I’ve been using the World Cafe process a lot lately – with groups of policy makers, scientists, planners, community activists and bushfire survivors.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Use a broad theme for the discussion question, and use the same question for all the rounds of discussion. People will naturally diverge and talk about what’s important for them.
2. Have people sit in groups of four without tables, pens, paper etc. Keeping notes is a distraction from the conversation.
3. Groups of 3 or 4 are ideal, when there’s five or more people in a group, they tend to break into sub groups.
4. Identify a group ‘host’ – a person who stays put and provides a bridge between the previous group and the current group. (I get people into groups of four and then ask them to discover the person who most recently saw a movie in a cinema – for example – and ask that person to raise their arm. I ask the person sitting to their left to be the group host. This has a few benefits. The process of talking to each other about something as seemingly inane as ‘who last saw a movie in a cinema’ breaks the ice around speaking in a small group. The surprise regarding who is the group host, breaks any tension and usually gets a laugh.)
5. People tend to sit with people they know, so have the first round of 10 minutes. Allow the next two rounds to go longer, up to 15 minutes each. Three rounds is enough.
6. At the end of the third round, ask the groups to remain intact and get them to write down 3 – 5 key points, suggestions, ideas, pros and cons (whatever is appropriate for the group and the purpose) on large-format sticky notes (one idea per sticky).
7. Use this data for the next phase of the process, if needed.
At a community consultation workshop I’ve asked the groups to identify three things they agree with and three things that concern them regarding the proposal. I hear all the ‘agree with’ comments from each group in turn and ask for common themes, and then do the same with the ‘concerns’. The cards are collected and written up for the client.
At a policy-making workshop between various government agencies I’ve used the final question to identify the key messages that need to be communicated.
At a bushfire recovery workshop, I asked for project ideas. These were posted on the wall, one by one, so that every idea was honoured, and grouped (on the go) according to similar themes that emerged.
This process I’ve described is not traditional World Cafe. My approach is based on doing what works, responding to facilitating in less-than-ideal conditions (for example, with over-large tables) and enabling people to have worthwhile conversations.
- Get rid of the tables
- Have groups of 4 or less
- Allow the groups to diverge naturally in their conversations
- Enable convergence with a concrete product