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Senior Leadership - Hosting a World Cafe Session

When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with someone at work? As digital communication becomes increasingly popular, conversation is becoming a lost art. While we may be in touch with more people thanks to technology, there’s something invaluable that comes with sharing ideas and learning from one another during a face-to-face interaction. Need an easy way to do this? Look no further than the World Cafe method.

Goal


Use the World Cafe method to create meaningful connections and engage in collective conversation.

What is the World Cafe?
The World Cafe is a simple, yet effective methodology for knowledge sharing and holding group conversations. The concept originated in 1995 in the home of Juanita Brown and David Issacs after their plan to host a large group discussion was interrupted by the rain. While seeking cover, their guests—which included fellow business and academic leaders—spontaneously broke out into small groups. They continued discussing the conversation topic at hand, writing insights on napkins and periodically changing tables to cross-pollinate their ideas. According to the official World Cafe website, “over the course of the morning, the innovative process they improvised gave birth to an experience of collective intelligence that transformed the depth, scope, and quality of their collaboration.” In short, they discovered that cafe style conversations were a powerful way to engage in collective conversation. Since then, the World Cafe method has been embraced by tens of thousands of organizations and educational institutions all over the world.

How does the World Cafe Method improve employee engagement and culture?
Having a conversation over coffee is something most of us do all the time. Even if you aren’t a coffee drinker, there’s no denying that it’s easier to open up and share ideas in a relaxed setting as opposed to a stiff, fluorescent boardroom. Hosting a World Cafe session is an excellent way to bring employees together and encourage them to talk freely about a particular issue or topic at hand. But most importantly, it allows leaders to use conversation as a core business process for developing a shared knowledge base, deepening connections, stimulating innovative thinking, shifting people’s conceptions, and encouraging collective action. This is especially important for organizations looking to make systematic changes that resonate positively with employees.

How do you host a World Cafe session?
A successful World Cafe is one that creates meaningful connections and encourages authentic conversation between employees. While easy to execute, the biggest challenge is determining what your employees will discuss and how it will benefit your organization. Generally, it’s best to align the session with your organizational goals. In terms of subject matter, avoid discussing issues that leaders already have a solution for, or questions that will draw unanimous answers. Most World Cafe sessions last for 1.5-2 hours and include a minimum of 12 participants.

Action


Prepare And Conduct A World Cafe Session

Determine the purpose - First and arguably the most important step is to determine the purpose of the session. What is your organization trying to achieve through this session? Are you looking to gain a deeper understanding of a topic? Surface organizational problems? Build better relationships? If possible, try to come up with a primary and secondary purpose to give participants more to work with.

Pick questions/topic to explore - Most World Cafes are designed around 1 or 2 thought-provoking questions/topics that get people talking about what’s important. Pick questions/topics that are simple to understand, do not have a yes/no answer, and can open the team to new possibilities. They can be as creative as you’d like, just make sure they relate back to the purpose.

Invite people to join - Invite a minimum of 12 employees from a variety of departments, disciplines, and titles. This will bring more diverse thinking and perspectives to the table and allow people to converse with others they may not have a chance to speak to that often. Remember, all participation should be voluntary.

Choose a venue - Success of the World Cafe is highly dependant on the environment. Sessions can be held in an actual cafe, a hall, or even a park — as long as it’s a welcoming atmosphere that imitates the casual feel of a coffee shop. Make sure the venue can comfortably accommodate enough tables and chairs for groups of 4-6 people.

Pick a facilitator(s) - Choose someone to act as the facilitator. This could be someone in a leadership position, HR, or even an employee that is comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Each table will also have a facilitator, however, this is a voluntary position that can be chosen by participants the day of.

Conduct the session - Have facilitators give a warm welcome and explain the process. Participants will be split into groups of no fewer than 4 and given a topic or question to discuss. After 20 minutes of conversation, have participants switch tables. The volunteer facilitator at each table will remain at the table to summarize the themes, key ideas, and questions their group talked about, allowing everyone to become more deeply connected in the conversation. Try to have at least 3 rounds of conversation.

Take a break - After the rounds are complete, allow participants to take a 15 minute break. This will let people reflect and refresh before the next step.

Reflect on the session - Invite participants to share what emerged from their conversations, as well as any thoughts and insights they have with the group. Work as a team to determine if there are any patterns or key insights worth pursuing.

Determine the next steps - Follow-up with participants to share how the insights from the session will be used within the organization and provide them with a clear overview of any upcoming next steps.

Reference Material
World Cafe Method
World Cafe - Guidelines & Principles
The Power of Conversational Leadership

Updated on: 08/31/2023

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