The World Café is a technique for really engaging people in questions and issues that matter to them. It combines doodling or drawing on the table followed by discussion and the opportunity to move to a different table with a different question and another round of writing, drawing and discussion.
You know the scenario. An all-hands meeting is called to discuss the strategic plan or a topic that everyone should know about. The leader dutifully shows a PowerPoint and asks if there are any questions. After a few seconds of thudding silence, someone makes a comment or asks a question. The vast majority of people do not participate. These kinds of meetings are a waste of everyone’s time.
I have been having great success with the World Café as a technique for really engaging people in issues that matter to them and to their organizations. In the World Café, participants sit at tables that are covered with paper. They are invited to write or draw their answers to a focus question which is posted on the table. A “table host” invites people to share their responses. Everyone listens for themes or connections. After 15-30 minutes (depending on the questions) people move to a different table with a different question posted on it. The table host remains.
In this second round, the table host makes sure everyone introduces themselves and participants look at what the prior group wrote or drew on the table. Additions, arrows, comments, are added and the conversation continues.
A third round usually occurs which is similar to round two except that participants help the table host prepare a list of themes and also identify any clear differences of opinion. Each table host reports out on themes heard in a 3-minute summary.
I have used the World Café for strategic planning, asking questions such as, “What changes are occurring outside of our organization that we need to be aware of as we plan for the future?” or “What are some ways we can harness the energy of social networking technologies in our work?”
I like to make the atmosphere as café-like as possible with coffee mugs for markers, vases of silk flowers, colorful place mats and restaurant menu-holders for the focus question. Of course, French café music is playing as people walk in.
The World Café has much to recommend it. First, it is a friendly conversation. The questions themselves are interesting. Full participation is built in. Everyone’s point of view is welcomed, regardless of job title or demographic. Different modalities are tapped into—writing, drawing, speaking, listening. Participants are asked to synthesize and look for patterns which requires higher order thinking than just generating ideas.
Sometimes the drawings left on the tables are zany. Sometimes they are just stick figures and sometimes the artwork is breathtaking. The words and artwork can be photographed and made into a montage that makes a great cover for a report of the event. I have designed and facilitated half a dozen World Café events in the past six months and people uniformly seem to enjoy the experience. One of seven design principles for the World Café is that people should have fun.
The World Café is the 1995 creation of a global interdisciplinary group known as the Intellectual Capital Pioneers. “Awakening and engaging collective intelligence through conversations about questions that matter” is the motto. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs have written a comprehensive “how-to” book covering the seven design principles and more. The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005). The helpful (and artful) web site is http://www.theworldcafe.com/.
I really like the World Café approach because everyone has a chance to be part of the conversation. Viewpoints that would never see the light of day in an unstructured meeting are aired and discussed. Points of agreement are found where people thought there were none. Participants leave the meeting better educated in the issues, knowing more people in their workplace, and better able to execute organizational strategies because they have a deeper understanding of what they mean. And there’s nothing like shared meaning to inspire people to do their best work. ***