Use timeboxing and roman voting to keep the conversation focused
Roman Voting Illustration

Use timeboxing and roman voting to keep the conversation focused

As a retrospective facilitator and leader, one issue you will face time and again is keeping the conversation focused. Even if you use a consensus-based facilitation technique like dot voting to enable the group to pick the topic(s) that they want to discuss, people have a tendency to “go down rabbit holes” or start talking about other things.

So what do you do?

Keep in mind that as a facilitator it’s not up to you whether the group has gotten off topic. It’s up to the group. Your job is to give the group the tools to enable them to decide whether they’ve gotten off topic, and if so, to help redirect them.

Here’s my favorite way of doing that. Set a ground rule that conversations will be timeboxed. Even just by itself, timeboxing can help groups stay focused. By setting a timebox, many groups will naturally stay more focused on the topic at hand because they are aware that there is a time limit to their discussion. These groups self regulate.

But. Be careful! Many new facilitators make a classic mistake with timeboxing: they enforce the timebox as a rule. In other words, at the end of the timebox, they tell the team: “time’s up! let’s move on to the next topic!” If the team is in the middle of a good discussion, this can not only be distracting, it can derail the flow of the conversation.

So, if you aren’t supposed to enforce the timebox, what should you do when the timebox is up and the group is still talking?

That’s where roman voting comes in.

Roman voting is simple: at the end of a timebox, have each person in the group do one of three things:

  1. Give a thumbs up 👍 to indicate they want to keep talking about the current topic
  2. Give a thumbs down 👎 to indicate they want to move on to the next topic
  3. Give a horizontal thumb 👍 to indicate they could go either way (they don’t have a strong opinion)

Once everyone has roman voted, take a look around the room. If there is interest in continuing the conversation, reset the timebox for a slightly shorter duration (if the initial timebox was 10 minutes, try 7 minutes next time. If the initial timebox was 5 minutes, try 3 minutes next time. And so on).

You can repeat this process of timeboxing + roman voting as many times as necessary until the conversation naturally comes to a halt, or the group indicates it is ready to move on.

What’s neat about roman voting is that it can happen in the flow of the conversation. Once the group understands how roman voting works, there’s no need to interrupt the discussion. The group will learn to roman vote while the conversation is happening!