Collaborative Card Play


Ever find yourself spinning in a conversation where the discussion of ideas gets stuck in a circuitous route? In the world of software development, where the need to effectively communicate elaborate and complex ideas is most important, such conversations end up being counter-productive. In this week's column, Jeff Patton shares a technique that keeps such conversations on a straight and productive path. Find out how he channels different ideas and categorizes them-all within one very fun and productive meeting.

Some people talk with their hands. I talk with cards. Here's why.

Have you had a conversation where a lot of ideas are discussed, yet the conversation just seems to spin around? A half hour into the conversation déjà vu hits. You ponder, "Didn't we discuss this already?"

Have you worked with a group of people that simply need to prioritize a list, but after what seems like hours of discussion the group makes no headway?

There's a simple approach to these situations that I've been using for years. Other people are often surprised it works well for them. The technique is simple:

  1. When talking to people, write ideas down on index cards.
  2. Place the cards on a table in front of the group.
  3. Watch what happens.

Pretend for a minute we're in the early stages of a software project. As part of getting started the team might build a risk list, and then draft a plan to mitigate the most critical risks. Usually these actions take place during simple discussions, where someone takes notes or writes things on a whiteboard or flipchart paper, so consider using cards to see how that works.

Get Some Ideas on the Table
Prepare for the discussion by getting several hundred index cards and a few markers. Then, get your team together to talk about the project risks. Sit around a table-any conference table will do, just make sure everyone is visible. Place the stacks of cards and pens in the middle of the table.

A simple affinity diagram built on a restaurant tabletop after dinner.

Kick off by letting everyone know that you're here to build a risk list for the project and that you're taking notes on cards and will transcribe them into a document later. Then, get everyone's ideas about project risks. This can be done one of two ways:

  1. Talk about risks. As people talk, write down risks on the index cards, one risk per card. Use the markers so the message may be read easily by everyone around the table. If you get behind, ask someone to help you. Place the cards with risks written on them in the middle of the table.
  2. Silently brainstorm. Ask everyone to grab a few cards and a marker. Then ask your group, WWhat do you believe are risks that could adversely affect the delivery of this project?" Tell them to take a few moments to silently write down the answers on the index cards-one risk per card-and toss the cards in the middle of the table. Let your team know that each risk will be discussed when they're done.

When everyone's done, arrange the pile of index cards in the middle of the table.

Find Similarities by Clustering
You've got a pile of ideas. Now what? Some of the ideas likely are similar to each other, just worded differently. Some of the ideas may be related in some way. We can learn more by clustering the ideas based on affinity.

Ask the group to arrange the cards in a sensible way. Ideas that appear to be the same or closely related should be placed together or near each other; ideas that are not related or more distantly related should be farther apart.
Afterwards, you should have distinct clusters of cards arranged on the table.

During this activity, people should get up and move around. They'll become more animated. Conversations about the risks will involve a lot of pointing and the use of the pronouns such as "this" and "that." Being able to gesture to a card, refer to the risk as "this,"

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