World Café

Description: The World Café is an intentional way to create a living network of conversations around questions that matter. It is a methodology which enables people (from 12 to 1200) to think together and intentionally create new, shared meaning and collective insight. Although people have been meeting in ways sharing the same spirit of the World Café for centuries, the actual methodology was ‘discovered’ and formalized by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995. Since then hundreds of thousands of people have been meeting in World Café style across the world.

The host of a World Café makes use of the café metaphor quite literally. The room is actually set up like a café, with people sitting spread out in groups of four at different tables, for deeply participative, high-quality conversations. They are guided to move to new tables as part of a series of conversational rounds around questions that matter to them. With each move, a table host remains behind, sharing the essence of his/her table’s conversation. The others move out into the room and connect to what other tables have talked about, in this way networking and cross-pollinating the conversations. The café, with its ability to weave and further build insights, new ideas or new questions, enables collective intelligence to evolve through a group.

The World Café is based on a core assumption that the knowledge and wisdom that we need is already present and accessible. Working with the World Café, we can bring out the collective wisdom of the group - greater than the sum of its individual parts - and channel it towards positive change. Finn Voldtofte, one of the early World Café pioneers actually sees the café as the unit of change force in any system or organization as it engages, inspires and connects different parts of a system. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that small groups of committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Purpose(s): The World Café website and the new book released in 2005 about the World Café profile numerous stories of how this approach has been used in different contexts across cultures, sectors, social classes, and generations. According to the website, the World Café is valuable when you aim:

 

  • To generate input, share knowledge, stimulate innovative thinking, and explore action possibilities around real life issues and questions
  • To engage people--whether they are meeting for the first time, or are in established relationships--in authentic conversation
  • To conduct in-depth exploration of key strategic challenges or opportunities
  • To deepen relationships and mutual ownership of outcomes in an existing group
  • To create meaningful interaction between a speaker and the audience
  • To engage groups larger than 12 (up to 1200!) in an authentic dialogue process


The café is less useful if there is a predetermined outcome, there is a desire to convey one-way information, or a group is working on detailed implementation plans.

Time: An hour or a day or longer

Resources: Sufficient table and chair settings for all. Four people to a table. Paper table cloths and a range of coloured pens for each table.

Instructions: Many people who have participated in a really energetic and effective World Café, speak of the human “magic” that arose in the conversations and exchanges, as they moved from one to another conversation, evolving a theme or deepening a question. Through the work of café practitioners, four conditions have been identified that enable ‘café magic’ to occur:

  1. A question that matters: Identifying compelling questions is an art form. For a question to matter to a group, it needs to have personal relevance to each person. They need to be invested with a real stake in the question and its answers. Good questions open up to a diverse range of thinking, are thought provoking and stimulate creativity. A good question places the ball in the court of the participants – showing them they are needed, valuable contributors to the whole.

  2. A safe and hospitable space: Often meeting spaces are not very inviting. Here the café metaphor gets played out, and care is taken to create an inviting and warm environment. Often it is complete with café tables, table-cloths, flowers and candles. When people step into the World Café, they immediately know that this is not just another formal meeting. In addition to the physical environment, though, is the creation of an actually safe space, where people feel comfortable enough to contribute what they are thinking and feeling. If for example a group from the same organization participates in a World Café, care should be taken that people know they will not be punished later for saying something in disagreement with a colleague or superior.

  3. Mutual listening: This condition emphasizes the importance of listening over talking. It connects to the underlying assumption that the knowledge and wisdom we need is already present. Collective insight will only emerge as we honour and encourage each person’s unique contribution. Margaret Wheatley has said that “Intelligence emerges as a system connects with itself in new and diverse ways.” As each person offers his or her perspective, they are contributing to the increasing intelligence and insight of the whole, often in surprising ways.

  4. A spirit of inquiry: It is common for people to arrive to workshops and events with their expert knowledge, deliver it and leave without having shifted or grown in their own views at all. In the World Café, a spirit of inquiry is key. This means that people are truly in exploration together. They bring what they know, think and feel about a given question to the table, but they are willing to go beyond that, to work together to uncover new insights, different perspective, and deeper questions. We can all always learn more. Fostering a spirit of inquiry and curiosity for what is not known, will help overcome resistance to new or different thoughts.

The following guidelines are directly related to the four conditions, and can help a facilitator to enable the creation of these conditions.

  1. Clarify the purpose: Before bringing together people for a café, clarify the purpose of the café. Understanding the purpose is necessary to be able to decide who should be there, the questions to discuss and the finer details of the design.

  2. Create Hospitable Space

  3. Explore Questions that Matter: Don’t underestimate the care needed to succeed in identifying good questions.

  4. Encourage Each Person’s Contribution

  5. Connect Diverse People and Ideas: The opportunity to move between tables, meet new people, actively contribute your thinking, and link discoveries is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the World Café. Design your cafe for maximum cross-pollinating without making the rounds themselves too short.

  6. Listen for insights and share discoveries: Encourage each café group to take a bit of time for reflection to notice “what’s at the center of our conversation?” After several rounds of café conversation it is helpful to engage in a conversation of the whole group to explore together which themes and questions are arising.

Café Etiquette
The World Café homepage suggests that a simple way to invite participants to engage optimally in the World Café is by sharing the following “Café Etiquette” with them.

 

  • Focus on what matters
  • Contribute your thinking and experience
  • Speak from the heart
  • Listen to understand
  • Link And Connect ideas
  • Listen Together for deeper themes, insights and questions.
  • Play, Doodle, Draw —writing on the tablecloths is encouraged!

Source: Mapping Dialogue document (download here)

Resources required: Games Resource List (PDF, 124 KB)

Notes