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This article was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Methods & Tools


Dialogue Sheets for Retrospectives and Beyond

Allan Kelly,  http://blog.allankelly.net

In the last few months I have been trialling a new technique for team retrospectives. This technique involves a large sheet of paper called a "Dialogue Sheet". So far the teams who have tried using a Retrospective Dialogue Sheet have liked them, feedback so far suggests they create good discussion and teamwork. An example of Retrospective Dialogue Sheet is shown in the figure below.

Comments such as "generated intensive & focused discussion" and "plenty of discussion, valid action points" are typical. Not only do the sheets work as a retrospective, they help with team building and can encourage some quieter team members to voice their thoughts.

Figure 1 - Example retrospective dialogue sheet

Dialogue sheets

Dialogue sheets are a technique invented in Stockholm at the Royal Institute for Technology, KTH. The intention is to promote good conversation and the method can be used for a variety of discussion-based activities.

As far as I know, dialogue sheets have not previously been used for retrospective exercises, or elsewhere in software development. Having taken part in a dialogue sheet based exercise and used them in one of my own workshops it seemed obvious they could be used for retrospectives.

A dialogue sheet itself is a large sheet of paper, A1 or similar size, which is decorated with questions, quotes, illustrations and space for making notes. The questions on the sheet serve to guide the team through the exercise and focus thinking on the subject of the dialogue sheet.

Typically a team of three to eight will spend between one and two hours working the sheet. The team seat themselves around the dialogue sheet - shown in Figure 2 - and take turns asking the questions, facilitating the discussion and making notes on the sheet itself.

Three is the lower boundary for the exercise simply because you need three people to have a discussion. Eight seems to be the natural upper limit simply because the sheet has four sides and seating more than two people per side becomes difficult. That said, if seating can be arranged then 10, 11 or 12 people could take part, although this would mean the exercise would need more time.

Figure 2 - A team working on a dialogue sheet

The team normally records their thoughts, comments and observations directly on to the sheet. At the end of the exercise the sheet may be retained for future reference, hung on a wall or photographed as a record of the exercise and results.

Larger teams are advised to split into several smaller groups each with their own dialogue sheet. When all teams have completed their sheet the teams take turns at examining each others sheets and discussing the results.

In one exercise I split a large team into a group of developers and a group of non-coders (team manager, business analyst, project manager, etc.). The compare and contrast exercise was enlightening: some common problems emerged but also differences in views and understanding.

Time line and beyond

Having sat themselves around the dialogue sheet - with a supply of pens - the team starts the exercise. Each dialogue sheet contains approximately ten questions or instructions. Starting with number one the team takes it in turns to read the question, facilitate the discussion and make notes on the sheet.

The first few questions are actually instructions. These set up the exercise. The next set of questions asks the team to think about the work they have undertaken and how it could be better. These questions start by asking the team to complete a timeline in the middle of the sheet. Teams may discuss any time period they wish, most choose to focus on the last sprint or release is the usual choice. Having decided the start and end of the timeline all team members help mark memorable events on the timeline - successes, failures, ups, down, fun, sorrow or anything else, the aim to reawaken memories of the whole period.

So far the retrospective dialogue sheets have all used a timeline in the middle of the sheet as the focus for the exercise. The intention is to create some sheets using alternative exercises and focused on particular aspects of software development or problems a team encounters.

Next teams are asked about the successes and difficulties on the work. Different dialogue sheets pose these questions in different ways. The aim here is avoid teams giving the same answers each retrospectives and to encourage them to look at the work in different ways.

The next set of questions encourages the team to think about what they would, and would not, change about the way they have been working. Again different dialogue sheets phrase these questions differently to bring out alternative responses.

Throughout the process the team are encouraged to talk and discuss. The reader of the question, and thus the temporary facilitator and recorder, is changing regularly, so everyone gets a chance to speak. Indeed, this encourages those who normally shy away from talking to become involved.

