Why Dialogue Sheet Retrospectives Are Important


We all know we need to do retrospectives. And sometimes, it feels as if we go through the motions. Maybe with dialogue sheet retrospectives, we don’t have to. Here, Allan Kelly shares his perspective on dialogue sheet retrospectives.

Think back to your last retrospective—if it happened at all, that is. Most likely someone took a leadership role—although we politely call him a facilitator—and maybe this person asked everyone to do specific exercises. In all likelihood, I bet that some people spoke a lot and a few said next to nothing. Remember, for some teams, a retrospective can mean a lot of (expensive) paperwork.

Chances are that if you hold retrospectives—and unfortunately it seems most teams do not—that somebody leads and facilitates each retrospective. After all, someone needs to keep things moving, don't they?

Given all the ideas of self-managing teams in the agile community, it has always seemed a little bit odd to me that this major learning exercise tends to put one person at the front, literally. During the last couple of years, I, and many others in the software community, have been using a technique based on very large pieces of paper called dialogue sheets to hold facilitator-less retrospectives, as shown below in figure 1.


Figure 1. A blank sprint retrospective dialogue sheet

Teams that have tried this technique regularly report new dynamics in their sessions. I’ve worked with one team that said it was "the difference between night and day."

Another team that I heard from was split between the US and India. The ScrumMaster used the sheets to hold two separate retrospectives with the team members in each location. The ScrumMaster then collected and compared the result and coordinated action.

After this, a ScrumMaster in Norway commented that the sheets reduced pre- and post-retrospective administration and relieve the tendency to be "team leader-ish,” by which I think she meant the team did more self-organization.

Again and again, I’ve seen teams report that, contrary to what some expect, the sheets help give a voice to everyone in the room. People who are generally regarded as "quiet" will speak up, and there are few (if any) reports of individuals dominating the discussion.

We used two sheets in one retrospective that I ran with a large team. In this instance, the developers sat at one and the analysts and testers at the other. At the end, one of the business analysts commented "Normally the developers out vote us and we don't get to talk about our issues," but on this occasion they did!

Description of a Dialogue Sheet
At first sight a dialogue sheet looks a bit like a children's board game. While some people are put off by this light-hearted look, it actually adds to the fun and creativity.

Normally the sheets are either A1- or US-poster size (84x119 centimeters or 24x36 inches), and are pre-printed with instructions, questions, graphics, and quotations, with copious amounts of space left for the team to write on the sheets. Indeed, the sheets encourage everyone to record their thoughts and comments right there and then.

The questions and instructions guide the team through the retrospective. Several of the sheets contain instructions that ask of the team to create a timeline in the middle, while another sheet provides the outline of a fishbone diagram for a team to use. Yet another sheet starts with the question "What did you decide in the last retrospective?"

Teams typically initiate the retrospective with a fresh, blank sheet. Some teams have taken to hanging a blank sheet on the wall at the start of an iteration. During the iteration anyone can go to the sheet and mark something on the timeline, or elsewhere, that they want to remember for the retrospective.

I've also heard of teams that hang the completed sheet on the wall after the retrospective in order to remind the team members of their discussions and decisions. At any time, during any discussion, team members can return to the sheet and see their thinking during the retrospective.

Some teams, in an effort to save money, use laminated sheets or sheets mounted on a glass picture frame. These teams use a dry-wipe marker and simply wipe the sheet clean for the next retrospective. Personally, I think physically writing on the sheet is better, but teams need to adapt to their own circumstances.

The quotations that flow around the side of the sheet are intended to amuse and stimulate thought. You might find a quotation that stirs a philosophical thought, like this one from Albert Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." Or, you could have a more action-oriented quote that is placed right at the end of a sheet, like this one from Winston Churchill: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

I should point out that while I devised the retrospective dialogue sheets and other types of dialogue sheets, I didn't originally invent them. Credit goes to the Stockholm Institute of Technology for the original idea and to Cass Business School in London for building on that idea.

No Facilitator At All?
Using the sheet, teams can completely remove the role of the facilitator. This technique removes the focus on the facilitator, allowing the team to concentrate on the work and the retrospective itself. It also allows the person who would have facilitated to take part in the retrospective like everyone else. Both changes help promote self-management within the team.

