Collaborating in a Fishbowl

I am a huge fan of progressive in-person session formats, especially when they are participatory rather than passive. This blog has covered High-Impact Storytelling (by Nancy Dixon) and Buzz Sessions (by yours truly).  Fishbowls are the latest format to peak my interest.  In her blog post titled “Unpredictable by Nature“, @kikilitalien links to a wikipedia entry on fishbowls.

There are a few variations, but the gist is that there is both an inner circle of chairs and an outer circle.  The outer circle is listening to the inner circle’s discussion.  The best way to make it participatory is to leave one of the inner circle chairs open so that a member of the outer circle can take it periodically.  When this happens, some member of the inner circle must move to the outer circle so that one chair remains open.

There are several things that I love about this format

  • It allows for shy passive learners to remain in the outer circle and just listen
  • It allows for selected experts to set the tone for the inner circle
  • Inner circle “experts” are likely to ask each other different, deeper, more-probing questions, than an audience would ask of a panel
  • The “open” inner circle where a seat is left open allows for outer circle members with a particularly relevant expertise to jump in and provide fresh perspectives

I plan to promote this format at events where I have some influence and will keep everyone posted as to my thoughts after actually experiencing one.  If you have tried it, please share your thoughts.

UPDATE 2/7: Thanks to @samueljsmith I experienced a fishbowl at EventCamp10.  I thought the experience was very interesting.  The group was extremely engaged and the seats changed over well.  The biggest challenge to me was that when a new person joins the circle it is because something has sparked their interest that they want to respond to or build on.  By the time it is their turn to speak, the conversation has moved on.  This leads to a very disjointed conversation where each person is not responding to the person who just spoke.


5 responses to “Collaborating in a Fishbowl

  1. Olivia Mitchell

    Hi Swan

    I’ve been part of fishbowls a few times. It was a few years ago when I was part of a community (Heart Politics) of 80-100 people. We used to meet twice a year for several days at a time. So we knew each other well and trusted and respected each other. In that context, the fishbowl worked brilliantly.


  2. Thanks Olivia. I am part of a group that is very bi-modal when it comes to level of knowledge about the subject. We get quite a lot of very early learners and quite a lot of multi-decade professionals. We just ran a Cafe style discussion event last night and I find it is always a struggle to have a conversation that will satisfy both.

    The fishbowl might be a good way for the newbies to learn and the crusties to collaborate.

  3. Olivia Mitchell

    I love your description of your bi-modal group!

  4. Hi Swan,

    I agree with Olivia’s assessment of the fishbowl. Also, I think that it works well when there is no real expert on a subject and people bring a wide variety of issues concerns and interests.

    At EventCamp, I am hoping that we will have a mix of people that respect each other and know each other AND people that come with new and different ideas and perspectives.

    See you in a few days.

    – Sam

  5. Pingback: Event Camp 2010 . learnings from outside the fishbowl « READY2SPARK

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