem resolution container with teams in a retrospective meeting. Take a look at the image below.
As you can see, I write out the questions on a board, sometimes using quadrants. Then I put bullet points (or Post-it notes) beneath each question.
We answer the questions one at a time. So it begins with a quick discussion to name what the problem is in a sentence or two. Once we agree on the problem, we move on to the next question.
By capturing things visually on a whiteboard at the same time, it helps us agree on something. It also makes it clear and visual what we are agreeing to.
We then move on to the next question around the facts and issues. Once again we capture everything as we go on the visual board. This brings structure to the discussion. If people try to talk about possible solutions, you can guide them back to facts and issues. If people are repeating a fact or issue that is already on the board, then we can call it out. At this point, we can ask if something is missing or move on.
Guiding the team in this way brings a structure to the conversation. It takes a few tries for people to get used to it and over time it makes it easier for them to work through the topic.
You need to understand one key thing when using structured conversations:
It is not about answering a set of questions, it is about the quality of the conversation it creates.
As you take the time to go through the canvas or structure, the discussion brings people together. They start seeing what they are discussing in a similar way, and it builds alignment. This in turn builds a shared understanding and a shared commitment.
Before using your container, you should practice using it yourself first. How would you answer those questions? What does the output look like? This will help you see if it can be useful or not. If it does not give you the result you want, redesign it and try again.
The other benefit of practicing it by yourself is you get to see the challenges of using it. What is difficult in using that container? Where did you stumble? How did you overcome it? This is all useful information for when you use it with your team.
Once you are comfortable with the result, you can try it with a small group of people. You do not need to, but it can help you get comfortable leading the discussion.
Building containers to have structured conversations with your team will create new habits. In a way, it gives you processes you can use to have discussions together.
The more you use the same structured way of having a discussion, the better you will be at using it. Consistency is key, but it is OK to change and tweak the structure from time to time. Repeating the same way of talking about certain topics is crucial though.
Switching up your containers all the time will cause your team to not progress as fast. It may even cause people to lose confidence in you as a facilitator. This is especially true if the team feels there are no concrete actions coming out of the meetings.
If you do not feel confident using a structure for the first time, let the team know. Being vulnerable and asking for their help will help you be more successful.
How do you use containers to help your team communicate better? What are some of the favorite containers that you are already using? What is one new structure that you could create that would help your team in their next meeting?