I recently co-facilitated a “taster” to explore a variety of ways of designing meetings to more fully engage the collective intelligence of the group. One of the techniques we explored was the World Café. About half of this group had participated in it before and here were some of their key concerns:
- World Café had become the “new thing” to do at conferences. Some experiences were mediocre as there was not a clear reason people were being put into conversation.
- While many conversations happen, often all the ideas do not get fully captured to take action on.
Setting the context and framing effective questions are two of the World Café design principles. This blog, Setting the Table for a Great Meeting, offers a process for getting clear on a narrative and framing a compelling question to explore. This creates a container and shared purpose for the conversation. If this is too vague or not well-defined, it can diffuse the effectiveness of the technique.
It is also helpful to realize that there are broader reasons for using the World Café process, beyond seeing it as solely to brainstorm and capture ideas. It generates other valuable benefits (see below) even if all the ideas discussed don’t get fully captured. As explored previously in this blog on Taking the Time to Realize the Full Value of Networks, when working with a group to collaborate on a change, building relationships, trust, and a process for working together are integral steps to generating results.
The following points explore contexts where the World Café process is valuable and the related benefits:
- Connect across siloes – One of the biggest challenges is that organizations and larger systems are siloed: people work in the same organization/community/system or on the same issue, yet they don’t talk to each other or understand how their work or issues relate. World Café enables people from these “fragmented” parts of a community/system to meet and get to know each other and deepen their understanding of other parts of the system/issue.
- Build a foundation of trust for collaboration – Establishing relationships and building trust are foundations of building interest and willingness of people to collaborate from various departments, organizations, or parts of a community. Building a relationship starts in conversation – in talking and listening. The small group format of World Café offers the space for deeper conversations and story telling. The mixing of rounds increases the number of people who connect. A conference participant at a World Café I hosted at a socially responsible business conference enthusiastically shared with me, “I got to meet and really talk with nine people. The connections were much deeper than a typical conference where you chat at the coffee break or lunch.”
- A taste of collaboration’s benefits – Participants get to experience a small taste of emergence, one of the benefits of collaboration, where my idea can combine with your idea to create something new. In this video, about Where Good Ideas Come From, Stephen Johnson shares his insights from studying history that times of great innovation happened in places where there was a cross-pollinating of ideas and people in café-style spaces.
- Planting seeds – You never know where the seeds from any one of the many conversations and new connections will take root. For example, last December I facilitated a World Café and Open Space at a leadership conference for non-profits and foundations in Greater New Bedford. The following June, I learned that three groups are still meeting, continuing conversations that got started that day.
- A different way of learning – Often we think of education and learning in the model of a teacher or expert at the front of a room sharing information to an audience of students, e.g., Powerpoint slide shows. The World Café offers a way to practice collective learning, surfacing and synthesizing the collective experience of people in the room to gain new insight, while also providing a way for each individual to learn and make unique connections relevant to their work. Learning comes from having the space to reflect on one’s experience and hear about others. Examples of World Café questions for collective learning are:
- When has collaboration happened in this organization that went well? What were the conditions that enabled this?
- What have we learned from this experience?
It is common for a new idea or process to come in where people have a mixed or negative early experience, e.g., it is not offered skillfully or at the right time and place. It is natural to say “I don’t want to try that again,” even though there is much promise and potential to the idea. At the end of this workshop, participants shared their insights and highlights, which included:
- Great way to change typical meetings
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with new forms of meetings
- Appreciate the broader reasons to do a World Cafe
- Trust the process
- Need to forego “expected outcomes”