A Powerful Poster

We’ve seen the “motivational posters” on office walls.  These can be very valuable.  They also can be a target for snickers and dirision.  There’s even an entire market for “demotivational” posters!

The best way to make sure a poster has value for your company or team is to start out with good information.  Platitudes don’t cut it.  Real value from the information is the best measure of good content.  Let me tell you about the most powerful poster we have in our office.

Some time ago I encountered the presentation “I don’t like Mondays” presented at Agile 2007 by Jean Tabaka.  Her presentation is an excellent summary of great things that energize meetings of all kinds, and Agile meetings in particular.  (After you read this post, go watch the video.  It is well worth your time!)

In the presentation, Jean provided the content for our poster as a “Focus On / Focus Off” list about communication.  A picture of the poster is to the right, hanging in our main meeting room.  The simplicity of the content belies it’s power:

Focus On / Focus Off

Inquiry rather than Advocacy

Dialogue rather than Debate

Conversation rather than Argument

Understanding rather than Defending


We found that hard decisions in our meetings led to some conflict.  Conflict is to be expected, even desired, in creative work.  Passionate and creative people will have conflicts if they are effectively engaged.  The trick is working through the conflicts such that the customer and the team are happy with the results and each other.  An Agile team needs to learn tools of compromise, knowledge transfer and empathy to get through the conflicts that will come.

One particularly contentious Sprint Planning meeting bothered me as we proceeded into the Sprint.    We had simply postponed some of the difficult decisions because the logjam of opinion was impenetrable.  (Everyone was civil but feelings were strong.)  As we approached the end of the Sprint, I worried about the Retrospective and the planning to take place after that.  How could we quell the conflict enough to make decisions without damaging the team?

One evening, during the last few days of the Sprint, I found the video of Jean’s presentation.  I had to try this “Focus On / Focus Off” discussion!  I wrote the title and described how our internal focus changes the context of our communication.  I then wrote each “rather than” pair one at a time and asked a team member what that pair meant to him.  I then asked another team member how one would act or speak if focused on the left word and then on the right word.  I did this with each pair of words, discussion their meaning and effects.  I then asked that we each do our best to focus on the words to the left as we work through the retrospective and planning.  I then taped the easel page to the wall as a reminder.

The feel in the room softened, opened as we had this discussion.  Yes, that sounds all “warm and fuzzy” but it is true! The Retrospective was excellent and the Sprint Planning meeting that shortly followed was very fruitful.


Can a poster have such power?  If you have a Scrum Team willing to work for the better of the project, for the customer, it can.  We each need occasional reminders about what open communication really means.  A reminder that our thoughts are valid and need not block all other ideas to retain validity.

Today, more than a year later, the hand written poster hangs on the wall right where it was first taped up.  It still helps us to disagree, learn and grow.  And work with each other the next day!

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