Scrum Master / Agile Coach / Scrum Trainer

Personal notes on 'The Skilled Facilitator' (Roger Schwarz)

As my list of books grows (a lot) faster than I can read, a while ago I read ‘The Skilled Facilitator’ of Roger Schwarz. As a suggested reading from the LeSS books, I was expecting a book with all kinds of practices and tips for a facilitator. But actually the opposite was true, and it taught me more than I could imagine beforehand! From the Skilled Facilitator Approach - with the Mutual Learning Approach as the baseline - I learned a lot about long-term team building and short-term facilitating (and many things in between). In my opinion every Scrum Master, facilitator or team coach should read this book to gain understanding of the important values for groups or teams and facilitating them. In this blog I will give a summary of important parts of the book (to me), share my most interesting topics and my personal notes on them.


The Skilled Facilitator Approach is ‘a comprehensive, systemic approach that is based on theory and is supported by decades of research. It begins with a set a set of mutual learning core values and assumptions that generates tools, techniques, and behaviors, all of which fit together.’ Schwarz distinguishes six facilitative roles that you need to select for every situation and which differ. E.g. a facilitator and a facilitative consultant are different roles. Furthermore, an interesting statement is ‘How you think is how you facilitate’.


Two approaches are explained and contrasted in the book. As opposed to the Mutual Learning Approach, there is the Unilateral Control Approach. It’s ‘essential perspective is: I understand the situation; you don’t. I’m right; you’re wrong. I will win.’ Although Schwarz doesn’t share his judgement or data about the use of the Unilateral Control Approach, his notion is that this approach (and mindset) results in low performance, bad working relationships and low individual satisfaction. However, I think this mindset is pretty common in many organizations and causes problems in teams and groups (either coaching and facilitation events). Schwarz adds: ‘Simply changing your behavior is insufficient to get out of unilateral control.’


In contrast, the Mutual Learning Approach leads to high performance, better working relationships and individual well-being. Interesting assumptions in this mindset are: ‘each of us sees things others don’t’ and ‘differences are opportunities for learning’. Interesting research findings (to me) he shares around the mindset, behavior or results from the Mutual Learning Approach are:

Schwarz quotes Richard Hackman when describing when a group of people is actually a team and not a group. I see this in reality and I agree that there are different approaches necessary for teams and groups. More on that in a future blog about the Leading Teams book from Richard Hackman.


Very interesting is the Team Effectiveness Model (TEM): what contextual aspects, what structure and what process aspects makes teams and groups effective. And subsequently how to design or redesign a team or group. Some of the aspects are quite commonly known I guess, but some of them are very interesting to me or validate my own conjectures based on observations in practice. For me in particular ‘effective problem solving’ and ‘productive conflict management’ are aspects that I see teams that perform really well do and until this book I’ve hardly seen it explicitly mentioned.


For me the chapters about these topics are the most interesting. Subsequently, diagnosing and intervening with groups, agreeing to work together and working with technology are elaborated in separate parts with several chapters in each part. Some other interesting quotes or topics about these topics:

Although the book is not an easy read (and quite academic), it sure is worth reading for everyone involved in team coaching (e.g. Scrum Masters) or facilitators of several kind of (recurring) events to be able to understand and possibly master the Mutual Learning Approach. I would surely recommend anyone to do that.


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Mark Uijen de Kleijn