The closing questions aim to bring the team to a conclusion and agree on what they will do differently next time to make things better. As far as possible the team is encouraged to come up with concrete actions. Not just "improve communication" but describe what they will actually do to improve communication.

Pictures decorate the sheet and around the edge are quotations, both aim to be thought provoking and inspire the team to reflect on the nature of their work. The quotations play no formal part in process and tend to work on the individual's thought process.

The facilitator

One of my objectives in creating the retrospectives dialogue sheets was to remove the role of facilitator. Not that I have anything against retrospective facilitators - I've facilitated a quite a few myself - but I noticed several reoccurring situations were the facilitator might inhibit discussion.

The most obvious situation is where there is simply no facilitator available. Without a facilitator the retrospective either doesn't happen or someone who is not ideal takes over.

There are a number of people who naturally step into the facilitator role and who might not be the right person to do so. This could be someone with fixed opinions who expects a certain outcome, or it might be someone who holds a position of authority in a team - a Project Manager or Architect.

When a Project Manager or Architect takes the facilitator role they face a difficulty: do they include their views and observations in the retrospective or do they remain silent? If they speak they compromise the facilitator role, if they don't they don't get their own voice and they don't give team the benefit of their experience.

For team members, having an authority figure conduct the retrospective may inhibit their comments and analysis. It can be hard to say "The project plan was unrealistic" when the project manager who wrote it is facilitating.

Some teams rotate the facilitator role between them or bring in co-workers in different teams to facilitator. However this is not an option for small teams or when there are few other people available.

Removing the facilitator role side-steps all these issues and can lead to new insights. One team commented that having someone facilitate naturally led to a focus on the facilitator, using the dialogue sheet this focus was removed and the team could focus on the retrospective.

Again teams seem divided on whether facilitator-less retrospectives are a good idea. Not all are convinced, some feel facilitators help ensure everyone gets a voice and speaks, others find it opens up the exercise. Either way, for the first time, dialogue sheets offer the option of a facilitator-less retrospective.

What is available?

At the time of writing there are three retrospective dialogue sheets available in "beta test". The intention is to refine these sheets and add some more based on different exercises. The sheets are largely agnostic although they do assume a more Agile approach is desired.

One new sheet is tailored for the end training course retrospectives. I am using this sheet on my own training courses at the moment and it has been well received.

Another request has been for a dialogue sheet based on advancing Agile understanding and practices. Right now I'm testing a future-spective version of the sheets for use by new teams to help them agree common working practices and approaches. This sheet should be available by the time you read this.

At the moment the sheet are only available in English. In time I hope to have them translated to other languages.

These dialogue sheets can be downloaded for free from a dedicated mini-site, http://www.dialoguesheets.com, once downloaded they need to be printed. This requires either an oversized printer or a visit to a printer shop.

Readers who work at large companies will probably be able to find a large printer in the company, or may have access to a reprographics department who have a large printer. For everyone else a print-on-demand service has been arranged so you can buy printed sheets for a small fee plus postage.

Finally

So far the trials of Retrospective Dialogue Sheets have been very encouraging. On the whole teams like them, there have, naturally, been suggestions for improvement. So far everyone who has used one has said they will use them again. Indeed, at one company a test engineer like the sheets so much she went around enthusing about them to other teams.

Some teams have declined to try a dialogue sheet, these teams feel their existing retrospectives work well. I would encourage these teams to give a dialogue sheet a try. Using one once does not commit using one forever more and they may well lead to new insights or perspectives.

Personally I find the biggest challenge when holding regular retrospective is to keep them fresh and keep new insights coming. Dialogue sheets offer one more tool for varying the retrospective and different dialogue sheets further increases the variety.

Dialogue Sheets for Retrospectives are now a proven retrospective technique, and one with a lot of potential in future not just for retrospectives but for learning generally. While they are not the only retrospective technique they are a new tool in the toolbox.

More information

For more information on dialogue sheets visit http://www.dialoguesheets.com.


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