Turning a fishbowl into an aquarium — Facilitating a fishbowl across three sites with 140 people

Sebastian Barney - Agile Coach

Recently we were presented with the challenge of facilitating a single conversation between an estimated 200-people across three locations. The purpose was to have the participants discuss and reflect on our organisation’s values so that they are better placed to hold themselves and their teams to account with respect to these values.

The fishbowl technique jumped out at us as one way to facilitate this conversation. A fishbowl enables a conversation in a large group by having an inner circle of people who can talk, surrounded by an outer circle of people listening. People can move freely between the two circles, but there is a limit on the number of people in the inner talking circle at any one time to allow for a more meaningful conversation.

In this article we describe our experience facilitating a large-scale distributed fishbowl, and provide instructions to help others facilitate their own.

Our concept of the large distributed fishbowl is presented in the figure below. We have the inner and outer circles, but they are split across three sites using video conferencing link.

Our fishbowl design

The design of the fishbowl session ultimately took into account many factors. Some of the factors that led to this design were within our control, while others were not — such as the number of microphones we could use. We used an eight-person open fishbowl across the three locations. The physical set-up is shown in the figure below.

The inner circle

Our fishbowl catered for a conversation with eight people in the inner circle — four people at the largest site, and two people at each of the smaller sites. While we discussed having up to eight people in the circle regardless of their location, we felt the logistics of facilitating this outcome would be too onerous. Further, we felt the optics of so many empty chairs could be disengaging. With hindsight we feel this was the right decision.

In an open fishbowl one seat is kept free to allow listeners to join the conversation. Thus we had one additional seat in each location. At each location we adopted the first-in, first-out rule — meaning the person who has been in the circle the longest at that location needs to leave should all of the seats be taken at that location.

We wanted to allow for a minimum of two people at any one location so that we could hear different perspectives from a single location on a topic. We allowed more people at one of the locations to reflect the number of people in that location.

In the location with the greatest number of people we included seats to represent the seats in the other locations as part of the inner circle with signs indicating the locations they represented. While participation from all locations was high, it helped emphasise the distributed nature of the broader team.

Digital participation from the outer circle

We recognised that it would not be possible for everyone to speak in this forum in the one hour we had allocated for the session. Further, we recognised many people find speaking in public difficult. To enable higher participation and engagement we used a digital tool that allowed people to post comments, which appeared on a screen across the locations in real time. This was actively used, and people found it engaging, without being too distracting.

Our rules

When we introduced the fishbowl, we did so with nine rules. These rules were illustrated and posted on the walls in each location.

Facilitator roles

To ensure the success and smooth running of the event, we divided ourselves into a number of different roles:

  • Topic facilitator: Responsible for introducing the topic, and facilitating the discussion across the three sites.
  • Local facilitators: A local facilitator in each site helped set-up the connection, ensured the rules of the fishbowl were observed locally, and interjected when required to ensure the participants at their site had a voice in the conversation. This worked well for us with the local facilitators keeping in contact using real-time chat, and the local facilitator at the site of the topic facilitator acting as a conduit as required.
  • Online forum facilitator: Ensured the smooth running of the service used for real time commenting, including the real-time adding of polls/questions. In our case this person also helped bring some of these comments into the inner circle discussion.
  • Time keeper: The session covered a series of topics, so the time-keeper helped the topic facilitator work through the agenda.
  • Camera operator: The equipment in one of the sites required a camera operator.

While several of these roles were taken on by a single person, it was our experience and recommendation that the topic facilitator does not take on another role. The topic facilitator needs to be actively listening to the conversation to undertake the role effectively, and this is difficult to do while worrying about the logistics of the event.

Reflections

The session got great feedback from those who were present. People felt connected across the three locations. While people were initially skeptical about the fishbowl, the session had a good energy and people were engaged throughout across all of the locations.

Having a focused topic facilitator was key. There were a lot of logistics required to make this event work, and allowing the topic facilitator to actively listen to the conversation allowed for a richer and more meaningful conversation.

Having local facilitators helped make sure people had their voice heard. The local facilitators dealt with the logistics of cameras, and microphones, and made sure the rules of the fishbowl were followed and interjected when someone at their location wasn’t getting their voice heard.

For a number of people speaking in front of a large audience was daunting. This was most obvious in the location with the greatest number of people. The digital participation helped greatly in this regard, and this received a lot of positive feedback.

If we were to run the session again, there are two changes we would make:

  • Start with an energiser: Our intent would be to get people more comfortable talking with people in the room, and to start the session with a little more energy.
  • More aisles between the outer circle of listeners to make it easier for them to make their way to the inner circle.

In summary

A large scale distributed fishbowl can work, and work well. We believe the factors that lead to our success were:

  • Having a dedicated topic facilitator helped ensure a meaningful conversation.
  • Having local facilitators at each location helped ensure a smooth experience where everyone’s voice was heard.
  • Digital participation through real-time messaging helped give a voice to those who had a small comment, or for whom speaking in front of a large group was daunting.
  • Investing time in advance to understand how the technology worked, and taking these constraints into the session design.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Amy Blackmur, Chris Bordonaro, Ian Ngo, Pragyan Misra, Rasoul Baghban and Sofia Woloschin for helping me with the design and facilitation of this session.