The history of K-Cards

The History of K-cards – a Revolution in Peer Conference Facilitation

Before I can talk about the “K-cards” I feel it is necessary to explain how I became a facilitator of peer conferences. If you just want to read about the K-cards then please just skip down to that section. In this post, when I refer to a peer conference I am talking about conferences that are based on LAWST (the Los Altos Workshop on Software Testing).

How I Became a Facilitator

In September of 2004 I was very excited to be attending my third peer conference, WOPR3 (Workshop on Performance and Reliability). I have to admit that one of the main reasons for my excitement toward WOPR3 was that Cem Kaner was going to be the facilitator and I wished to meet this testing legend in person. I had previously attended WOPRs 1 & 2 where I met wonderful, passionate people, learned a lot about performance testing, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The first two WOPRs were facilitated by James Bach and it was absolutely fantastic to spend three days with him and watch him “work the room.”

Three days before WOPR3 was scheduled to begin we received an email from Cem apologetically informing us that due to hurricane Ivan he was unable to leave Florida and consequently would be unable to attend/facilitate WOPR. Although I am sure that being in Florida with hurricane Ivan passing directly overhead was a significant event in Cem’s life, Ivan was to become the single event that would shape my testing career more than any other (except perhaps my first meeting with Ross Collard at a testing conference in Ottawa, Canada in 2000, which was the first step of moving my testing “in the right direction”).

Ross Collard, co-founder of WOPR and the content owner of WOPR3, contacted the three other people on the invitee list who had any LAWST-style conference experience. All three of us had attended WOPRs 1 & 2 – but that was it for our experience. I volunteered to facilitate as I felt that it was something that I would be able to do. After some discussion it was decided that we would start with me as the facilitator; then, when I started to struggle, one of the other two would take over – and we would just cycle through the three of us, as required.

I ended up facilitating the entire 3-day workshop and immediately following Ross asked me to facilitate WOPR4. Since that time I have facilitated over 35 peer conferences/workshops, including all subsequent WOPRs and all CAST conferences (technically not LAWST-style, but very much adapted from LAWST-style) in addition to many others.

One of the best compliments of my facilitation was during a meeting in 2007 with Cem Kaner and Michael Kelly just before WOC2 (Workshop on Open Certification). During the conversation Cem, seemingly out of the blue, looked at me and asked, “So, what does it feel like to be the most sought after facilitator of peer conferences?”  Up until that point I had thought that I was “good” but I had no idea that I had achieved “most sought after” status.

I had never received any formal training in facilitation. I watched James Bach facilitate the first two WOPRs and, later, Scott Barber facilitate two WTSTs (Workshop on Teaching Software Testing). It appeared that I just had a knack for facilitating peer conferences.

OK. That’s enough about me and how I began facilitating.


How K-Cards Were Invented

One of the elements that have made WOPR the most “successful” peer conferences was the use of feedback in the first few years. The feedback was in the form of surveys sent after each WOPR where participants were asked to provide their comments all aspects of the workshop so we could improve the complete WOPR experience. A lot of excellent improvements have come out of those surveys and I thank Ross Collard for his huge efforts creating them, compiling the feedback, and encouraging the organizers to implement improvements.

During WOPR4 one of the “improvements” I felt I had made was the use of hand signs. For example, pointing at the centre of my left hand with my right index finger meant I wanted to talk on the “same thread”. I had signs for “new thread”, “same thread”, and “remove me from the thread list”. I felt that the signs were VERY simple and they definitely helped me keep control of the thread stack without interrupting the meeting.

Just before WOPR5 (which I was hosting in September 2005 at my office of Alcatel-Lucent in Ottawa, Canada) I was reviewing some of the feedback from WOPR4. I was shocked to read that one of the participants had found my hand signs were “too confusing”. I immediately started thinking that this “anonymous feedback” person must be a few bricks short of a full load. How could someone think my signs were too confusing? I was at a loss as to how to make the situation “less confusing” so I did the logical thing: I complained to my wife, Karen. I wasn’t really seeking her advice; I just wanted to complain to someone about the participant who made the comment. I just wanted to vent my frustrations.

