The World Cafe

The World Cafe is a 20 year old workshop activity for engaging your participants in conversations that fits nicely into our team building activities section.

It draws on 7 design principles to create a simple, effective and flexible format for hosting large group discussions for between 12 to 200 participants.

The World Cafe

You can download a FREE Powerpoint or PDF of this tool at the bottom of this page

What is it?

  • A powerful method for engaging your participants in conversations that matter.
  • The format is flexible and adapts to many different circumstances limited only by your imagination.

Objectives

  • To help your participants have collaborative dialogue, engage actively with each other and create constructive possibilities for action.

When Would You Use It?

  • The World Cafe is a discovery tool that helps a large group understand a set of issues at their own pace. It’s great for helping people reach a state of common understanding and alignment.
  • It’s not a problem solving tool so keep your group away from creating solutions as much as possible (however tempting that might be).

The 7 Design Principles

Design principle 1 – Set the context

Focus on the reason you are bringing everyone together.

Holding onto the purpose of your meeting helps you choose the most important elements to realize your goals: e.g. who should be there? What questions should be tackled?

Design principle 2 – Create hospitable space

As the Cafe Host you must create a hospitable space – one that feels safe and inviting.

You know yourself, when you feel comfortable, you do your best creative thinking, speaking, and listening.

In particular, consider how your invitation and your physical set-up contribute. You’re looking to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Design principle 3 – Explore questions that matter

Find questions that are relevant to real concerns of the group.

Powerful questions attract energy, insight, and action.

Design principle 4 – Encourage everyone’s contribution

Most people don’t only want to participate, they want to make a difference through action.

You should encourage everyone to contribute ideas, while also allowing anyone who wants to participate by simply listening to do so.

Design principle 5 – Connect diverse perspectives

The unique process of asking people to move between tables and contribute their ideas whilst meeting new people is one of the distinguishing characteristics of The World Cafe.

Prepared to be surprised for a flood of new insights from your group as the session progresses.

Design principle 6 – Listen together for patterns & insights

Encourage the group to listen for what is not being spoken along with what is.

The quality of listening is one of the most important factors that determine the success of a Cafe.

Design principle 7 – Share collective discoveries

The last step plenary of the World Cafe, often called the “harvest”, involves surfacing any patterns so they are visible to everyone in a large group conversation.

Invite a few minutes of quiet reflection on the patterns, themes and deeper questions from the smaller table conversations.

Make sure you have a way to capture the harvest.

Resources required

  • 1.5 hours.
  • Small round tables of about 1m diameter are perfect (40 inches).
  • Enough chairs for all participants and presenters.
  • White paper tablecloths to doodle on for each round table (or colorful tablecloths covered in large pieces of white paper).
  • Colored water-based markers or crayons scattered on each table. Preferably dark colors so the results are easy to read.
  • A side table packed with fruit and refreshments (to keep those energy levels up).
  • Flip-chart to capture the final plenary discussion.

World Cafe Etiquette

  • Focus on what really matters
  • Contribute your ideas & thinking
  • Speak your mind and heart with humility
  • Listen to understand
  • Connect your ideas with others
  • Play, doodle and draw – use your tablecloths to full effect
  • Have fun!

Process

  1. Setup small café-style tables in a rooms and seat 4 or 5 Participants at each. These are your ‘conversation clusters’.
  2. The Facilitator then explains to the group they will now have 3 rounds of conversation of approximately 20-30 minutes each.
  3. Questions or issues that genuinely matter to your work, life or community are discussed while other groups explore similar questions at nearby tables.
  4. The Facilitator encourages the table members to write, doodle, and draw key ideas on their paper tablecloths or to note key ideas on large index cards or placemats in the center of the group.
  5. After completing the 1st round of conversation, the Facilitator asks each table to agree a ‘table host’ who remains at the table while the others travel to different tables.
  6. The travelers now get up from the table and move to another. They can go to whichever table they prefer carrying with them key ideas, themes and questions from their old table into their new conversations.
  7. The Facilitator asks the Table Hosts to welcome their new guests and briefly share the main ideas, themes and questions from the initial conversation (max 2 mins). Encourage guests to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations – listening carefully and building on each other’s contributions.
  8. At the end of the 2nd round, all of the tables and conversations will be cross-pollinated with insights from previous conversations.
  9. In the 3rd round of conversation, people can return to their home (original) tables to synthesize their discoveries, or they may continue on to new tables, leaving the same or a new host at the table.
  10. An optional step is for the Facilitator to pose a new question that helps deepen the exploration for the 3rd round of conversation.
  11. After your 3rd round of conversation, initiate a period of sharing discoveries and insights in a whole group conversation.
  12. Make sure you have someone flipchart this plenary conversation so you capture any patterns, knowledge and actions that emerge.

