A couple people have asked me what I mean when I say that CAST (and TWST) were facilitated as compared to the ‘normal’ conference format. This post hopes to describe it in such a manner that you could implement a variation of it at your events.
But first, a disclaimer, I do not claim to be an expert at this. My only qualification is that I’ve participated in this style of facilitation twice now in pretty close proximity to each.
In 1997, Dr. Cem Kaner started a series of workshops which on software testing called the Los Altos Workshops on Software Testing, or LAWST as they are commonly referred to. One of the main differences was the format in that each member would make a presentation or experience report at which point a discussion would ensue and see where the idea went. This discussion was not just a free-for-all where extroverts or those with the loudest voice could dominate, but was was managed by a facilitator to make sure everyone had an opportunity to speak and was not interrupted. I suspect also that part of this method was developed with input from Dr. Sam Kaner (Cem’s brother) who according to his bio “is regarded as one of the nation’s leading experts on consensus decision-making.”
As mentions above there is a certain structure for talks given in this manner. First, the presenter gives their presentation / story during which only a clarifying question may be asked. An example of such a question is “You used acronym ABC just now, what does it mean?”. The point of these is to help the audience understand the story as presented. After that, you enter Open Season in which questions about the presentation topic are discussed. (It’s been my experience that the Open Season part is usually more informative than the actual presentation)
I’m not sure how the original workshops were physically facilitated, but I believe it was through a series of less than clear hand signals. Eventually, one of the moderators (Paul Holland) mentioned this to his wife and she suggested using different coloured cards for different items. And so the current card system was created.
Everyone at a LAWST style event gets a number of cards, and depending on the type of input they wish to put into the discussion they raise the appropriate card. The facilitator makes note of who raised the card and what type it was and then calls on them as appropriate.
- Blue cards are for New Threads. These are questions that are clear departures from what is currently being discussed. For example, “In your presentation you say that you created a meta framework, but did not say what language it was written in. I wrote one in Python and it overcame some of the problems you had”.
- Green cards are used on the Same Thread. That means you have something to ad to the topic currently being discussed. “I wrote one a meta framework in Ruby because I’m one of the cool kids” would be be a same thread point (to follow the example along)
- Red card are the Oh! Oh! Pick me! I need to say something NOW! cards. Or Interrupt if you don’t like the big name. You would use your red card to ask clarifying questions or if, hypothetically someone from Microsoft was speaking saying that the company you work for is doing something slimy and you want to rise to the defense of your employer. Just as an example of course. Red cards an be used at any point too.
- Grey cards are perhaps the most important cards and the one I missed the most at CAST. Grey is the rat hole card. If a thread is going too far off topic or is turning into a cannot-possibly-go-anywhere-positive thread you raise your rat hole card. This should be considered a vote for ending the thread. Enough cards and the thread ends.
Role of Facilitator
So aside from the cards, you need someone to bring order to this (sometimes) flurry of card waving. This is one of the many roles of the facilitator.
- Keep track of who had put up the various cards
- Keep tally of the rat hole votes and end the thread if appropriate
- Choose who speaks next. This is important. Just because you had the first blue card up, doesn’t mean you go first. The goal of this is to get everyone participating so your chances of being picked first actually decrease the more you participate. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a good thing. Facilitators might however pick someone who participates a lot if their name was mentioned and they might need to clarify something that is being attributed to them.
- Rein in people who are going generally crazy
- Sometimes things can trip over their own inertia, it is up to the moderator to keep things moving. This is generally not a problem from what I have seen
- What is more often a problem is that there is too much discussion queued up. In this situation the facilitator needs to force breaks so people can, for instance, use the facilities.
- Sometimes a blue card can lead to a green, then a green on the green, then a green on that green and suddenly you are talking about something completely different that things were intended. It is up to the moderator to decide when things have gone too far down the wrong path and steer them back.