In response to my rant my wife responded with a simple question. A question that has changed the face of peer conferences more than anything else I am aware of in the past 10 years. She said, “Why don’t you just have them hold up coloured cards? A different colour for each action.”  I immediately recognized the simple elegance of the solution.

On September 8, 2005 K-Cards were introduced for the first time. The name was suggested by Scott Barber, a co-founder of WOPR. I had told him that my wife had said she did not want credit nor did she feel credit was necessary for the idea. Scott felt that we had to credit Karen for the idea, so he suggested the name “K-Cards” to attribute the idea to her without specifically identifying her as the creator.

The cards were an immediate success. The feedback was overwhelming positive from WOPR5. Scott Barber used the K-Cards for the second time in a conference he facilitated in January 2006. Since then the K-Cards have been used in well over 50 peer workshops and conferences. Now, only 7 years since their introduction, I find it hard to imagine a facilitated conference without them.

Much to my surprise, up until September 2012 the original four cards and their colour selection are still being used:

·         Green: Please place me on the new thread list
·         Yellow: Pleas place me on the same thread list
·         Red (or pink): Oooh, oooh, I must speak now (or important admin issue: e.g.: I can’t hear)
·         Blue (or purple): I feel this discussion is becoming (or has become) a rat hole. – This one is not used at larger conferences.

There was a very brief period of time (at two CAST conferences), where the yellow and green cards were mistakenly switched but we have since managed to fix that.


A New K-Card Colour is Born (Maybe)

In September, 2012 at WOPR19 we decided to try to implement a new K-Card. Eric Proegler, one of the WOPR organizers, made the suggestion for the new card.

We tried to have an orange card which was to be held up as a sign of agreement with what someone is saying. Eric thought of it as a “Like” or a “+1” card. Although I can’t say that the orange card was a raving success on its first use there was some good aspects to it. I, personally, found it a little distracting when the card was held up as it is the only card which is not a sign to the facilitator but rather it’s a sign of agreement to the speaker. The participants also didn’t use the cards as much as I thought they would. Despite the limited success of the card, I think we will try to use it again at WOPR20. Perhaps it would be more applicable to larger conferences like Let’s Test or CAST. Only time will tell.

Instructor of Rapid Software Testing courses. Context-driven software testing consultant. 17+ years of experience in software testing

11 comments on “The history of K-Cards
  1. Maria Kedemo says:

    I think the K-cards are genius! Your wife finally got some written credit for her idea though I’ve heard the story a couple of times.
    It’s great that you are finally blogging and I envoyed reading about your journey in becoming The Facilitator. 🙂
    You inspired me to try it out at Let’s Test last year and it is quite exhausting but fun. And more difficult then it seems to be. You do an awesome job in facilitating!

    • Paul Holland says:

      Thank you for the very kind words! I agree with you about how tiring it is to facilitate. That was the aspect that surprised me the most after WOPR3 and 4. There are very few opportunities to rest when you are facilitating.
      I am surprised at how much I am enjoying blogging. I have a few more ideas so there should be more to come soon.

  2. Erik Davis says:

    Very nice write up about the k-card system you (and your wife) created. I hadn’t heard of the blue cards before, but then again, I only learned of the system of at CAST this year. I introduced your system at the tester discussions we started at my office and it worked put pretty well (especially since none of us are trained facilitators).

    I’ll have to try out Eric’s orange card too. I’m glad to see he’s still contributing to the community.

    • Paul Holland says:

      Thanks for your comment.
      The K-Cards are my system (as is Just-in-time facilitation) but the overall structure of clarifying questions and open season is from the LAWST conferences.
      Please let me know how the orange cards work out.

  3. Great to see you writing, Paul! I still vividly remember the facilitation introduction at Let’s Test 2012, which I had to attend twice because I missed the first half the first time.
    Anyway, just wanted to encourage you to continue writing.

    As a side note: Your captchas don’t like my interpretation and react like divas. Seriously!

  4. Erik Davis says:

    One small recommended addition to the system:

    I discovered in doing a color test with several of my team members here that the neon yellow and neon green cards (like those used at CAST) are nearly indistinguishable for people with certain types of color-blindness. To help, I added the name of the card (new thread, same thread, etc.) to the bottom of the card.

