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Dialogue Sheets: A new tool for retrospectives

Posted by Allan Kelly on Jan 03, 2012 |

A Dialogue Sheet is sheet of paper, eight times bigger than a regular A4 or Letter sized sheet.

Over the last year Agile, and traditional, teams have taken to using these sheets for retrospectives.

Teams who use the sheets consistently report renewed interest in retrospectives, higher-energy levels during the session and a more inclusive style that engages more team members.

Dialogue Sheet retrospectives differ in one even more significant way from traditional retrospectives: they are facilitator less.

Instructions on the sheet direct the team to reflect on the past and come to their own conclusions.

Without the facilitator the team must be truly self-organizing.

Mechanics of the sheet

The ISO A1 or US Poster size sheet is pre-printed with instructions, quotations and graphics designed to direct the team and stimulate conversation. Some of the retrospectives sheets incorporate a timeline for the team to complete; otherwise the centre of the sheet is clear for team members to use. Team members are free to write comments on any part of the sheet and a few teams have requested even more space for notes.

Surrounding the centre of the sheet are between eight and 15 questions and directions. The first two or three are instructions describe how the team are to work with the sheet. The following questions are designed to help the team reflect. Finally, outside of these are selected quotes to stir thinking and remind team members of Agile ideas or software development in general.

Team members position themselves around the sheet and take turns to read out the question, facilitate discussion and collect responses. Each team member takes a turn and is responsible for at least one question. This ensures that everyone has a voice and makes it harder for one person to dominate the discussion.

As a general rule the maximum number of participants is eight - with a minimum of two. Above this number teams are advised to split into smaller groups, each group completes one sheet after which the teams compare and contrast their findings.

The amount of time taken to complete a sheet depends on the number of people in the group. Typically an hour is sufficient but group of eight, or a team with a lot to talk about it may take longer.

Soft copies of the sheets are free for all to download and use. The need to print out such large sheets can be a catch. A few teams who lack large printers have printed the sheets on A4 or A3 paper and taped them together although this is time consuming. Printing such sheets commercially need not be expensive but can be. The website links to a print on demand service but you might find it cheaper to shop around for a local printer and save the postage costs.

When the exercise is complete teams retain the sheets for reference. In some cases the sheets are displayed as information radiators. A few teams have arranged to laminate the sheets, or mounted them in a picture frame, then used a dry-wipe pen to complete the exercise. When complete the sheet is photographed to record the results and erased for the next time.

Results

Teams which uses dialogue sheets for retrospectives consistently report that people find them fun and energy levels are higher. In part this might come from simply using a new technique but it is also due to the very collaborative nature of the sheets. Not only does everyone get to speak but everyone gets to be the moderator for a few minutes.

It is fairly obvious that the sheet give individuals in a team a voice. One surprising finding is that the sheets can also give minority groups within a large team a voice.

In one case a large team split into two each with a sheet to complete. As luck would have it one group was mainly Developers and the other mainly Business Analysts. Afterward the BAs commented that they felt they had been able to discuss the issues they wanted to on the terms they wanted. In comparison, because the Developers out numbered the BAs regular retrospectives usually focused on code level issues.

For teams who have been conducting retrospectives for a while the sheets offer a new take on a familiar topic. They don't solve all problems, a level of openness and trust is still required, indeed, more trust might be needed initially.

So far all the retrospectives sheets carry Kerth's Prime Directive for retrospectives. It can be surprising to see teams agonise about something which most facilitators regard as not only as common sense but something sacrosanct. Indeed, one report tells of a team making fun of the directive.

Several teams report the sheets spreading within the company, both to other Agile teams and even to more traditional development teams. In one case the test leader took the completed sheet around other teams to encourage them to try the exercise.

Facilitator-less

The removal of the facilitator in a dialogue sheet retrospective changes the dynamics in very interesting, and fruitful, ways. Removing the facilitator forces the team to self-organize within the framework. This in itself is good, it also removes the possibility that the facilitator may lead the retrospective in their own direction, or inhibit discussion of some topics.

Several groups report that discussion is actually more focused on the work being discussed. Rather than the facilitator being the centre of action the sheet is the centre the action. Rather than the facilitator holding the pen to record results all team members hold pens. Everyone is responsible for keeping conversation on-topic.

So far I have no reports of a dialogue sheet retrospective failing because of the lack of a facilitator. However I have multiple reports from people who have looked at the sheets and decided not to attempt this style of retrospective because they consider the facilitator essential.

This I think is a shame, a missed opportunity. In the style of Agile experimentation I would ask everyone to try at least one facilitator-less retrospectives and reflect on the outcome.

