A Guide to Peer Conference Facilitation

Peer Conference Facilitation

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a facilitator of LAWST-style peer conferences? Are you interested in knowing how the facilitators keep track of so many threads? How they decide who gets to speak next? Well in this post I hope to be able to shed some light on the “secrets” of peer conference facilitation.

I can cover the administration aspects of facilitating in this post, but I cannot cover the methods that I use to control the room, keep people for getting out of control, handle difficult participants, use of tone & humour, or the full details about the way I keep track of threads and the stack. It is simply not the correct forum to be able to convey that information. I have found the only way to teach those elements is by being personally mentored during an actual conference. If you are very interested in being mentored in facilitation and you have attended at least one (preferably more) LAWST-style conferences, then please contact me directly via email. I have mentored four people, so far: Eric Proegler, Nick Wolf, Simon Schrijver, and Raymond Rivest. I would be confident that any of these four could facilitate a LAWST-style peer conference with up to 20 people (for Eric, up to 25 people).

The majority of the conferences that I facilitate are LAWST-style peer conferences. There is a very strict set of facilitation rules for these workshops – mostly implemented to avoid bad experiences/situations from occurring again. Many of these “bad experiences” have involved my friends (James Bach and Doug Hoffman, to name two). As a result of their influences we have developed an awesome set of rules that  create a wonderful situation for learning from and sharing with our peers. I will go through a typical peer conference chronologically and identify the important aspects as we go.

The Opening of the Conference


At the beginning of the conference the facilitator should welcome everyone, introduce the content owner and the facilities prime along with a brief explanation of the role of these people plus their own role as facilitator. I typically summarize the role of the facilitator as the “air traffic controller”. No one is allowed to speak without first getting permission from the facilitator (in the same way planes can’t take off without permission from air traffic control). So, essentially, the facilitator controls who is allowed to address the room at any particular time. The content owner attempts to keep the meeting “on theme”. They do this by selecting the order of presenters, by asking “focusing questions” (sometimes immediately following an experience report, the content owner will ask some questions to help relate the story back to the theme), and by identifying discussions that have moved too far away from the theme of the meeting. Finally, the facilities prime is the one who looks after the room, explains where the restrooms/water/snacks are located, any rules regarding escorts (if applicable), food (if applicable), and technical issues. Note, any of these roles can be split among more than one person – although there should only be one “active” facilitator at any time.

Except for administration points (location of restrooms, escorts, etc.) there should not be any other discussion at this point of the meeting.

The facilitator should then review the schedule. I like to start at 9:00am and then follow a cycle of 1 hour of meeting followed by 15 minute breaks. This allows for an hour break for lunch (from 12:30-1:30) and finishing at 5:00pm. You can adjust your schedule however you like. I strongly recommend at least one 15 minute break every hour of meeting because it allows networking and discussions that are very valuable to attendees.

The IP Agreement

The next part of the meeting is quite dry but very necessary. You need to read the Intellectual Property agreement. I also project the IP agreement onto the screen and mention where it can be downloaded. Briefly, the IP agreement states that whatever is presented or comes out of discussions can be used by anyone at the meeting (with proper attribution). If something interesting comes out of a discussion, then it is not necessary to attribute that to any one person. All attendees are to be listed as contributing. The full IP agreement used at WOPR conferences is located here. Once the IP agreement has been read out loud, every participant must agree to it by saying out loud “I agree.” If someone does not agree to the IP agreement, then they should be asked to leave the conference. You should not need to worry because in over 35 conferences that I have facilitated there has never been anyone not agree to the IP agreement.

Check In

The next item on the agenda is the “check in”. Everyone at the workshop has a minute or two to introduce themselves (where they work, what they do, years of experience, how many LAWST-style conferences they have attended, etc.). They can also mention specific information they hope to get out of the conference. This is also an opportunity to mention anything that might be “burning in their mind” (this idea was suggested by Scott Barber) which may be causing distractions during the conference. I have heard items such as “I am waiting to hear back on a new job I applied for”; “My child is quite sick at home”; “I just sold my company yesterday”; “I have an interview tomorrow at 10:00am, so I will have to sneak out at that time”. By mentioning it here, the other participants are aware of why that person might be behaving differently.

Have the Content Owner check in last so after their check in they can immediately review the theme of the workshop.

Review The Rules For Questions During Presentations

I introduced the use of “Just in Time Facilitation” at LAWST-style conferences – which means that I will not explain all the rules at the beginning of the meeting. Instead I will explain the rules of the next element of the meeting as they arrive. This has reduced the boring opening by about 20 minutes and allowed the participants to hear the rules just before they are required (for better retention).

At this time of the workshop I review that only “clarifying questions” are allowed during the time the speaker is telling their story. These are questions that are needed to help you understand the story. (e.g.: What does that acronym stand for? What year did this happen? Etc.) Questions that start with “Why” are rarely clarifying questions. “Open Season” questions will be allowed once the story has been told by the presenter.

At this time I have not yet handed out the K-Cards and I will not until the first presenter has finished telling their story. It is not time to explain their use so I do not distribute them.