However, some people shy away from the sheets because they recognize the important role a facilitator can play, and they want to keep one on the team. The simplest advice here is to just try the sheet with a facilitator.

Really, apart from providing the sheets, there isn't a lot for a facilitator to do with a small team, which consists of no more than eight members. That doesn't mean a facilitator can't observe and take his own notes. He might decide to use his observations for a follow-up exercise later on during the retrospective or next time.

Individual sheets are limited to eight people, more or less, simply because seating more than eight people around a sheet can be difficult. You could squeeze a ninth person in, but it would be tight. The minimum size for a sheet is normally three people in order to keep the discussion going between members.

Larger teams tend to split into sub-groups each with their own sheet. Here, a facilitator might be useful to initially divide people up. At the end of the session, the facilitator can pull people back together and compare the notes on discussions and action items.

Most of the sheets ask participants to summarize their discussions into three action points at the end. When there are multiple sheets in use I normally capture all the suggestions—some usually overlap—and then have the whole team dot-vote to reduce the set back to three, clear action points.

Small groups (three or four people) can typically complete a sheet in a little under an hour. Larger groups (seven or eight members) tend to take a little more than an hour. When I use the sheets in training sessions I tend to remind teams at the half-way-point and 10 minutes from the end.

Other Uses
Dialogue sheets were originally invented to create good conversations and, with the right design, can be used many other places where people need to converse. For the Oredev conference in Malmo last year, Jakob Wolman and I created one based on the conference theme of rebellion.

I have another "agile discussion" sheet that I use at the end of training sessions. This sheet brings teams together to talk about what they like about agile, what difficulties they see, what practices they want to adopt, and what help they need to do so.

In one session in Holland, several sub-teams worked on their own sheets to decide action after the completion of the training course. One team decided it wanted to adopt just about everything for a project that was just starting. The team members read out their decision and added the caveat, "If our managers let us." The managers concerned were in the same room, and on another sheet they were able to reply with an immediate “Yes!

By using the sheet, the team members were able to agree on a common understanding of what agile meant to them and what they needed to do. They went straight into their new project with a new method.

A few months later, they delivered right on schedule. In fact, the client was not able to take immediate delivery. After a short delay, however, it accepted the product for field trials; the trials went well and the product was accepted in full.

Currently, I am experimenting with a sheet designed to help teams new to agile run planning meetings. This sheet has much more of a board-game feel, in that teams get to write stories and tasks, play poker, and go around questions multiple times until they have the right amount of work.

There is also an opportunity to use dialogue sheets to structure conversations over requirements. I have not had chance to bring these thoughts together in a sheet yet, but I hope to do so soon.

Where to Get Them
Right now all the sheets I have created are available free as PDFs for download from dialoguesheets.com. A few of the sheets have been translated into French, Spanish, and Finnish. I'm hoping for some more translations soon.

The first challenge for many people is simply getting the sheets printed. You can tape eight A4- or US-letter size sheets together, but one person who did this commented that he would never do it again—it took too long! Taping four A3 sheets is more practical, but not perfect.

There is a print-on-demand service available on dialoguesheets.com, and while the sheets themselves aren't very expensive, postage costs can push the price up. The biggest challenge to potential users who do not have a suitable printer is simply getting authorization to spend any money! The expenses involved are a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional facilitator, let alone the cost of the team’s time in attending the retrospective.

Many companies will have a suitable printer or plotter, and larger companies have their own reprographics departments. Alternatively, it may be the case that you must find a local printer.

In Conclusion
Dialogue sheets are now a well-proven tool for retrospectives, but they are not the only tool. They do not invalidate all of the existing techniques known in, and having facilitator-led exercises can be good, too. Dialogue sheets open up another possibility; some teams use them regularly, some teams occasionally.

If you've never tried a dialogue sheet retrospective, then, in best agile fashion, try one. You have little to loose and everything to gain.


User Comments

1 comment
Leyton Collins's picture

Looks very interesting. I've got some reading and reviewing ahead of me. :-) 

August 17, 2013 - 9:14am

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