Of course there are things a facilitator can do that a Dialogue Sheet cannot: they can direct enquiry into a particular topic, help an individual open up, add a specific exercise for a specific issue and more. I would not like to suggest the permanent removal of the facilitator. Rather, dialogue sheets are a new tool in the team's toolbox. They might not use them every retrospective, they might mix and match styles and exercises.

There is also room for hybrid style. I have watched multiple teams undertake dialogue sheet retrospectives as part of my research. There is no reason a facilitator could not observe and, if necessary, intervene. (Although this might send the wrong message about self-organization.)

Alternatively, the dialogue sheet could be used as part one of a retrospective to surface issues. For part two a facilitator could step in and help the team expand on one or more particular findings.

The future

There are currently several different Dialogue Sheets available for retrospectives. The intention has been to provide variety. I am also exploring other uses for this technology. For example, I have developed a team kick-off sheet for the start of projects. Having experiences the sheets others are looking to create their own sheets.

At the moment the style and exercises on the sheets are largely modified version of standard retrospective exercises, e.g. timeline, fishbone, likes/dislikes, etc. In time I expect new, dialogue sheet specific exercises to emerge.

At the time of writing the sheets are only available in English. This has not stopped teams in Argentina, Germany, Finland and elsewhere using the sheets. Several individuals have volunteered to translate the sheets and I am hoping that before long these can be added to the website.

The end of the beginning

The last year has seen teams worldwide experiment with Dialogue Sheet retrospectives and find a) they work, b) teams like them. They might not suite every team every time but they should be an option every team looks at.

The facilitator-less nature of the retrospectives changes the dynamics of the exercise and enhances the self-organizing nature of the team. Those teams that have used the sheets are overwhelmingly positive.

PDF versions of the current sheets are available here at no charge.

About the Author

Allan Kelly has held just about every job in the software world, from system admin to development manager. Today he helps teams adopt and deepen Agile and Lean practices. He specialises in working with software product companies and aligning products and processes with company strategy. His new book "Business Patterns for Software Developers" is due for publication in early 2012.

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Sheet vs. Whiteboard by Vijay Nathani

Personally I prefer discussion around a whiteboard rather than passing a huge sheet around the table.
Even a discussion around a whiteboard may not have a facilitator, once team can conduct retrospectives successfully by themselves.
I guess this is more a matter of preference rather than any dramatic new way of doing retrospectives.

Re: Sheet vs. Whiteboard by allan kelly

Vijay,
Can I suggest you try a Dialogue Sheet and see it for yourself. As much as I love white boards, in my experience discussions a white board tend to be dominated by one or two personalities. I think you will find Dialogue Sheets very different.

allan

Dialogue Sheets Live - in London 13 February by allan kelly

We'll be holding a short, interactive, demonstration of Dialogue Sheets in London in a few weeks.

Its on 13 February at Skills Matter (near Barbican) and is free. Registration and details on their website
skillsmatter.com/event/agile-scrum/allan-kelly-...

Re: Sheet vs. Whiteboard by Vijay Nathani

I don't know how your retrospectives are conducted, but when I train people in retrospectives:
- Each person comes to the whiteboard and writes what is going well, what can be done better, possible improvements
- The decision are made by a vote of majority
- The meeting conductor ensures that everyone comes to the whiteboard. So no one or two person dominate.
I am sure that some people will find "Dialogue Sheet" useful, but I doubt it will a better method for everyone.

Re: Sheet vs. Whiteboard by Matt Boehm

I stumbled onto these after they were discussed in a Methods and Tools article. We're just starting our agile transformation but we've used them to pretty good effect so far.

any case studies? by suba bose

Interesting approach, though not anything like ground breaker. Overall, it seems it is a good approach when you don't have an excellent facilitator. I haven't found anything in the sheet that ensures active participation of all. I think the sheet ensures structured thinking, which very well can be achieved with using the same questions on a white board, which I regularly do.

Are there any case studies of shifting from retrospectives without dialogue sheets to with dialogue sheets, and the benefits from it?

thanks for this, Subashish

Re: any case studies? by allan kelly

Subashish,
Thanks for your comments. I think you might be surprised about participation, in best Agile fashion the interactions are emergent; those who use the sheet regularly find they bring our active participation.

Case studies: I observed team at 1E here in London who found real benefit from Dialogue Sheets from regular retrospectives. I also have reports from people of the Department of Health & Welfare at Idaho State Government who also report great benefits from the switch.

Really I can't say this enough: Just Try It, create your own case study. What have you got to loose? A little money on a printout.

allan

Mailing list by allan kelly

There is an Google Groups mailing list for the discussion of dialogue sheets:

groups.google.com/group/dialogue-sheets

the more the better,

allan

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