Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Round Of Questions

I have an activity I like to use in training sessions to get to know the people who will be sharing my week. It's fairly obvious that this is useful in a classroom, but it might not be so obvious that this kind of exercise is valuable with people who have already gelled as a team.

Here is how it goes:

  1. Everyone stands in a circle.
  2. The leader (usually me) begins with his name and the answer to a question. Usually the first time I do this, I want to know why people have come to the training. The typical formulation is something like   "I am Tim and the reason I came here today is because I was invited to talk about Object-Oriented design, a topic very near to my heart which I've taught and written about since the early 1990s."
  3. The person on the leader's left does likewise, and so on through the circle. Each states their name and gives the answer to the question in a complete sentence (as the leader did).
This has a few advantages:
  1. Everyone says their name. It is useful to hear people speak their own names when you don't know them as well as you'd like. It is doubly helpful if you don't know them at all. Sometimes there are little phonetic surprises, even with people you know (rolling Rs or hard consonants you've been mispronouncing for years).
    In addition, speaking their own name brings them into the circle as a person.
  2. Everyone stands. Standing helps you manage time and also allegedly gives your brain 15% improvement in circulation. Ideally, this keeps the answers poignant and personal and (thankfully) short.  A long answer is harder to remember, and harder to relate to. We don't like for people to leave the circle remembering only that "Fred is a long-winded guy."
  3. Everyone has an equal chance to speak. Too often conversations about technical topics can be dominated by individuals who are outgoing and have strong opinions. Quieter, more introverted people are no less competent and and their opinions no less interesting. Sometimes we're surprised to actually meet the people around us.
  4. Everyone receives the attention of the circle of individuals for just a second. However uncomfortable that might seem, it is actually a powerful moment in which an individual instructs us on how they would like us to think of them.
  5. Now everyone knows something about someone else, and this information can be used to start a conversation or better understand a point of view.
Please consider the same simple exercise with an existing team, and drop me a comment to let me know what question you asked, what the answer taught you, and how the technique affects your team.


  1. What would you do if someone would not or could not say their name?

    (I am a programmer with a speech impediment, and this scenario terrifies me in small group sessions...)

  2. "There is no greater inequality than in treating unequal things as equal"

    We would adjust out of kindness and respect.