    • Paul Holland says:

      Thanks for the comment Erik. I do recommend to anyone who can not determine the colours easily that they write on the cards to help them determine which card to hold up. I should have mentioned that in my post. As long as each person holds up the correct colour and the facilitator can determine the colours, then there should be no issues. I’m not sure if someone could successfully facilitate using the K-card method while being colour blind. They would likely need to have different cards (like ones with big letters on them).

      • Erik Davis says:

        Paul, I hadn’t thought of the case of a colorblind facilitator, we’ve only encountered colorblind participants. I would agree that more work may be required to accommodate a colorblind facilitator (but not that much), but pre-labeling the cards didn’t take all that long.

        Thanks again for the system, it works really well.

  5. Reha says:

    I really want to know if you have figured out a way to facilitate virtual conferences using K cards or something similar.

    • Paul Holland says:

      I have never tried this but I think you could ask the participants to type the word “green” or “yellow” in the chat section of the virtual conference when they have a comment or question.

      As the facilitator works through the stack they can call upon the participants in an order similar to what I have described.

      As long as the participants cooperate I think this method would work.


  6. toantuduyhvo says:

    The track sessions were in typical peer conference style, with around forty minutes for the presentation followed by around twenty minutes of “open season” (facilitated question and answer time, following the K-cards approach)

17 Pings/Trackbacks for "The history of K-Cards"
  1. Sowing Seeds says:

    […] will get cards (K-Cards) to allow for facilitated participation at the end of each talk and keynote, USE […]

  2. […] presentation of the speaker and the open season questions in good order. We use K-cards for this as explained in this blog post from Paul Holland. The Green, Red, and Blue cards are easy to deal with, but dealing with the Yellow cards is a […]

  3. […] days, Paul well-known as the person who has developed our community’s current facilitation techniques, and the expert that could take this methodology out into the world at large. At WOPR3 in 2004, […]

  4. […] has written a post here telling the long story of the K-Cards. And Simon `Peter´ Schrijver also wrote about facilitating a […]

  5. […] discussions. If you want to know more about K-Cards, check out this blog by Paul Holland – The history of K-Cards The opening keynote was in a word, […]

  6. […] will be using the now well-known concept of “K-cards” to structure the dicsussion, and the idea is that the topic is debated until we deem it finished, […]

  7. […] Facilitator: There is an opportunity to ask questions using K-cards. More information can be found here. […]

  8. […] and answers. This Q&A will focus on the serie Smart Use of Spreadsheets of Mindful Tester.   K-cards will be used in order to structure the flow of […]

  9. […] interrupt one another or try to prioritize their own message or perspective over that of others. K-Cards are a tool used to manage the question and answer portion of a session. These color-coded cards […]

  10. […] questions (yellow cards), plus quite a few legit red cards. So for those of you familiar with the k-cards facilitation system, you can tell that this wasn’t a quiet group who only wanted to listen to others speak. Which […]

  11. […] twenty minutes of “open season” (facilitated question and answer time, following the K-cards […]

  12. […] interrupt one another or try to prioritize their own message or perspective over that of others. K-Cards are a tool used to manage the question and answer portion of a session. These color-coded cards […]

  13. […] The conference itself was quite traditional in its format, consisting of a first day of tutorials followed by a single conference day formed of book-ending keynotes sandwiching one-hour track sessions. The track sessions were in typical peer conference style, with around forty minutes for the presentation followed by around twenty minutes of “open season” (facilitated question and answer time, following the K-cards approach).. […]

  14. […] the presentation, we initiated a k-card facilitated discussion about a broad collection of thoughts and reactions to that presentation and the general topic for […]

  15. […] During a recent XKE we came up with the idea to do a peer conference. The topic of the conference was the consultancy work that we do. We all have our own approach and experience, so there is always a lot we can learn from each other. At the conference we experimented with using K-Cards. […]

  16. […] The event consisted of a first day of workshops followed by a single conference day formed of book-ending keynotes sandwiching one-hour track sessions. The track sessions were in typical AST/peer conference style, with around forty minutes for the presentation followed by around twenty minutes of “open season” (facilitated question and answer time, following the K-cards approach). […]

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