Last Monday I attended a Meetup event by the Sydney Scrum User group which was titled Retrospective Experiences and Techniques Fishbowl

What was interesting about the meetup was that it was presented in the fishbowl conversation format. I’ve never heard of it prior to that event and here’s how it works.

  • There’s some chairs in the middle of the room (4 at this event), they are facing each other and represented the fishbowl.
  • The rest of the chairs were placed outside the fishbowl.
  • Only the people who were sitting in the fishbowl could speak.
  • There must always be an empty chair in the fishbowl.
  • Everyone sitting outside of the fishbowl are observers of the conversation.
  • Anyone who is observing can move into the fishbowl and occupy the empty chair.
  • The discussion then stops until one person in the fishbowl relinquish their seat (and once again there is an empty chair in the fishbowl)

The idea of the fishbowl is that it helps keep the conversation focused as whoever is in the fish bowl know they have a limited time to speak and will make their point directly. Also anyone who wants to speak can simply step into the fish bowl and occupy the empty seat, so the conversation can’t really be dominated by a few individuals.

I decided to try it at work this week during one of our security process retrospectives. The way we normally do retrospectives is for everyone to write on post it notes their feedback and put them on the wall. The wall is usually divided into sections for what went well and what didn’t go well. Then someone would go through every post-it note on the wall and the team will have a discussion about it; sometime there are actionable items that derive from these discussions.

So I sent an email out to the team prior to the meeting to tell them about the fishbowl retrospective and a few minutes before the meeting started, I re-arranged the meeting room and setup the fishbowl environment.

Below are some of my thoughts of how it went.

  • When people arrived, everyone sat outside the fishbowl and when all the seats outside were filled, those who arrived after chose to stand outside instead of taking a seat in the fish bowl.
  • As it was something different, the initial starting was a little awkward as no one wanted to start. It took a while before one person decided to get out of their seat and move into the fishbowl. From there, the conversations naturally progressed and move people started moving into the fishbowl.
  • We didn’t follow the rule of having only one seat occupied, out of the 4 seats, there were times when 3 of those seats were unoccupied.
  • People were moving into the fishbowl, making a comment or asking a question and then immediately getting up and out of the fish bowl before hearing a response to their question.
  • No one person dominated the conversation, which was good and the topic seemed to stay focused.
  • It made the retrospective fun and light hearted as people were moving in and out a bit and there were instances where someone wanted to make a comment, but didn’t want to move into the fishbowl and so would make some gestures to illustrate what they wanted to convey.
  • We finished the meeting on time (or earlier than expected, which seldom occurs)

I think the fishbowl format for retrospectives went fairly well that day but here’s what I am thinking of doing differently the next time.

  • Inform everybody about the rule where there can only be 1 empty seat in the fishbowl.
  • Discourage the jump-in, jump out patterns, but I’m not sure if that would discourage people from speaking.

Have you heard of the fishbowl conversation format? Maybe you should try it at your next team’s retrospective.