The room is warmly lighted and filled with card tables covered with checked tablecloths, on which are large sheets of drawing paper, cups of crayons and markers, and small vases of flowers. You're asked to sit four to a table, and after some introductory remarks, the room is turned loose on a question. You and your tablemates kick into a lively discussion in no time, jotting down significant points on the drawing paper and occasionally sketching diagrams for each other.

After a set period of time — perhaps 20 minutes — you're asked to change tables. One of each foursome stays behind to act as “host” to the next group and to pass on the high points of the first discussion. You may address the same question with your new colleagues, or you may be given another one that builds on the first. After a few rounds, the tables are asked to report back to the group as a whole, and the findings are recorded on poster-sized paper and displayed around the room.

Get People Talking

You've just visited the World Café. This casual, yet purposeful meeting format (pioneered in 1995 by organizational learning and communications strategists Juanita Brown, PhD, and David Isaacs in Mill Valley, Calif.) takes advantage of the natural way people talk about the things that matter to them. “It's programmed into our genes,” says executive coach Ken Homer, who works with Brown and Isaacs to promulgate World Café methodology. “We are all creatures of story and conversation. We've always sat around in small groups to talk about what's important to us. The World Café process allows everybody to be heard and to have their contributions brought into the whole and reflected on by the whole, in a relatively short time period. It's a way of accessing collective intelligence.”

World Café captures the energy of informal discussion. “Most important conversations take place in informal settings,” says Homer. “We go to a boardroom and sit around this big table and give our reports — but how did we get most of the information in the reports? It was after a meeting, when you walked out and started talking to your friend who works at the next desk. Or it was from a conversation around the water cooler.”

Putting Together a Café

In planning a Café Conversation, the most important steps are to figure out who needs to be there and to craft the right questions. “At one level,” Homer says, “it's a pretty straightforward thing. You convene people at tables and have them talk and move around and report. At another level, there's a much more subtle matrix, or grid, of design underlying that.” He estimates that it takes at least half a day to design each full day of Café conversation, in terms of choosing participants, crafting questions, and plotting when tables will change and when they will report back to the whole group.

“Let's take the example of a new product rollout,” he says. “The first thing we'd have to think about is who needs to be in the Café. Obviously, we have to have R&D in there because they're coming up with the product, and we have to have marketing — two traditional enemy camps. We would probably need to have people from distribution, customer service, and management.

“Then there are those stakeholders who aren't considered decision-makers, but the organization runs a risk in going forward without the information they can provide. World Café is a way to give them access to the process, even if they only participate in the part of the meeting that's relevant to them.”

The idea is to take all these people and decide which questions from each group are most important to the success of the project. These are the ones that move to the next tables. “This is where it starts to get into a very demanding design phase,” says Homer. “What questions are going to focus our energy? What are the most important ones to ask?”

The actual pattern of the Café session depends on what you are trying to address. For the product launch, for example, “it might be very useful in the initial design phase to have each department go through a couple of rounds staying at its own table, to discover the questions important to it,” says Homer. “Then have a host stay at the table, and have the folks at the sales table go to marketing, R&D, and distribution to mix it up. The host will share what his or her department's questions were, and then ask what questions the other departments have brought.”

Is It for You?

It's important to consider whether the issues you want to discuss are suited to the World Café format. It tends to be best for generating input, sharing knowledge, and exploring possibilities. It is not meant for one-way communication, detailed implementation planning, or groups of fewer than about a dozen.

“If you already have an outcome in mind, don't use the Café process,” Homer warns. “If you bring people in, you won't get the outcome you wanted.”

He has helped to convene sessions that have lasted as long as three or four days, some involving more than 1,000 participants.

Homer likes to refer to the World Café as “a neutral convener of conversations,” which brings to light knowledge that might otherwise remain buried behind department or division barriers. “Intelligence is distributed throughout a company or organization,” he says. “And when you begin to engage everybody's contribution, the cumulative intelligence of your organization begins to emerge.”

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