I just facilitated a wonderful event—a World Cafe for the Southeast Association of Facilitators’ (SEAF.org) February workshop. But when it was originally suggested, my first thought was “a World Cafe? That’s been around forever, everyone did that ages ago, we need something new”.
And I WAS SO WRONG! It’s an “old hat” methodology that’s as fresh and current as today—the SEAF event was lively, everyone was engaged, and the discussion was rich. Afterward, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic feedback we received. It turns out that while most of the participants had heard of The World Cafe, few of them had actually been part of one. Everyone loved it!
My first World Cafe experience was about 20 years ago, with Juanita Brown and David Isaacs at a Systems Thinking Conference. There were a couple hundred people in the room, and it was a memorable experience. Since then, I’ve led or helped design and run at least a dozen World Cafes, as either a facilitator or a graphic recorder.
Why do a World Cafe?
If you have a large group and want everyone, even the most quiet, to have a chance to speak and be heard, the World Cafe is perfect—the conversations are intimate, but they combine to create one conversation in the whole room. We had 40+ participants, but a World Cafe can include hundreds.
If you want people to dig deep for insights and new ideas, you can design your Cafe for emergent thinking, and in the process, you’ll “build-in” broad ownership of the outcome. And if you want to explore a number of ideas or options, that works too—our Cafe had eight tables and eight “Key Ideas” to consider. That’s a lot, and each individual just participated in three, but everyone joined in the final de-brief, and shared in the learnings from all eight tables.
What is a World Cafe?
It’s a structured conversation that takes place in an environment that’s designed to create a “cafe” experience—like you might have in your favorite coffee shop today:
People sit in small groups and participate in a series of “rounds” of conversation at their tables. 4-5 in a group is ideal—not everyone may get to participate if there are more, and there’s less intimacy.
Tables are set with checked or white tablecloths (nice to have), butcher paper and markers for capturing thoughts and creating “artifacts”—drawings and doodles— (important to have), and (if possible), flowers.
Participants move to new tables between rounds, and mix, so that they’re with new people each time. They add to the notes and artifacts, and build on previous ideas in their conversation. Because they’re with new people each round, it builds community and ensures that no one dominates the conversation for long.
Each table has a “table host” who remains for one or more rounds to share the previous conversation with new participants.
There are 3 to 5 rounds, 15-30 minutes long. Three rounds of 20-25 minutes is most common in my experience, and their length depends on the questions or topics and the energy of the group (you may want to call an early stop if conversation lags or plan one longer round—often the first one).
You can structure each round to address a new question, and have all the tables discuss the same one, or give them different questions. You can get to innovative and surprising results when you design the questions so each one builds on the last and gets people to dig deeper or think more broadly. Alternatively, you can have give each table a different topic that doesn’t change.
There’s a debrief with the whole room at the end, or after each round (especially good if your questions “build”). This is referred to as the “harvest”, and an experienced graphic recorder can help you decide how best to capture the output.
Follow the Seven Design Principles of The World Cafe.
What makes for a successful World Cafe?
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years:
Allow enough time—we could easily have used more than the 2 hours we could allot to the 3 conversations and debrief—and time each round appropriately for the questions. Remember that moving between tables will take a couple of minutes, and the table host will also need a few minutes to welcome each group and catch them up on the conversation.
Have a simple method for getting people to new tables and ensuring they don’t move together. With tables of 5 numbered 1 through 8, I had the 4 people who weren’t table hosts count off and if they were “even”, go to a new even-numbered table and to an odd-numbered table if they were “odd”. You can also have colored signs at each table and have colored dots on the back of their name tags or on the bottom of their chairs. You can use a combination of numbers and colors, or symbols, or pictures to organize the transition. The key is that it must be simple enough for people to understand quickly and find their next table without a lot of searching.
I’ve never attempted more than 3 rounds—if you have the time, I think it’s better to use it to go deeper into each question than to have more questions.
Questions are key! Design them carefully. It takes time and effort to get to “questions that matter”. You want them to spark deep conversation and new thinking. Second and third round questions can be designed to pull even more out of people and carry the group to powerful insights and possibilities.
Use lots of visuals: posters with guidelines, quotes, etc. Have a big “Welcome!” sign at the door.
A graphic recorder can create a mural of words and images to capture the key ideas that surface during debrief sessions. Just don’t ask them to “wander around from group to group and listen”—it doesn’t work. I’ve found that groups grow silent when someone stops to listen in to their conversations, and besides, I’m never there at the right moment to catch the juicy stuff. A better idea is to ask table hosts to jot down 1-5 of the best thoughts on Post-Its and give those to the graphic recorder to add to the chart. The exact number will depend on how many tables and rounds you have.
Strongly consider including flowers. Our participants were a little shocked to find a blossom in a teacup on the table—a great heads-up that this was a different kind of “meeting”— it changed the vibe and generated anticipation.
If you have a large group, it can be helpful to select table hosts in advance and give them a mini-training on their role and the process in general. Then they’ll be able to answer process questions and ease the job of the facilitator.
Table Hosts are not there to facilitate their groups—their role is quite limited—be sure they understand this. Heavy-handed “facilitation” can ruin the spontaneity, authenticity, and creativity of the other participants.
Use water-based markers, not “Sharpies”, and have lots of colors—a deep color available for each person. Yellow and pastels will not be readable, but are great for adding highlights. (Non-water-based markers will bleed through and may ruin the table or cloth—we used Crayola Super Tips and they worked great, allowing both a narrow line that was perfect for writing readably and a thicker line for shading)
Once you’ve got the structure down and created the environment, the facilitation isn’t difficult. You can do it yourself, or have someone like me help you design and lead your Cafe. The advantage of having an outsider facilitate is that we can help you come up with truly powerful questions and get beyond your usual thinking. It also lets you participate in the conversation along with the rest of your organization—experiencing the richness and depth of the discussion and better getting to know people as individuals. We can answer process questions, set the context, and help with creating the right environment.
So think about The World Cafe for your next big event—it might be just the thing to create community and excitement around new ideas and possibilities!
By Martha McGinnis, MBA, Facilitator and Graphic Recorder