The World Café by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs

The world café is a large audience workshop organized as a conversation process between small groups. It is a type of workshop that was invented in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in California. To illustrate, the large group is split in sub-groups that meet over small tables like those in a café. Furthermore, the purpose of the world café is to leverage collective knowledge and intelligence to consolidate a common understanding of the situation and build innovative and consensual solutions.

Nevertheless, this type of workshop still requires structure to make sure people in the group are properly mixed and that they all evenly contribute. If the topic and the questions to structure the journey are defined before the workshop, the outcomes and the solutions are totally open and result only from the group work. Moreover, it is important to understand that the world café is not just a way to take advantage of collective knowledge and intelligence. Indeed, it is a powerful change management tool as with contribution, people will feel part of the project, they will change their mindset and switch to collective action. At last, the world café needs at least 12 participants, but there is no upper limit. Some of them reached more than 1000 participants.

The World Café is built on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges; that the answers we need are available to us; and that we are wiser together than we are alone.
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs – creators of the World Café

Introducing the World Café

The world café fully leverages the collective intelligence to build a common vision, answer and solution. Indeed, it is really about the frame and asking powerful questions. So the group focuses on what matters for them, gets awareness and switchs to action like in coaching. Also, it targets solution, not problem like in Solution Focus, the coaching approach.

Moreover, it also stresses the importance of the space, a brain-friendly one, to support thinking and innovation, like in the “Training from back of the room” approach. At last, this approach is an interesting balance between the energy and variety of a large group and the intimacy and focus of small groups. Indeed, participants gather for each iteration in small group, then move to another table. One of the participant stays on the table to share with the new joiners of his/her group the learning of the past iteration. Then the new small group elaborates on previous learning.

The world café, invented in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, is a large audience workshop organized as a conversation process between small groups. It is based on 7 principles: set the frame, create a safe & comfortable space, explore questions that matter, encourage everyone’s contribution, cross-pollinate & connect ideas, listen together for patterns & insights, and at last, harvest & share collective discoveries.

The world café is structured over of 7 steps that we will review below:

  • Set the frame
  • Explore questions that matter
  • Create a safe and comfortable space
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution
  • Cross-pollinate and connect ideas
  • Listen together for patterns and insights
  • Harvest and share collective discoveries

When to use a World Café?

  • Firstly, a world café makes it possible to share knowledge and ideas in order to stimulate innovative thinking to answer challenges and explore opportunities.
  • Secondly, it has a social function as it allows building and reinforcing a group, either people are meeting for the first time or not. Still on the social aspect, a world café enables establishing a common understanding and vision.
  • Thirdly, a world café is relevant only if they are more than 12 persons in the group and that you want everybody to contribute. In addition, you need to have at least one hour and a half to deliver the workshop.

Note that a world café does not make sense if you already have the solution or the end result and you just want the group to adhere to it. Furthermore, the group ambience should be at least neutral. It requires a lot of skills to deliver this kind of workshop in an explosive context.

Set the frame

In the world café, the output is not known in advance but this does not mean that it is an unstructured approach. On the contrary, and this is the role of the frame step that structures the world café in 2 ways:

  • Firstly, by defining the purpose and the questions to address during the workshop. The topic should matter to the audience and they should have the knowledge to work on it. It cannot be a discovery of a new topic.
  • Secondly, by specifying then enforcing the workshop process so that small group collaboration and large group mixing are properly triggered to delivery and creativity. In addition, the world café host supports the dialog and the focus on the topic all session long.

Clarify the purpose and means to support it

  • Understand the current situation and needs.
  • Evaluate the proper format of workshop to address them and to confirm that a world café is relevant.
  • Clarify expected outcomes, either tangible like learning and options but also intangible like team building. Give a name to the world café that highlights this purpose.
  • Define the learning approach and steps. This include the timing: the total duration of the workshop, the number of iterations and their duration, and at last, if there are special transitions between iterations. There should be at least 3 iterations of 20 to 30 minutes, plus the introduction of the workshop with expectations and the conclusion with outcomes.

Identify the audience

Determine the right participants based on:

  • Knowledge to have the cognitive materials to address the topic.
  • Perspectives to cover, so all points of view are in the workshop.
  • Motivation of the contributors based on what is at stake for them.

Then design a clear and appealing invitation with purpose, expectations and all the logistic information.

