May 26, 2018

Unleash local know-how with a User Experience Fishbowl

Organizations often struggle to tap into the expertise and experiences of employees. It’s often easier to hire external ‘experts’ than to build on the mountains of local knowledge that already exists. The User Experience Fishbowl is one of 33 Liberating Structures by Henri Leipmanowicz and Keith McCandless that is ideally suited for unleashing this kind of local wisdom, to identify patterns and to build on them.

The  User Experience Fishbowl is ideally suited for unleashing the local wisdom of groups of any size

Fishbowls consist of an inside circle of people with direct experience with a challenge of interest to those in one or more outer circles. The inside circle shares experiences based around a common challenge while the outer circles listen. In alternating rounds, the outer circles generates questions they’d like to ask the inside circle. By focusing strongly on listening and asking questions about experiences, you can use UX Fishbowls to create an environment where people can learn together (rather than get solutions imposed on them).

Uses in Scrum and workshops

We’ve used User Experience Fishbowls in Scrum for the following purposes:

  • Bring a group of users of a product into the inside circle and have them share their experiences (i.e. ‘What has been the good, bad and ugly of your experience with [product]?’) while the people building the product make up the outer circles;
  • Use it to let experienced Scrum Masters or Product Owners share their experiences with an outer-circle of less experienced peers;
  • Let the people building a product share their experiences with Scrum (or whatever process you use), while management and other supporting roles make up the outer circle. This is a great way to make transparent what works and what sorely needs attention;
  • Use it to debrief a shocking event or a critical incident that happened to a group;

A User Experience Fishbowl where experienced Product Owners share the good, the bad and the ugly of product delivery with Scrum.

Steps

  1. Create an inside circle of chairs (3 to 7). Ask participants who’d like to share their experiences with the topic at hand to take a seat in the inside circle, leaving one or two chairs open for whoever wants to join during later rounds;
  2. Explain the purpose and the steps of the Fishbowl. Ask the outer circle to observe and listen to what happens in the inside circle. Emphasize to the inside circle to keep their answers brief and to talk to each other, not the outer circle (2 min);
  3. Invite the inside circle to have a conversation about a central question (the invitation) until the time-box expires or until the conversation ends on its own. Encourage the inside circle to share concrete experiences and examples, both successes and failures (10–25 min);
  4. Invite the outer circle to form smaller groups (e.g. 2 to 4 people depending on how many people there are) and have them share observations and formulate BIG questions they’d like to have answered by the inside circle (5 4 min). Collect the questions somewhere or have the groups briefly present them (while the inside circle listens);
  5. Invite the inside circle to discuss and answer the questions in whatever order works for them. When all the questions have been answered, you can have the outer circle generate additional questions. Continue until all questions have been answered or the time box expires (10–25 min);
  6. Debrief with What, So What Now What to identify insights that emerged and actions to take. You can either do a 1–2–4-ALL for the three rounds (5 min each) or abbreviate it a bit by jumping from individual reflection to pairs or groups of four. Gather insights and actions on a flip and discuss them with the group (10–15 min);

Combinations

Liberating Structures are at their best when you combine them with other structures, where the output from one string flows into another.

  • Use 1–2–4-ALL or 25/10 Crowd Sourcing afterward to explore how the group can build on the insights that emerged from the fishbowl. E.g. “What should we strengthen or draw more energy to to become more effective as a group?”;
  • Use 15% Solutions to have participants explore what they can do, individually, to contribute to the insights that emerged;

Tips

  • Write the invitation that you’d like the inside circle to discuss on a flip chart so that they can refer to it during the discussion;
  • Invite people with experience with a challenge upfront or simply ask who would like to share their (direct) experience;
  • Use metaphors to set the tone for the inside circle and create an open atmosphere. Invite the inside circle to imagine they’re sharing a car, sitting in a bar or standing around the water cooler and sharing stories;
  • Its all about the invitation. We loving asking variations of: “What is the good, bad and ugly of [topic]”. It specific enough to create focus on the topic and ambiguous enough to trigger many venues for exploration (good, bad, ugly). But variations are: “Share with us some moments when you felt you were successful or not successful with [topic]” or “Regarding [topic], what worked for you, what helped you move forward and what held you back?”;
  • When you do fishbowls with large groups, make sure to add microphones and/or a raised podium or bar stools to keep the inside circle visible to the outside circles;

Closing

We’re always happy to hear your experiences or hear your suggestions. If you’d like to know more about Liberating Structures or try and experience a large number of them first-hand in a safe-to-fail environment, join one of the user groups (like the one we started in Amsterdam). Check out our previous posts on Liberating Structures here.