Why a Moderator is Key in the Engineering Review Process, Part II

In Part 1 of this series you learned that design discussions and code reviews can be divided into four modes of speech using the four Critical Conversation Cards: Inquiry, Suggestion, Concern, and Clarification.

Now 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.

Keeping Focus on the Idea Under Consideration

When it comes to using Critical Conversation Cards in critical conversation, all discussion takes place around an Idea Under Consideration. An Idea Under Consideration is the reason for gathering. If an Idea Under Consideration cannot be clearly defined on a whiteboard at the beginning of a discussion, there is no conversation to be had. Thus in order for Critical Conversation Cards to be useful, a well defined Idea Under Consideration needs to be defined and posted by the time all meeting members get together.

Identifying a Moderator

At the beginning of a meeting a Moderator is identified. (Please see Figure 1.) The role of a Moderator is threefold. First, the Moderator writes the Idea Under Consideration on the whiteboard, second, he or she calls on a person to speak when a Critical Conversation Card is raised and third the Moderator makes sure that all conversation in play is relevant to the Idea Under Consideration.

Once a person is identified to be a Moderator, he or she can no longer participate in a meeting as a contributor. As mentioned above, the Moderator’s job is to call on a person to speak when a Critical Conversation Card is raised and to monitor a conversation and ensure that the discussion at hand is relevant to the Idea Under Consideration. Given the requirement that a Moderator have impartial interest about the thinking in play, some groups have found it useful to identify and invite a Moderator to a meeting beforehand.

Figure 1: Concretely declaring an Idea Under Consideration and identifying a Moderator increases the efficient use of Critical.

Working with Critical Conversation Cards

Once a moderator has been identified, a set of Critical Conversation Cards is passed out to each meeting attendee. As you read in Part 1, when a meeting attendee wants to talk, he or she raises a Critical Conversation Card. Once a card is raised, the Moderator will call up the meeting attendee to “play” the card. Figure 2 to Figure 5 below illustrate the scenarios in which each Critical Conversation Card are played.

Figure 2: You use an Inquiry Card to get information about the Idea Under Consideration.

Figure 3: Use a Suggestion Card to improve the Idea Under Consideration

Figure 4: Use a Concern Card to provide facts or opinions that you think need to be addressed to make the Idea Under Consideration better

Figure 5: It’s important that all participants in a critical conversation understand the meaning of all words and terminology by using Clarification Cards.

Best Practices for using Critical Conversation Cards

Critical Conversation Cards work best in meetings that are well organized and have a clear understanding of purpose. Also, as described above, using a Moderator makes working with Critical Conversation Cards a lot easier. However, if you really want to experience the full power of using Critical Conversation Cards, you’ll find significant benefit in keeping a Time Contract and creating a Resolution based on the information gathered from using Critical Conversation Cards around an Idea Under Consideration.

Let’s take a look at the details.

Keeping a Time Contract

Meetings that go on without any end in sight tend to be more wasteful and more counterproductive as time goes on. I have found this to be particularly true with Engineering and Code Reviews. After a while it seems as if people talk just to hear the sound of his or her voice. The notion of making an idea better or synthesizing a better, new idea from disparate pieces of information seems abandoned after the first 30 minutes of interaction. People tend to talk on because they think that have all the time in the world. Thus, to make the use of Critical Conversation Cards a useful, engaging activity, I suggest that all meetings in which Critical Conversation Cards are used have a predefined length and that they begin on time and end on time, not matter what. A 30 minute meeting, scheduled for 2 PM, starts at 2 PM sharp and ends at 2:30 PM sharp. 2 PM does not mean 2:05 PM and 2:30 PM does not mean 2:37 PM.

Also, it is perfectly permissible for a group to decide beforehand the length of time that a Critical Conversation Card can be in play. For example, the group can require that a response to an Inquiry Card take no longer than three minutes, or that an attendee can take no longer than one minute to express a concern when playing a Concern Card. Putting strict time boundaries on Critical Conversation Card play forces attendees to be very clear and concise about what is to be communicated. In fact, sometimes it’s useful to write down what you are going to say before raising a Critical Conversation Card. Not only will you have the opportunity to think through your intention, you’ll also have record of what was said for later record and resolution.

Making a Resolution

A critical conversation without a result is waste of time. Thus, in order to make Critical Conversation Cards really useful, we need to build in a way to produce results. Such is the purpose of a Resolution.

A Resolution is a formal declaration of an action(s) to take based on the new information gathered from using the Critical Conversation Cards. In some places a Resolution is called an action item. Thus, at the end of a meeting in which Critical Conversation Cards are used, it’s useful to have at least Resolution proposed. (Please see Figure 6.)

