Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Downside of Dialogue Sheets

Something I’m very conscious of is that I don’t hear much about the downside of Dialogue Sheet Retrospectives. As much as I’d like to believe that this is because there is no downside I can’t honestly say I think that is the case.

There must be downsides.

I have had several suggestions for improvement and some of these have been incorporated into some sheets. There are also a couple of pending improvements which I’ve yet to action. Because there are several sheets and because not all of them are for retrospectives some improvements get incorporated into some sheets but not others. In part I’m happy with this because it increases the differences between sheets.

At XP Day this week I had several conversations about the sheets and I now think its worth listing some reasons people choose not to use the sheets or negatives that emerge. Some of these I’ve known about for a while and may have mentioned before, some are new.

In no particular order, and in my words summarise what I’ve heard….

“The team looked at the sheet and don’t see how they would be an improvement on the current retrospective format”

This reason has been given by several people/teams and while I respect it as a team’s decision to make I can’t help feeling that it pre-judges the sheets. Surely the “Agile” way of doing it would be to try a sheet and see what happens. After all, what have you got to loose? One or two hours, one retrospective.

“We need a facilitator”

Almost a continuation of the previous one another reoccurring comment is from people who can’t imagine not having a facilitator. Again I would suggest try it and see.

I have observed many retrospective dialogue sheet sessions and I find them very interesting. If a facilitator wants a role I have several suggestions:

  • Take off the facilitator hat and join the retrospective, you will get insights for the next time you facilitator
  • Observe silently from the sidelines: you will learn things just from observing
  • Use the sheets from one retrospective as input to the next, go back and pick up items, delve deeper into issues
  • Use the sheets as first exercise in a longer retrospective; do a sheet then go back over issues that arise
You might not need a facilitator but that does not mean you must not have one.

“Facilitator would go deeper”

I am convinced there are issues and times where having a facilitator will produce a better outcome. For example, some issues benefit from talking about in depth. That is why I always thing the sheets are one tool amount many. However I don’t think you always need to go deep. As with the first two items in this list i encourage you to try it and see.

Cross training retrospective facilitators

This might be a rare reason for not using the sheets but is quite valid. One company wanted to train a number of people to under take retrospectives so each retrospective was used as a training exercise for a facilitator.

“We have a company mandated retrospective format and we cannot change it”

This has to be the worst reason for not trying any new technique in a retrospective. If a team cannot change the retrospective format what chance have they got of acting on any findings from the retrospective? Actually I think this suggests a bigger problem.

Mechanical sheet filling

I only have a second hand account of this and I’d like to know more. It appears a team at a large media company in Salford do not engage in conversation in doing the sheet. It appears filling in the sheet has become something of a chore and they simply “do it”.

With out knowing more about this team (anyone know them?) it is hard to say what is going on. It sound like the sheet has been imposed on the team and they are completing it like another piece of administrative paperwork.

Fear of team dynamics

Some people are worried that personality issues on a team will disrupt the dialogue sheet process - conflicts, arguments, etc. I think this is a valid concern. Although I then immediately think of two things.

First: this is an example of a bigger issue - if these people can’t spend an hour together on a collaborative exercise then working together must be very difficult.

Second could this type of exercise actually help with those dynamics? I would guess the answer is sometimes Yes and sometimes No.

Bored by repetition

There are a few teams that have tried the sheets used the them regularly and then they have fallen into disuse. I suspect this is true of any retrospective format that is used too much. The trick is to find whats to keep the retrospectives fresh and keep them generating new insights.

If you know of any downsides or problems with dialogue sheet retrospective then please let me know. I might be able to correct it in a sheet, if I can’t then we can at least understand their use better.


  1. Your overwhelming pride is awesome!
    Do you REALLY think your dialogue sheets are that great? Do you REALLY think they are an improvement on EVERYONE else's retrospectives?
    And as to company mandated sheets - did it occur to you that your sheets are particularly unsuited to reporting processes and corporations may actually have spent some time and effort in creating restrospective sheets that are useful for automating reports and thus more adaptable to long term learning? Perhaps a standardised format leads to more stable results fitted to the types of projects done here at my company than your generic process.
    This was an insulting display of pride and sales by forced perspective. If YOU can't come up with a more compelling reason to change a very strong and working practice at my company than "It seems you are not giving these sheets a try" then why should I. Agile is not about change for change sake - it is about change for improvement.
    I am no longer a follower of your blog.

  2. Thanks Anonymous, I'm sure there is some merit in some of your point however since you leave this anonymously we can't engage in discussion.

    And there in lies the key point: I am prepared to stand behind my ideas, let people critique then and enter into discussion if they wish.

    I am genuinely interested in exploring downsides of these sheets so I'm sorry that you do not wish to engage.


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