Thursday, June 7, 2012

Senior Management in the Fishbowl

One of the courses I regularly facilitate is “Agile Leadership”, a one day course for senior management and executives which aims to impart both fundamental understanding of practices and a sense of servant leadership at senior levels.  It is my favourite course and by far the most challenging.  I like it because it’s light on structure and gives the freedom to make it unique for each group, but that freedom also makes it a little like riding a wild horse (or a herd of them in some cases).

I’m always on the lookout for new facilitation ideas, but find that with some of the best you read the book and think “wow, that sounds great but could I really do it with a room full of senior management”.  One of the best things about good conferences is getting the chance to see other people put what you’ve read about into practice, and I find Jean Tabaka in particular fills me with inspiration every time I come into contact with her.

At the recent RallyOn conference, Jean facilitated a “fishbowl” to kick off the final day open space.    If you haven’t seen one, the purpose is to create intimate, deep and involving conversation with a large group of people.  5-6 chairs are place in a circle in the middle of the group and all but one of the chairs are seeded with people to start the conversation.  If you’re in the audience and want to join the conversation, you walk up and sit in the empty chair and someone else has to “vote themselves off the island” and vacate their chair.

When it started, there were 200 or so in the audience, and the 5 starting voices in the chairs were all serious thoughtleaders (Jean Tabaka, Christopher Avery, George Kembel, John Kembel and Ryan Martens).  I looked at it and thought “who on earth is going to take that empty chair knowing they have to displace people of that calibre”.  Jean seeded a conversation starter and sure enough, for 3-4 minutes it was just a bouncing conversation in the middle – but then the first brave voice joined it.  From then on it was almost surreal.  The conversation flowed, it was intimate, people joined and left every few minutes and the audience hung on every word.

So, of course I came home and started thinking about where I could use it.  In the leadership course, the afternoon is structured as a series of small group discussions.  An “agile dilemma” such as disempowered product owners is displayed, and the groups have 15 minutes or so to discuss how they would respond as senior leaders followed by a “debrief with a servant leadership topup”.  Sometimes the discussions are superb, and sometimes they’re far from it.  In some cases one of the tables just has the wrong dynamic to explore it fruitfully and sits silently after 5 minutes while other tables continue, in others people struggle with being asked to explore soft-skills when they’re expecting a recipe on how to manage agile programs. 

Normally, groups are small but I knew at the time I had a couple of large groups coming through and had been quite concerned over how to ensure a good afternoon of breakout discussions.  So I decided to try the fishbowl, and I loved it.  In the first course, it generated the richest conversation I had yet seen.  The focus in the room was intense as people concentrated on hearing the discussion, the discussion itself was intimate and engaged, the dynamic was great as people moved in and out of the conversation and I stood at the back of the room in awe.  What I loved most was that I had to add very little agile influence in the summary for each topic, the groups had drawn it out themselves.

So the second time I tried it, I decided I’d cheated by adding a debrief myself.  I made myself a participant just like everyone else in the class.  If I wanted to add something,  I moved into a chair.  When I was in the chair,  I added by questioning rather than by answering and exited as fast as I could.  In essence, I spent most of the afternoon where my only contribution as a facilitator rather than as part of the group was to pick the next scenario to discuss.  The result was so rich I was blown away. 

I spent the next few days trying to think through why it was so powerful.  Some answers were obvious.  Those with the most to contribute were able to speak to the whole room rather than just their table, but also to do it without “public speaking” or “presenting” – just naturally in conversation.  But the aspect I feel was most powerful was that the message did not come from “the agile guy at the front of the room”, it came from within.  Insights that would have been difficult to accept from me were far easier to accept from their own management group. 

All I did was provide a place, a time and an atmosphere for the right conversation to happen.  Thanks Jean for yet another inspiration.


  1. Great post! Would love to hear how you seeded the conversation to start? What was the topic that was the focus for the fishbowl?

    1. G'day Michelle,

      I actually use multiple seeds. I have a list of 20 or so scenarios to draw on, and based on what I've learnt about the group during the morning I usually pick 4 to 5. Not all are suitable for fishbowl, so I've been running 1-2 in fishbowl mode, then putting a non-fishbowl one into the mix before returning to the fishbowl. Each tends to naturally run 15-20 minutes or so, and when the moment is obvious that it's time to move on I empty out the chairs and look for people who haven't joined yet to seed the next conversation. I do have two favourite "go-to" starters though. The first involves a situation in which a team is being crippled by a disempowered Product Owner and asking for help, and the second digs into how to deal with a team that is struggling with taking on self-organisation and continues to consult management for decisions on everything. Both tend to be rich, particularly the second once we get into how a senior manager coaches their junior managers in how to deal with the situation.