Host remote large group conversations in an easy and fun way

TL DR

AS A Software Craftsman
I WANT TO host a 60 people debate about Test Driven Development (TDD)
SO THAT everybody can learn from other Craftswo/men’s experiences

ACCEPTANCE CRITERIA

  • Online
  • Everybody should be given a chance to participate in the discussion
  • Desirable: make it fun

DEV NOTES

RISK

  • It’s a new concept, so expect people to feel disoriented at first.
    Be sure to get enough help in administering the first sessions.
  • Conversations could tend to drift away from the main topic.
    Agree upfront whether to set boundaries or let conversations take their spins.

Context: CoP and the pandemic

Now we know what that means!

We all had to quickly adapt to this new reality: #stayathome (often alone or parenting 24h), videochat 9 to 5, “Can you hear me m8?”, no body language, no traveling — without forgetting, of course, those who got sick or suffered loss.
The pandemic affected everyone and broke every routine and ritual that we were used to, both at home and at work.

At Cazoo, engineers take their professionalism to heart, and, among other initiatives, manage and run a weekly Community of Practice meeting:

“A Community of Practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or an interest in a topic and who come together to fulfill both individual and group goals.”

The pandemic affected these events too.
We managed to keep our CoP running… We experimented with different formats, eventually settling on those that were most successful.

However, somewhere along the way we lost the dynamism and chaotic interactions of having a bunch of passionate nerds sitting in the same room talking about tech.
The remote meeting tools we have on hand these days — e.g. Google Meet — are well designed for particular scenarios: pairing, team meetings, conferences…
They don’t provide much support for a forum of 60 people trying to debate the peculiarities of TDD.

We needed a solution

Conveniently, in that period, I happened to watch a webinar from the SmartBear folks — around TDD — managed with a fishbowl system: https://cucumber.io/resources/webinars/tdd-roundtable-series

Real life fishbowl

Hey Google! What is a fishbowl conversation?

“A fishbowl conversation is a form of dialog that can be used when discussing topics within large groups. Fishbowl conversations are sometimes also used in participatory events such as unconferences. The advantage of fishbowl is that it allows the entire group to participate in a conversation.”
Wikipedia

A “tight” fishbowl © Petr Kosina https://www.flickr.com/photos/clobrda/3213010068/

How it works

  • Attendees sit in a round fashion
  • A few panelists sit in the middle: the fishbowl
  • The panelists will exchange opinions
  • The attendees will listen the panelists — they are not allowed to talk with the panelists inside the fishbowl
  • One of the panelists will move out of the fishbowl and become an attendee
  • One of the attendees will enter the fishbowl and become a panelist
A visual representation of a real life fishbowl discussion — glass bowl and Mexican wrestlers apart!

Remote fishbowl

The challenge was translating this experience into one of our remote CoP sessions.
The SmartBear webinar was composed by a closed number of less than 10 panelists.
But our CoP sessions have an average of 50 participants.

To solve the problem, we built this Miro board.

Where all the fun happens…

Setup

  • A Master of Ceremonies will schedule a video call and prepare the board
  • Attendees will join the call
  • Attendees will add their avatars to “The Stand” section of the board, forming the Audience
  • Attendees can bring a Topic to the session by adding a ticket on “The Topic Board”

Booting up

  • Once a few Topics have been collected, or when the forum is happy to move to the next topic, the MC will create a voting session
  • The MC will move the top-voted topic into the fishbowl
  • The Topic creator will take a seat in “The Host” chair
  • The MC will will start a timer e.g. 10 mins
  • The Host will present the topic

The conversation routine

  • Attendees will move their avatars into empty seats in the fishbowl, and become Panelists
  • Panelists will discuss the topic with the Host
  • Attendees in “The Stand” will mute their mic and use the Miro chat functionality to interact with panelist
  • Panelists will democratically give space for other Attendees to join the conversation by consciously leaving a free seat at all times

This loop repeats, hopefully allowing for everyone to take part in the discussion

In the meantime, Attendees can move towards the right side of “The Stand” to express their interest in the conversation.

Ending the loop

When time is up, the MC can extend time for three minutes if there’s clear engagement with the topic.
Otherwise, the topic can be binned, and the process of starting a new conversation will take place.

What we learned from the experience

The remote fishbowl discussion is a new format, so expect people not being comfortable with what is happening.
It would probably be good for the MC to take the Attendees through a dry run initially.

Anyhow, the MC will be quite busy policing chat and microphones, especially during the first few sessions: it’s best if they can focus mainly on supporting the session and will likely need a little extra help.

There’s a good chance your conversation will drift away from its initial topic.
You might want to agree how you will deal with these situations upfront:

  • We agreed our conversations to not be goal oriented, therefore we have been relaxed about it and let the conversation take us where it wanted to go.
  • If you’re trying to resolve an issue, you might want to be a bit more goal-oriented and set some clear boundaries on the topic under discussion.
  • A halfway solution could be to find the underlying topic across a few voted tickets and keep the conversation around that.

Wrap up

We’ve run a few remote fishbowl discussions so far. And we’ve received some pretty good feedback:

“I find that fishbowl discussions are the best of both worlds, it allows me the flexibility to sit back and formulate my thoughts while also keeping the discussion very laser-focused and on topic” Moujib Aghrout, Software Engineer at Cazoo

We talked quite extensively about TDD and testing strategies, Domain Driven Design (DDD) and event storming, getting to know more about various techniques and sharing experiences.
Watch this space for future posts on these topics.

It was fun, it was interesting and there was always good participation. Sometimes we had a hard time kicking everybody out!

Do you think this format could be interesting for you?
Have you used it already in the past?
Let us know in the comments!

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