Jump-Start the Engineering Review Process With Conversation Cards, Part I

Jump-Start the Engineering Review Process With Conversation Cards, Part I

Getting a group of critical thinkers, engineers, designers, and programmers to review a colleague’s work together can be a daunting, if not down right disagreeable, task. What starts out as civil discussion can quickly turn into a set of never-ending arguments of marginal relevance to the topic at hand. Often the best thinking becomes subordinate to the most forceful voice in the room. (See Figure 1.)

In my observations the thread that runs common throughout these types of discussion is a fundamental inability for participants to talk to one another. It’s almost as if they are talking at one another. It’s not as if they don’t want to communicate. It’s more that they lack the means to get one’s words into another’s ear, sort of like wanting to cross a river without the aid of bridge: there’s no way to get to where you want to go without having to battle the currents of the river.Hence my motivation to create Critical Conversation Cards.

The purpose of Critical Conversation Cards is to provide a formal, physical mechanism that helps people communicate clearly, concisely and accurately within a critical conversation such as a code review or design session. Critical Conversation Cards are designed to squeeze out inefficient and tangential talk from a critical conversation. When Critical Conversation Cards are in play, the only way that someone can speak up in a meeting is to use a card. Critical Conversation Cards divide discussion into four modes of speech:

    * Inquiry
    * Suggestion
    * Concern
    * Clarification

Participants “play” a Critical Conversation Card to contribute to the discussion at hand. No random talking is permitted. All conversation takes place through the cards. A participant raises a Critical Conversation. Then an impartial third party, a Moderator, calls upon the participant.

We’ve been using Critical Conversation Cards for a while now at my workplace. After some initial resistance, which is typical when putting any new idea into action, we’ve found the cards to be a very useful aid for facilitating more effective technical discussions.

So, in the spirit of making the world a better place for groups of critical thinkers everywhere, I’m going to share with you the nature and practice of using Critical Conversation Cards. In this part, Part 1 I am going to describe the cards. Then, in Part 2 I am going to talk about the importance of establishing an Idea Under Consideration and identifying a Moderator when using the cards. Finally I am going show you how to use Critical Conversation Cards to review and improve an Idea Under Consideration with the help of Moderator.

Working with Critical Conversation Cards

As mentioned above, there are four cards in a set of Critical Conversation Cards. These cards are Inquiry, Suggestion, Concern and Clarification. (Please see Figure 2.) When a meeting attendee wants to talk, he or she raises a Critical Conversation Card.

Using an Inquiry Card

You use an Inquiry Card to pose a question to an individual in the conversation. For example, you can raise an Inquiry Card to ask a question such as, “Tell me please John, what is your reasoning for using XML as the format by which to describe a piece of information?”

Inquiry Cards, along with Clarification Cards, are the only cards that can be used to elicit a response from another meeting member. In fact, in a highly efficient meeting attendees interact with each other using only Inquiry or Clarification Cards.

Using a Suggestion Card

A Suggestion Card is used to make a suggestion. For example, an attendee can say something like, “I have a suggestion that we use JSON to format our information. We need to transport information quickly and JSON has a lot less overhead than XML.”

Playing the Concern Card

Let’s say that someone has to voice disagreement, or express caution; then the Concern Card is the card to play. An attendee raises his or her Concern Card, and when the Moderator calls upon that person, it is perfectly permissible to say something like, “I have a concern that no matter what type of format we use, we must have a validation mechanism for any structure that we decide upon.”

Improve Understanding Using a Clarification Card

Lastly, there is the Clarification Card. A Clarification Card is raised when a person wants more clarity and definition around a word or term that is part of the conversation. An example of the use of a Clarification Card is, “Tell me please, what does the term, ‘JSON’ mean?” The purpose of the Clarification Card is to provide a mechanism by which any attendee completely understands the content of the conversation at hand in its entirety.


Using Critical Conversation Cards is the first step toward bringing predictability and efficiency to design and review sessions. However, in order to realize the full power of the tool, it is best to use them within meeting that is conducted under the supervision of a Moderator and has a clearly defined Idea Under Consideration.In Part 2 we’ll cover the role of the Moderator and working with an Idea Under Consideration. Also we’ll cover the best practices for using Critical Conversation Cards.

Downloading the Critical Conversation Card Word Document

In order to make things a little easier for you I’ve made a Word document that you can use to print off Critical Conversation Cards on your color laser printer. You can download the file here. The Word document is designed to be printed off on Avery 5390 labels. The document, conversion-cards-front.docx, contains two sets of Critical Conversation Cards. Print off as many copies you require. Then separate the cards that are printed on the Avery Label sheet and organize them accordingly.

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