Figure 6: Critical Conversation Cards are best used in discussions that will result in a resolution.In most cases, a member of the discussion will propose a resolution. If you find that a Resolution is not forthcoming, the Moderator can coalesce the various inquiries, suggestions and concerns into a proposal for Resolution. At the least the group should be able to agree to move forward with the Idea Under Consideration. If you find that you have had a critical conversation that does not yield at least one Resolution, you might have to accept that fact that the gathering was a waste of time.

Gotchas

Critical Conversation Cards are useful. Working with them can be a lot of fun, to boot. However, as with any new process, albeit a card game like process, it takes a few tries through to get comfortable with the experience.

Sometimes getting a group to adopt consistent usage of Critical Conversation Cards, beyond the novelty state can be challenging. But these challenges can be met if you are aware of the gotchas that you might encounter.

The usual gotchas are as follows:

Beware of Initial Resistance

It’s been my experience that that the acceptance of the use of Critical Conversation Cards varies from group to group. Some groups understand the need that the Critical Conversation Cards meet and accept usage almost immediately. Other groups are reluctant. In cases where hesitancy exists, you might hear remarks such as:

“Why do we need these cards?”

“Why can’t I say what I want to say, when I want to say it?”

The key to earning acceptance in an unwilling situation is to not get into a conflict or feel obligated to defend the use of Critical Conversation Cards. Rather, ask the group to pretend as if everyone understands that Critical Conversation Cards are a great tool for conducting better critical conversations. Ask the group to use the cards for three sessions and to withhold judgment until after the third session. If by the end of the third session the group finds no value in using Critical Conversation Cards, then let it go. Remember please, the object of using Critical Conversation Cards is to facilitate efficient, concise and accurate critical conversation. If using Critical Conversation Cards does not result in a better critical conversation, then the tool is not right for that particular group. The risk incurred by continuing to use Critical Conversation Cards in an atmosphere of resistance and conflict far outweighs the benefit of eventual adoption.

Beware of Run-on Talk

Some people like to talk. I know; I am one of them. However, just because I like to talk, it does not necessarily follow that I have something new to say. Sometimes I just say the same thing over and over again. Such talk called Run on Talk.

Just because someone is using a Critical Conversation Card properly does not mean that what is being said is not redundant. The way to avoid Run on Talk is as mentioned above, to structure a time contract around the use of each type of Critical Conversation Card. For example, Suggestion and Concern Cards run two minutes. An Inquiry Card runs one minute, with a 3 minute response time. A Clarification Card runs 30 seconds with a one minute response.

These are suggested time limits only. Each group has a different dynamic. Time contacts should match the dynamic of the group. Some groups have critical conversations about very complex, multi-faceted topics that require a good deal of language to enable clear and accurate communication and thus, might require a longer time contract. Time allotment is a judgment call based on the dynamics of the group. However, you should always be on the lookout for Run on Talk and it’s cousin, Rigging the Game.

Beware of Rigging the Game

You will run into situations where all contributors to a conversation have mastered the use of Critical Conversation Cards within a predefined time contract. Yet, you find yourself still bogged down in a quagmire of redundant or useless information. Usually the cause of such difficulty is the continuous reintroduction of old information-facts and opinions that have been stated previously. Or, the same question keeps getting asked over and over again using different words to convey the same thought. This is called Rigging the Game.

The best way to avoid Rigging the Game is to rely upon the Moderator. Part of the role of the Moderator is to not only call up people as Critical Conversation Cards are being raised, but also to make sure that thoughts being expressed by way of Critical Conversation Cards are not redundant. When it seems as if the game is being rigged, it is completely acceptable for the Moderator to courteously bring to the attention of the group that there is redundant information being played. For example, a Moderator can say, “We seem to be a bit bogged down. I am observing that there are times when a Critical Conversation Card is played that it is being accompanied by information that we have already. Please be aware that this is happening. Moving forward, if a Critical Conversation Card is played with old information, please do not be offended when I bring it to your attention. It’s something we all do from time to time. I know that I do.”

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.

Conclusion

Critical Conversation Cards are a powerful instrument that will enable your organization to conduct more meaningful technical reviews and design sessions that yield greater results, at less cost. The notion of “formatting” a discussion into a set of four standard modes of conversation might seem a bit challenging at first. Asking any group to change the way it behaves, even in the smallest of matters, is usually a significant request. The way to meet the challenge is to present Critical Conversation Cards more as a fun game to be played rather than some grand organizational behavior to be implemented.Critical Conversation Cards are but an instrument. And, as with any instrument, the more you use them, the better you get. As groups continue to play Critical Conversation Cards against well defined Ideas Under Consideration, adhering to commonly understood Time Contracts, the result will be the elimination of the need to use the tool. The sensibilities that the Critical Conversation Cards are meant to foster will become internalized into your organization’s cognitive culture. And, the result will be the faster emergence of the best ideas, more cost effectively.

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