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

How to use Critical Conversation Cards to review and improve an idea under consideration with the help of a moderator.

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.

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