How to Run a World Café™
Learning Together in a Fun and Friendly Environment
"That's OK, Kim, I'll cash up. You head home now." Overall, Lori is pleased with how her team has taken to her since she took over the Bridesburg salon six months ago. The salon, one of three in a chain across Philadelphia, has reported increased sales and the customers seem happy.
But Lori also knows that she can't afford to be complacent. There are her own key performance targets to meet, of course, but simply seeing which retailers have come and gone in her shopping mall each month is evidence enough of the deeply competitive environment that she's working in.
Lori has some ideas for improvements, but she doesn't want to just impose them. She wants to get her team members' input, not least because it will be up to them to deliver on what's agreed. The answer, she decides, is to bring the team together in a "World Café" – a process that generates open and honest conversation, creative ideas, and knowledge sharing in a structured yet free-flowing way.
In this article, we'll explain what a World Café is and what you can use it for. We'll outline how to set one up and run it for yourself, and we'll look at its benefits and weaknesses.
Understanding World Cafés
The idea of creating café-style areas in which to collaborate and share knowledge grew out of the work of a number of academics and workplace consultants in the 1990s. Generic "Knowledge Cafés" include the one created by British "conversational facilitator" David Gurteen.
The concept behind a World Café is straightforward enough. After all, why do you go to a café? To meet friends, share a bit of gossip, perhaps get to know them better. Replace the word "friends" here with "team," then replace "gossip" with "information" or "knowledge," and you're already halfway to understanding how a World Café works.
You'd expect a regular café to be a friendly, consensual environment, somewhere where you can feel relaxed and open. It's the same with a World Café.
A World Café is a café-style environment within the workplace, which encourages "collective intelligence" through having conversations, generating ideas, being creative, and transferring knowledge. This knowledge can then be taken back to work by team members, or you can embed it in your organization's processes more formally.
The story goes that Brown and Isaacs were meeting a group of academics and business leaders at their house in California. Their original plan to work outside as one big group was disrupted by rain. So, they went inside, and spontaneously formed into smaller groups around tables, with people moving from table to table and recording their insights on the paper tablecloths.
Brown and Isaacs noticed that these table conversations allowed patterns of thinking to emerge that then enriched subsequent conversations. This developed into a core set of seven design principles (see later) and the concept of conversational leadership.
How to Run a World Café
One of the beauties of a World Café is that it can be flexible: there's no "right" way to do it. You can tune it to the needs of your team or organization, the subject that you want to learn more about, or the specific problem that you want to solve.
Drawing on the seven integrated design principles, Brown and Isaacs have outlined a simple five-point methodology for hosting a World Café event effectively. To help to explain how this can work for you, let's return to Lori in Philadelphia and follow how she runs her World Café.
1. Set up your tables and chairs. Brown and Isaacs recommend that you use four chairs per table, and no more than five.
Lori has 12 team members, so she sets out three tables. To give the space a fun and authentic café feel, Lori decorates each table with a checkered paper tablecloth, and places a jug containing a numbered wooden spoon in the center, and a notepad at each place.
2. Explain the process. You can't expect to build an atmosphere and to have a great discussion straight away. So, take time in the days preceding the World Café event to explain to team members what will be happening, and to emphasize that this is something they're all expected to attend.
Once everyone is gathered, briefly explain how the café will work, outline the purpose of the event, and share the specific questions that you want everyone to discuss.
Lori has made the decision to close the salon an hour early to ensure the whole team is present. She has identified three areas where improvements could be made to her salon and she forms her questions around these: how to improve the client experience, how to increase product sales, and what extra services to introduce. Lori decides that each table will focus on one of these areas.
When you host a World Café event, you can ask the participants at each table to focus on different aspects of a single question or topic, or you can ask all participants to drill down into one overarching question.
You can leave the conversation to flow freely or follow Lori's example: she decides that the wooden spoon in the jug will act as a "talking stick." Team members must pass it around the table, to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
3. Work in small group conversational "rounds." Brown and Isaacs suggest that there should be at least three "rounds" of conversation, of about 20 minutes each. At the end of each round, group members move to different tables.
Lori has a limited amount of time, so she decides that 15 minutes per round is enough, and she will act as coordinator and time keeper. This will give her 45 minutes of discussion time, which will then be followed by 30 minutes of facilitation and feedback.
As her team is fairly small, Lori decides not to keep a "table host" on each table. This is someone who stays at the table, introduces the participants, and outlines some of the key themes, ideas or questions that have just been discussed. This gets the discussion started quickly, and helps each group to connect to and build on the conversation.
Instead, she asks each group to nominate a host to stay at the table briefly, to explain what has been discussed to the new arrivals, and then quickly move on to rejoin his or her group.
4. Ensure knowledge is recorded. Team members are encouraged to makes notes, drawings or even doodles during the discussion. They should leave these at the table when it's time to move on. New arrivals will see the ideas or talking points that have been discussed, and can take them further.
