Repost - What can you learn from a Fishbowl?

2020-07-20 This post is over 2 years old

A Career in the Know Stage focuses on sharing and increasing the knowledge of your fellows. So last week, I shared the example of my mentor, who would teach as soon as he had learned himself. Moving further in that line, we often need tools to help us take a first step in a scary direction. And the humility to teach as soon as you’ve learned is certainly such a one.

Today, I’d like to lift a Liberating Structure to your attention. These tools are a set of meeting formats designed to empower your meetings, by leveraging the best in every attendee. They often do this by spreading and democratizing participation in novel ways. The User Experience Fishbowl is such a one. I first used it as a training aide to allow veterans to pour into initiates without having to lecture. Here’s what happened:

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!

One thing I am not sure came across in the original post, was the very human connection from the stories shared. The knowledge shared from raw experience was potent, but I realized that using the Liberating Structure this way also forged stronger connections for those joining the system, than I would have guessed. Those who had started the initiative became closer knit to each other and to those joining our cause.

Recalling my epiphany from last week, I’d like to echo another statement I made in the original post. ‘You don’t have to be a veteran to run the fishbowl’. To paraphrase: you just need to be curious. This means that if you are brave enough you can arrange for this kind of a meeting to elevate a wide group of your peers, even if you are not able to teach them yourself! This is an excellent example of both leading yourself, and leading when you are not in charge! Do not be intimidated by the fact you do not know, or that the team does not come to you to learn. Be Courageous! Take that first scary step, to elevate yourself and others with you. Don’t be afraid to plant the seeds.