In the Fishbowl

Recently I tweeted about a fishbowl we conducted at the Business Analysis Workshop of the Better Software conference. Some tweeps weren’t familiar with the fishbowl format, so I thought I’d explain how I like to do fishbowls.

Fishbowl Discussion at BA Workshop, Better Software conference

Fishbowls are a good format for a panel discussion where you want to involve the whole audience, as well as a panel of pre-selected experts.

Put some chairs in the center of the room. They can face each other or, if the room isn’t set up for everyone to sit in a circle, face the audience. The number of chairs depends on the size of your audience. An average for a group of 20 people is five chairs. You’ll start with only four of the chairs occupied. Arrange the rest of the chairs in the room in a circle or semi-circle around the fishbowl.

If you have pre-selected panelists, have them sit down in the chairs leaving one chair empty. The rules are simple: anyone in the room can come sit in the empty chair. When that happens, someone else on the panel has to get up and return to the audience. Panelists may come and go by sitting in the empty chair whenever they want to join the debate.

The audience doesn’t participate actively in the discussion. You have to sit in the empty chair to start contributing to the discussion. The beauty of the fishbowl is that the audience gets to hear a variety of viewpoints, and anyone in the audience can choose to participate.

I’ve used fishbowls for panel discussions of controversial topics. Jean Tabaka recently facilitated a “Kanban vs. Scrum” fishbowl debate at Better Software, and allowed people to contribute via Twitter, as well. I’ve also used them for workshops where the participants are trying to come up with new ideas about a topic. For example, I might use a fishbowl format for a workshop where we try to think of better ways for development teams to elicit requirements from their customers. For my starting panel, I might choose people such as Elisabeth Hendrickson, Antony Marcano, Gojko Adzic and Jennitta Andrea, who are recognized experts in using customer-facing tests to drive development. They’re bound to have some good experiences to relate. But there’d also be a roomful of practitioners who have their own ideas and experiences, and with a fishbowl format, we get to hear from everyone.

Try a fishbowl at your next local user group meeting. It’s a great way for everyone to contribute, and it produces lots of valuable ideas from a variety of viewpoints.

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