Solutions emerging from a fishbowl

Business meeting photo courtesy of Highways Agency (on Flickr)

I operate on a few principles that get results:

  1. For new solutions, ideas, and strategies to emerge, we need to find a mid-point between order and chaos1.
  2. Asking questions with true curiosity helps us uncover more of the details, more of the system, more of our assumptions, and more possibilities2.
  3. We need to observe our reality before we can effectively change3.

A work group’s leadership asked me to help them address some challenges that had arisen in the ranks. They had faced change in their environments, and these leaders asked me to help them build community, ownership, and resilience.

I designed a retreat that would help the group members share stories, remember and practice tools they had for dealing with change, and build their own action plans. An activity I created4 to help them shift from remembering to practicing positive behaviors utilized these principles of emergence, disciplined questioning, and observation: a “fishbowl” exercise.

In the fishbowl, five volunteers from the group were asked to discuss an issue while the rest of the group silently observed.

I’d asked a member of the leadership team to volunteer for the fishbowl and prepared him for this role ahead of time. He was to present the topic for conversation and ask the other members of the group for help in addressing the problem.

The entire fishbowl group had been charged with exploring the topic, framing the problem in a way that they could actually solve, and begin preparing action steps. They also were given two ground rules: One, to make statements only in response to questions as often as they could, and Two, allow the facilitator (me) to intervene.

Observers had a charge as well: to look for positive evidence of certain positive behaviors–tools for dealing with change that the group had already learned.

After explaining to everyone in the room each set of roles and expectations so that all could visualize the whole, I asked the fishbowl group to begin. They discussed their topic for fifteen minutes without my intervention, and then I asked them to pause in their conversation to check the progress:

  1. “Fishbowl group, what is working so far?”
  2. “Observers, what positive behaviors (tools) in action have you seen so far?”
  3. “Fishbowl group, what could you do to be even more effective?”

When we finished with this five-minute round of questions, the fishbowl participants finished their discussion.

The results were fantastic.

  • The roles and charges for each group had created enough order to hold the chaos of a conversation I could not have predicted.
  • The charge to ask questions had uncovered a plethora of assumptions most in the room had never realized were held.
  • The opportunity to reflect on progress and identify effective steps forward helped them identify for themselves an important path out of confusion, and
  • the presence of observers with the charge to watch for positive behaviors helped the fishbowl participants engage at a more effective level.

You can take advantage of these strategies right away by asking one person in each meeting to watch out for positive behaviors, using any set of tools they are familiar with (such as Covey’s 7 Habits). Ask everyone in the meeting to respect the observer’s role, defer to him/her when the process-check time comes up, and listen with curiosity. Ask the observer to stop the meeting 20-30 minutes in (if it’s an hour-long meeting) to prompt a process check with the three questions outlined above–offering observations in response to question #2.

After a few meetings, and participants have grown accustomed to the presence of the observer/facilitator, you may decide to give the observer/facilitator greater power by asking him/her to stop the group with the same questions and offer positive feedback whenever it seems stuck in an ineffective rut.

What do you think of this idea? Does it sound like something you could try?


1 This principle came to me from the Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations. Read more and register here for training in Ohio.
2 A great resource for this is Michael Marquart’s book on Action Learning.
3 I also recommend Doug Silbee’s page on habits and self-observation.
4 I gratefully acknowledge the input, perspective, and deep questions of Rick Livingston, whose feedback helped refine the design of this activity into something with far less order and better opportunities for emergence.

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