Red Cards

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One of the best facilitation tools I own. How to get a group out of a rat-hole & back on track without personal confrontation and minimal effort.

Name: The Red Card

Concept: When a group is in discussion on a particular topic they can often disappear down “rat holes” or off onto tangents. Every member of an agile team is empowered to “red card” a conversation that they feel is going off track. The group as a whole typically rapidly decide whether the red card is warranted or not.

Usage: I ensure that plenty of of small (playing card sized) red cards are available in the team rooms. To introduce them to a team that haven’t used them before, I will usually take a large session such as release planning and introduce the concept of red cards as part of the facilitation tools and ground rules at the start of a session. What I tell the teams is:

“Whilst I’m facilitating, I tend to get drawn into the conversations and need hauling out, especially if I start ranting. Therefore the red cards are required primarily to shut me up – although feel free to use them on each other too!”

Once a member of the team first uses a red card, that’s it – the lid is off. Expect use of cards to take off rapidly. (see “breaking the seal – part 2“).

Background: Chances are this has been used before me elsewhere in the world, but this is a tool I introduced to my teams after returning from Agile 2009. During one of the evening sessions there was a panel discussion. Questions were submitted in advance and each panelist had 2 minutes to discuss. After the whole panel had their say, the audience were given an opportunity to vote. On every seat was a large red and green paddle. If we wanted the discussion to continue we voted green. If we wanted to stop and move on, we voted red.

When I got back to Cambridge I introduced it during some training I was running. I “borrowed” my eldest daughter’s red & green art straws. There were a few “hot spots” on the course where 1 or 2 attendees would lose track. We had a great team who immediately raised a red straw. They enjoyed calling each other out so much that we had red straw warfare at one point!

After using the same in a couple more sessions it became clear the green straws weren’t needed. The red ones were getting tatty so I raided the stationary cupboard for some red card instead, cut this into pieces about the right size to hold up visibly and planted a few in the team rooms. These are now the social norm for facilitators on many teams worldwide but probably not well-known outside the company I’m at right now.

Impact: Of all the tools I’ve used over the last 2 years this one seems to have had one of the greatest impacts on teams and the most viral spread within the organization I work with. Even the management team now red card each other and they don’t even have the cards in the room. Like all good verbal anchors, everyone now knows what “red card” means during discussions. Better still – even on difficult teams I’ve not yet seen anyone use red cards in a socially unacceptable way.

Try red cards out on your next big retrospective – you might want a stooge to break the seal first of all and chances are you’ll need to set yourself up as the first target but once the team have been through this once, facilitating meetings will become more of a team sport than a job for you.

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