The world café is a methodology for hosting group dialogue which emphasizes the power of simple conversation in considering relevant questions and themes.
The metaphor of a real-life café is used: in a world café session, participants – of any number - are encouraged to take part in a collaborative conversation within an environment typically modeled after such a café (i.e. a room furnished with small tables, tablecloth, light music, flowers, refreshments, etc).
The core design philosophy of a world café session is that people possess an intrinsic ability and insights to address issues of decision-making or planning effectively, and that natural conversation is one of the best options for eliciting such dialogue. As participants rotate between tables over the course of a session, individual conversations build off one and other, and ideas and issues “cross-pollinate”. In doing so, the collective intelligence, focus, and experiences of the group are brought to bear on a particular issue or issues with a collective sense of purpose and direction.
To conduct a world café session, four to five participants are seated at each table. Following introductory remarks and a brief overview of the world café method, an ‘invitation’ to discuss the particular issue, decision, or plan is presented (often in the form of a question). Each table then engages in conversation, writing down key thoughts and ideas cards or sketching them out on paper tablecloths. After 20 - 30 minutes, participants are asked to change tables – carrying thoughts from their previous table to a new group. During this process, a “table host” stays behind at each table to share the insights of their previous discussion with new arrivals. After two to three small-group rounds, all participants reform into a large-group conversation, and actionable ideas and recommendations are “harvested”.
Advice for choosing this method
- This option provides a creative alternative to using PowerPoint presentations.
- This option ideally does not include more than 25 participants.
Advice for using this method
- The central question posed to each group should be clear and simple, provoke thought, generate energy, open new possibilities, invite deep reflection, and seek useful insight. Above all else, it should be directly relevant to the participants themselves.
- Costs for a world café session are generally limited to refreshments and decoration.
- Spaces with natural light and an outdoor views work best. Tables should be small enough to encourage intimate conversation, and should be arranged in a random fashion as opposed to neat rows. Each table should contain markers, several large pieces of paper for sketching, and a colorful center-piece (for instance, flowers or colored water). Refreshments and light music at the start of a session also help with fostering a conducive atmosphere.
- If resources allow, make use of dedicated “harvesting” teams to collect and display the most important insights, questions, and recommendations as they emerge from table conversations throughout the session.
- Cards and table sketches may be collected at the end as outputs for later reflection and review.
- In order to encourage everyone’s contributions, a “talking object” is often used. This object – which could be anything – is passed from speaker to speaker. Only the participant holding the object can speak, while the rest of the group must listen. The holder of the talking object is expected to remain on-topic and clearly articulate their thoughts; the listeners are expected to remain attentive and open to the speaker.
Brown, J & Isaacs, D. (2005) The World Café: Shaping our Futures Through Conversations that Matter. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler
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'World cafe' is referenced in:
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