An amazing conference has ended its formal sessions. The last 3 days have been filled with insights about software testing, management, and measurement with a group of serious thinkers and practitioners of software testing.

I was fascinated by the facilitation technique used to support the high amount of conversation that occurs at CAST. The facilitation technique allowed a group of engaged listeners to discuss, debate, question, and interact with the presenter in a fluid but surprisingly orderly fashion.

Imagine the types of problems which are likely to occur when a presenter brings a controversial topic to a group of highly engaged, forward thinking professionals. The audience (software testers) consider it their professional role to challenge the status quo, see things differently, and understand those differences more deeply. With that type of audience, a typical presentation would rapidly lose focus as many of the testers challenge, question, and discuss their insights.

The CAST 2009 facilitators used “K-cards” and some agreed principles to assure that the presentations and resulting conversations are a good balance between allowing the presenter to complete their ideas and allowing the audience to interact with the presenter. K-cards are a trio of colored 3×5 cards with a unique number assigned to each member of the audience.

The red card is the “Burning Issue” card. An audience member raises their red card to interrupt the presenter or any current discussion. The red card is used to raise points of order, to flag blocking problems (like poor facility acoustics), or to allow a meaningful interruption of the presentation with key information. The red card can be confiscated by the facilitator if the facilitator feels it is being misused or abused.

The yellow card is the “On Stack” (or current topic) card. It signals that you have a question or comment related to the current thread of discussion.

The green card is the “New Stack” (or new topic) card. It signals that you have a question or comment which is not related to the current discussion. The facilitator keeps a list of numbers on a sheet of paper which reminds the facilitator the expected order in which new topics will be addressed.

The interaction during the sessions was orderly, insightful, and well managed. Ideas were presented, disagreed upon, discussed, and then new ideas were managed as well. The general format of a presentation allowed the first half of the allotted time to be dedicated to the presenter, while audience members would listen and if necessary, would raise a red card to flag a point of order or question which justified interrupting the speaker. The facilitator during my first few sessions was quite patient with my tendency to interrupt and did not take my red card.

Once the presentation was complete, or presentation time expired, the session switched to “open session”. The facilitator called the number of the first “new topic” card they had seen during the presentation. The audience member whose number was called (I was number 15 throughout the sessions) asked their question or made their comment and the presenter responded, with some “back and forth” dialog between questioner and presenter.

If someone else had an “on topic” comment or question, they would raise their yellow card. Throughout the session the facilitator is noting the order of appearance and resolution of green (“new topic”) and yellow (“on topic”) cards on a notepad. “On topic” comments and questions take priority over new topics, and burning issues take priority over same thread topics.

With that simple mnemonic device, a skilled facilitator, an engaged audience, and a presenter ready to engage in dialog about their topic, the conference moved forward very well.

Paul Holland, the lead facilitator of CAST 2009, noted that there are some other subtle techniques which the facilitator can use to further improve the meeting. For example, if there are especially strong or high expertise individuals in the room, it is OK (and useful) for the facilitator to place those individuals at the “bottom” of the “on topic” stack, even if that is not the order in which they raised their card. By placing the experts at the bottom of the on topic stack, it allows the chance for others to present the question or observation which the expert would have presented, and involves other less expert people in the discussions more effectively. I believe some of the facilitators even chose consciously to place experts at the bottom of their “new topic” stack so the less expert would be involved in the conversation.

That stacking system worked well in the session I attended with experts. There were cases where the expert would be called upon and would call “pass” because their idea or comment had already been covered in the discussion.

The system is called “K-cards”, named after Paul Holland’s wife Karen. Before K-cards, Paul facilitated by having people learn three hand signs to signal the same meaning as the 3 colored K-cards. One of the attendees complained that the hand signs were too complicated. Paul was complaining to Karen in mock outrage that someone would not be able to learn 3 simple hand gestures. Karen suggested, “Why not use different colored cards”. They made the switch, and they are now named “K-cards”.

Paul noted that the Los Altos Workshop on Software Testing (LAWST) pioneered the original format which has been improved with K-cards.

I will attempt to use K-cards in sessions where I facilitate a discussion with a large group, and I may discuss the idea with others. We have a user experience workshop coming soon, and that workshop seems like an interesting place to try this technique as a way to manage the many opinions, discussions, and conversations which will naturally arise.

Thanks to Paul Holland and to the rest of the CAST 2009 facilitation team for showing how effectively a simple device can encourage interesting, effective, actively progressing conversation!