Role of the Lead Facilitator (aka The Cafe Host)

  • Your job is to see that the 7 Design Principles (see above) are adhered to. Always remember the Cafe Host can make the difference between an interesting conversation & one that truly matters and is a game changer.
  • Work with a planning team of key stakeholders to determine the purpose of your World Cafe and decide who should be invited to participate.
  • Name your cafe in a way appropriate to its purpose, e.g. Leadership Cafe; Knowledge Cafe; Strategy Cafe; Discovery Cafe, etc.
  • Help write and frame the invitation.
  • Create a comfortable Cafe environment.
  • Welcome the participants as they enter with a smile and bundles of enthusiasm.
  • Explain the purpose of the gathering.
  • Explain the Cafe guidelines and Cafe Etiquette and put them in a visible place either on the wall or on the tables (or both).
  • Explain how the process and logistics will work, including the role of the Table Host (the person who volunteers to remain at the end of a round of conversation and welcome new people for the next round).
  • Pose the question / themes for the rounds of conversation and make sure that the question(s) are visible to everyone.
  • During the conversation, move among the tables encouraging everyone to participate. Remind people to doodle and draw.
  • Let people know when it’s time to move and begin a new round.
  • Make sure key insights are recorded visually or are gathered and posted if possible.

Role of the Table Hosts

  • Remain at the table when others leave and welcome newcomers from other tables for the next round of conversation.
  • Briefly share key insights from the prior conversation so others can link and build using ideas from their respective tables. But please be brief (max 2 mins) so the conversation proper can start ASAP.
  • Encourage people at your table to draw on the tables – ideas, discoveries, and deeper questions as they emerge.

How to create a cafe ambiance?

  • Whether you are bringing together 12 or 200 people it is essential to create an environment that evokes a feeling of both informality and intimacy.
  • When your guests arrive they should know immediately that this is no ordinary meeting.
  • Select a space with natural light and an outdoor view (if possible).
  • Arrange the tables and chairs like an actual cafe. Less than 4 people at a table may not provide enough conversation diversity, more than 5 limits personal interaction.
  • Arrange the tables in a random arrangement rather than in neat rows. Think tables in a sidewalk cafe after it has been open for a few hours – they look relaxing and inviting.
  • Put a small vase of flowers on each table. If allowed add a candle too.
  • Place plants or greenery around the room.
  • If you can’t find paper tablecloths find some normal colorful tablecloths and place at least 2 large pieces of paper over each.
  • Put one additional cafe table in the front of the room with extra materials on that table groups can come and get if they need to.
  • Consider displaying art or adding posters to the walls (flip-charts with colorful quotes work well) and play music as people arrive.
  • Provide beverages and snacks – what sort of cafe doesn’t have food and drinks?!?

What questions should you choose?

  • Well-crafted questions attract energy and focus our attention positively on what really counts.
  • You should pose open-ended questions – the kind that don’t have yes or no answers. Try starting the question with “How do we <insert tricky issue here>?”
  • Good questions need not imply immediate action steps or problem solving. They should invite inquiry and discovery.
  • You’ll know you have a good question when it continues to surface new ideas and possibilities.

Secret Sauce

  • Pay close attention to the reason you are bringing people together. Knowing the purpose of your meeting enables you to consider which participants need to be there and what parameters are important to achieve your purpose.
  • You need to create an hospitable space – one that feels safe and inviting. When people feel comfortable to be themselves, they do their most creative thinking, speaking and listening.
  • The question(s) you choose or that Participants discover during a World Cafe are critical to its success. Your cafe may explore a single question or several questions that support a logical progression of discovery.
  • Bounce possible questions off of key people who will be participating to see if they sustain interest and energy.
  • Always choose a new Table Host at the end of each round – not at the beginning (the same person should not be a Table Host for more than one round).
  • There are no facilitators in a World Cafe, only hosts. Everyone at the tables is responsible for hosting themselves and each other.

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About the Author

Nick Martin has more than 15 years experience as a change manager and is the founder and CEO of WorkshopBank.

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