You can ask your team to nominate one person per table to record the discussion. However, he may then be unable to contribute to the discussion so easily.
Though Lori's team members have been given notepads, they prefer the larger "canvas" of the paper tablecloths, and they create Mind Maps™ that grow with each group's contributions.
5. Gather the conversations and learn from them. Understanding and applying the learning is key to the success of the café, and Brown and Isaacs describe this as "harvesting." You have a number of options here.
You can close the event by bringing the whole group back together to discuss the shared insights or ideas. Or you may simply thank everybody, gather together all the jottings and ideas, and take them away to inform your decisions.
Lori brings her team back together to harvest ideas from their Mind Maps. Later, she'll develop some of these ideas into an Action Plan.
One way that you can keep the conversation and idea generation going beyond your café event is to set up an online "café community." But you do have to consider how this will be moderated, who will moderate it, what it's actually going to be for, and how you will act on any ideas that it produces.
Benefits of a World Café
The main benefit of a World Café is that you are enabling people to share and consider different viewpoints, and to discover something new in the process.
Setting up and running a World Café event can be easy and cheap to do. You can make it fun and welcoming, and so gain contributions from all levels of the organization. It is also an opportunity to explore questions, challenges or problems in an accessible, yet structured way.
With a World Café, you can develop a more collaborative organizational culture and environment, solve problems creatively, and recognize the contribution of everyone in your team. It can also be a useful part of a wider program of practical innovation.
Apply Brown and Isaacs' seven design principles and you can reap a number of benefits:
- Set the Context – when participants understand the meeting's purpose and parameters, they can focus on the most important points in their conversation.
- Create Hospitable Space – when people feel safe, they can think, speak and listen better.
- Explore Questions That Matter – choose a discussion that's relevant to the group's real-life concerns. This will help people to generate collective energy, insight and positive action.
- Encourage Everyone's Contribution – you'll get more ideas and share more knowledge, leading to better outcomes.
- Connect Diverse Perspectives – meeting new people and hearing unfamiliar ideas and experiences will jump group members out of their habitual thinking patterns. After all, this is a "World" Café!
- Listen Together for Patterns and Insights – Brown and Isaacs argue that café participants "begin to sense a connection to the larger whole" by paying attention to the themes that emerge.
- Share Collective Discoveries – if you record everyone's contributions, they can reflect on what's been said and build on ideas further.
Weaknesses of a World Café
It's important to consider the potential weaknesses of this approach, too.
A World Café is designed to facilitate collaboration, interaction and knowledge sharing, rather than to come up with hard-and-fast solutions. This means that there is always a risk that discussions result in nothing more useful than a warm feeling between participants! So, it's important to facilitate and follow up skillfully.
At the same time, don't be tempted to go into the process with a set conclusion in mind, expecting or even nudging the "answers" to be what you want. If you do, you risk undermining your team members' trust in you and in one another. You'll also need to manage expectations about whether and how the ideas that come out of the event will be acted on.
But a World Café can't be rushed. So, if you only have a small amount of time available, and a pressing and complex problem to solve or decision to be made, this process probably isn't for you. Similarly, you're unlikely to need a World Café if you have a high-performing, positive team whose members have a strong record of showing initiative, being creative, and sharing knowledge – the ideas will flow anyway.
Why Choose a World Café?
There are many tools and techniques that can help you to solve problems, to make decisions, and to facilitate team bonding and collaboration. So, why choose a World Café?
In Lori's case, she wants to benefit from her team members' combined knowledge and experience before she decides which direction to take the business in. Together, they'll likely bring fresh insights and a wisdom that they couldn't achieve separately – if Lori can create the right kind of atmosphere. She thinks that a formal, overly structured meeting would kill the conversation, so it's worth investing the time in a more relaxed café-style event.
Lori figures that the process can double up as a team-building exercise, and will break everyone out of their usual busy routine. It will be the perfect opportunity for her to get to know her people better, and to show that she values their views and ideas. Mutual trust will grow and there'll be stronger "buy in" to any changes she goes on to introduce.
So, consider running a World Café event when you have the time and space, and when you want to drop the formalities, to share knowledge, and to learn together.
In particular, the Charette Procedure is an efficient method to prevent your idea-generating session from becoming chaotic and unproductive when you have lots of ideas and stakeholders.
A World Café is a way of stimulating dialogue, collaboration and learning. It's particularly useful when you need your group session to be a relaxing and informal contrast to your usual working style.
It can be easy and cheap to set up, but it needs to be clearly communicated and facilitated in a structured yet free-flowing way to ensure that your organization benefits.
To set one up, you:
- Set up your tables and chairs.
- Explain the process.
- Work in small, group conversational "rounds."
- Ensure knowledge is recorded.
- Gather the conversations and learn from them.