What can you learn from a Fishbowl?

2019-06-03 This post is over 2 years old

I recently ran a training to bring new recruits into an existing system. Given the nature of the work I wanted the veterans to be able to share their experience. But I didn’t want them to be lecturing. I wanted the recruits to see both the good and the bad of the system. I wanted them to learn from an unfiltered experience, if possible.

Since this was ‘Distribute Information’-type Meeting, I turned to Liberating Structures for help. One format that caught my attention was the ‘User Experience Fishbowl’. The base of the structure is creating two groups, those in the fishbowl, and those outside. The inner group are the veterans. You ask them to discuss the good, bad and ugly of whatever topic is at hand. Focus them on open communication and concrete instances. The outer group observes and later asks questions.

As I have come to expect of Liberating Structures, this format produced wonderful dividends. Even though I ran it with less time and some modifications. The hardest part was getting the veterans started in a genuine conversation. Admittedly, the structure can feel a little odd at first. But with careful facilitation, I was able to get the group of 6 or so people talking to one another. I found the most success by asking follow-up or elaboration questions. These allowed the speaker to expand on a subject. Or I could bounce the topic to another speaker when I knew they’d had a related experience. That said, one doesn’t need to be one of the veterans to run a Fishbowl. You only need to be curious, and to ask good questions.

For the second phase, the format calls for questions submitted by the Observers. Since I was short on time, I wasn’t able to gather discrete questions before submitting them to the group. Instead I asked observers to raise their hands and I called on them one by one. For the most part this worked well, with several questions revealing new insight. The observers asked The veterans how they might approach a particular problem. Others asked whether they’d seen a particular need. Now, several in the observer group decided to offer their own insights and remarks on the topics. And that’s not strictly in keeping with the Structure. But many valuable ideas came in this way. It opened a door for the observers to pour back into the veterans.

Overall, I ran the fishbowl in about 30 minutes, with 15 minutes spend in each phase. If you ever find the need to rapidly spread experience with a group, consider a fishbowl. You’ll be happy you did!