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Progressive Broadening

Progressive broadening is a means of structuring a technical conversation such that useful information passes without elaborate preparation.

Use progressive broadening in groups of five to twenty-five when there is medium to high levels of shared interest but low to medium shared experience.

How it works

Conversation starts with the informal telling of a story. Stories often go like this: Here is what I did; it worked out well; I think I know why. The telling need not be polished or even complete. For complicated subjects one should focus on the part that most surprised or delighted. A facilitator might ask, "how did you feel about that?" should the telling become to abstract or loose focus.

The telling is followed by askings. The teller's audience now asks questions that clarify the story. The askers develop the parts of the story that most interest them while leaving it the teller's story. This is the first broadening. A facilitator might ask, "is there something specific you want to know about the presenter's story?" should the conversation drift from asking too quickly.

The conversation broadens to discussion once the teller's story has been told to the audience's satisfaction. A facilitator might ask, "does that relate to our story?" should discussion move too far from its anchor.

How long it takes

A conversation takes about an hour. This breaks down as follows:

  • telling: 10 minutes
  • asking: 20 minutes
  • discussion: 30 minutes

A facilitator can have an idea of what stories each participant can tell and what ones would be most interesting. Some ordering decisions can be made on the fly with the help of the audience. A facilitator might ask, "do people think it would be better to explore A or B now considering that we have only 45 minutes until lunch?"

Planning an event

Plan an event by chooing an event duration, from a few hours to a few days, suitable for the subject of interest. Solicit participants by asking for position statements relevant to the subject. Use these statements, which could be as simple as a pragraph, to select participants and order conversations.


This format has been adapted from the conference style pioneered by the Los Altos Workshop on Software Testing.

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