During The Presentation

If someone has a clarifying question, they can simply raise their hand. I normally allow the speaker to recognize clarifying questions if they notice the raised hand before me. If the question asked is not a clarifying question then the facilitator must stop the question and ask the participant to keep that question for “open season”.

After The Story Has Been Told

Once the presenter has finished telling their story then the K-Cards can be distributed. I sometimes hand them out during the last portion of the presentation or ask someone to help give out the cards while I explain their use. Regardless, the cards need to be handed out in a manner that does not disturb the presenter.

There are currently five colours of K-Cards (I strongly recommend using bright/neon colours):

  • Green: Please place my name on the “new thread” stack
  • Yellow: Please place my name on the “same thread” stack
  • Red (or pink): Oooh! Oooh! I must speak now! Please put me at the very top of the stack. If this card is used to too often by a participant then you should take the card from them. This card should also be used for important issues that impact someone’s ability to understand/participate (e.g.: I can’t hear you).
  • Blue (or purple): I feel this thread is becoming a “Rat Hole”. The facilitator and/or content owner are the only two who can actually kill a thread because they feel it is a rat hole. A rat hole is: a discussion that is going nowhere; or a discussion that is only engaging two or three people in the room; or the start discussion that has previously proven to be unproductive (e.g.: What is the definition of a test case?).
  • Orange (new): I agree with what the speaker is saying. You can consider this as a “Like” or a “+1” card. This card is special because it is the only card not intended to notify the facilitator but instead to show support for the speaker. This is a new card (suggested by Eric Proegler) and time will tell if it has the staying power to permanently join the K-Card family.

Open Season

Once the cards have been explained to the group then the facilitator opens the floor for “open season”. Participants who have a question to ask must hold up a green card. The facilitator writes down the names of those people and selects one of them to ask the first question. If during the ensuing discussion someone in the room wants to add a comment or ask a question on that “thread” then they must hold up a yellow card.

Managing The Threads

The facilitator works through each person who wants to comment on the current thread before going back to select another new thread. This means that the queue is not a FIFO (first-in-first-out) queue but instead is primarily based on following threads.

If there are multiple people on the same stack, then the facilitator decides who speaks next – not necessarily based on the order the cards were held up. I advocate choosing the person who has spoken the least to speak next and leave the heavy talkers on the stack for a while longer. By doing this I try to equalize the “air time” of everyone.

Be aware that some participants will try to jump to the top of the stack by timing when they hold up their yellow card. If their comment/question is not on the current same thread then you must stop the discussion and inform them to hold up a green card instead. If it happens more than once then I suggest explaining the methodology to them again at a break.

The same stack thread can go multiple levels deep. If someone raises a yellow card during the discussion that occurs during another yellow card comment/question then a deeper level “same thread” should be created. It is important that the facilitator follow the discussion carefully to decide which thread to place the new person by what was being said when they raised their yellow card. The deepest I have been is six levels; I recommend “capping” the discussion at four or five levels. Once the stack is back to the top of the original “same thread” then open the discussion to more yellow cards again. Stack management is one of the more difficult aspects of facilitating.

The facilitator should “review the stack” about every three to five speakers to let the group know who is on each level of the stack and who is on the “new thread” list. Doing this helps new participants know that their card has not been forgotten – or if it has then they can let the facilitator know about it.

The discussion is allowed to continue until the stack is empty. I try to have the final question come from a “strong” participant so that the presentation ends on a high note. This is not easy to control as often someone holds up another card while your “strong closer” is talking.

The first presentation is typically the longest of the peer conference. This is often because there is a lot of discussion “on theme” but not necessarily related to the presentation. We have had two opening presentations that have lasted the entire first day. That is OK but not ideal. One way that I use to help shorten the length of the first open season discussion is to ask that questions that are “on theme” but not specifically related to the presentation be held for subsequent presentations.

Don’t forget about taking the breaks. You will often need to break up “open season” with breaks so you should try to time the start of the break with a logical place in the discussion – which is not always possible. It is better to not break up a presentation – so you should ask them how long they need to tell their story before they start. Try to keep the breaks within 10 minutes of the scheduled time.

Check Out

You should try to be at the end of a discussion with about 15 minutes to go before the stop time of the conference to do the “check out” (10 to 30 minutes is a good stopping range). Sometimes the discussion may need to carry over to the next day or it may need to be time-boxed (end at a specific time regardless of the stack size).

At check out, the participants are asked to share some thoughts about how the day went and any particular “take aways” they collected during the day. They can also share areas where they would like to see more discussion the next day (if there is a next day).

On subsequent days the meeting continues as normal but you start with a check in. This check in allows the participants to share what they did the night before and whatever revelations they had upon reflection of the first day.

There is a lot more to discuss but this is a good start and should be a good reference guide for those who are being asked to facilitate.

Similar Posts

One Comment

  1. Paul,

    Thanks for this super thorough guide to peer conference facilitation. I had the privilige of being taught the basics by you at Let’s Test this year. And trying it out in an actual session as well: it was Ola Hylten who convinced me – a faciltation newbie – to give it a shot, to step out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did, and I’m still grateful for that. One of the Ola’s memories that will stay with me for a long time I hope.

    Thanks again for the post,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *