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Managed Chaos
Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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Debates are not a great ways to communicate concrete points. Debates usually tend to get personal and emotional, leading to a destructive dialogue and indecisiveness. Fishbowls provide a good alternative to engage in discussion where people can indulge in a more creative communication or a real dialogue.

A Fishbowl is a way of structuring a discussion in a large group of people. It is suitable for controversial topics where different participants have different views.

Seating Arrangement: A small group, the initiators, (the fish in the bowl), typically 4 or 5 people, sit on chairs around a round table placed at the center of the discussion room. The audience, the other participants, is seated around the initiators in a circle.

Discusion Flow: The initiator explain the topic and start the discussion. Any members of the audience can walk up to the bowl and take a seat when they feel they have a contribution to make. When all the seats are occupied, usually the initiator, who has been in the bowl the longest, leaves making room for the new member, but this can vary. The FIFO (First In First Out) rule seems to work well to manage the participants at the bowl.

Additionally, one can seat always be left empty at the bowl. When all the seats get occupied, one of occupant has to leave. The rule to decide who leaves can also vary. FIFO or the person who feels they are contributing the least can leave.

The biggest advantage of this approach is transparency. The whole discussion is out in public. It gives a nice way to manage a large audience who would like to participate in the discussion. By letting a limited number of people talk, it helps to minimize the communication paths.

There are two challenges I have faced.

  • Since the discussion is open and others are watching, some people might feel shy and not contribute even though they have some valid points.
  • Avoiding the most vocal/influential folks from hogging the seats.

There is another variation of the fishbowl format, which I have not tried this.

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