Integrate the World Café in the big picture

  • Think about pre-event activities.
  • Figure out post-event follow-up.

Explore questions that matter

Building your questions

Questions are essential in the world café as they structure the dialog and attract energy by focusing on topics that matter to the audience. Truly, people are fully engaged when they feel they bring ideas on issues that matter to them.

In addition, good questions invite inquiry and discovery. Surely, finding a solution and identifying actions come in a second phase. Therefore, they are by nature open questions. In other words, the kind of questions that don’t have “yes” or “no” as answers. You can have a look on my post about the powerful questions for more.

The way you ask questions is also important as it has an impact on the dynamic and the result of the workshop. For instance, ask your questions a positive way.

At last, your world café may explore a single question or use a set of questions to dig progressively in the topic over the successive conversational iterations.

Here is a check list to build good questions. They should:

  • Be simple and clear
  • Be open and inviting to reflection
  • Generate energy as they matter to the audience and are positive
  • Be solution oriented, not problem oriented
  • Look for what is useful
  • Reveal unconscious assumptions
  • Offer new opportunities

Test your questions before your world café and check at least that they:

  • Focus collective attention
  • Enable idea connection
  • Create a forward movement

Examples of World Café questions

Questions to focus collective attention

– What’s important to you about this situation, and why do you care?
– Then, what do we know so far/still need to learn about this situation?
– What opportunities can we see in this situation?
– At last, what question, if answered, could make the greatest difference to the future of the situation we’re exploring here?
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs – creators of the World Café

Questions to connect ideas and to find deeper insight

– What’s emerging that is new for you? Furthermore, what new connections are you making?
– What surprised you? Then, what puzzled or challenged you? To finish, what question would you like to ask now?
– What is missing from the picture so far?
– Where do we need more clarity?
– What’s the next level of thinking we need to address?
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs – creators of the World Café

Questions to create a forward movement

– What needs our immediate attention going forward?
– What would it take to create change on this issue?
– How can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each make?
– Then, what challenges might come our way, and how might we meet them?
– What could happen that would enable us to feel fully engaged and energized in this situation?
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs – creators of the World Café

Create a safe and comfortable space

This principle is about creating a brain-friendly environment: safe, informal, inviting and playful. Clearly, it is when people feel safe and comfortable to be themselves that they deliver their best listening, talking and creative thinking. In addition, you want to bring some novelty and get people outside their normal environment. To put it differently, change the environment to support new behaviors. At last, the environment should support the creative part of our brain fully leveraging visual tools like mind-mapping with tablecloth as the collective place where emerging ideas are captured.

The café-style for the intimacy

  • Small café-style tables: round table of about 1 meter. Arrange the café tables in a random way rather than in neat formal rows.
  • 4-5 comfortable seats per table. Indeed, the preferred number of people per group is 4. As a matter of fact, less than 3 people and you will not have enough diversity of perspective, more than 5 limits the amount of personal interactions.

The brain-friendly elements for the best cognitive experience

  • A comfortable and warm environment
  • A cheerful space including colorful tablecloths
  • A natural light and external view environment
  • Side tables for refreshments and snacks
  • Decoration of the space
  • A creative environment
    • Flipchart paper covering tables
    • Color markers
    • Wall space to display end result

Note that a talking stick or other object playing this function may be a good idea to balance talking time.

The warm and informal welcoming

Your invitation also contributes to how audience will feel in the workshop so make sure it is as warm and inviting as your space. Make sure also in your introduction to highlight the world café principles that support creativity:

  • Listen actively: to understand, not just to reply
  • Suspend judgement and accept and try to understand different points of view
  • Speak clearly and be solution oriented
  • Participate as all participants are representing an aspect of the diversity of the whole system

Encourage everyone’s contribution

The world café host encourages everyone in the workshop to contribute with their questions and ideas. Those who want can simply participate by listening. In addition, the host should promote participants to write, doodle and draw their key ideas on their tablecloths.

Really, the approach in the world café is to contribute, co-build and elaborate on other thinking. Not to criticize. This allows to:

  • Multiply the connections between people
  • Foster a sense of community
  • Create a climate of discovery

Creativity is especially supported by:

  • Suspending early judgment
  • Exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs
  • Listening for unexpected connections between ideas
  • Encouraging multiple perspectives
  • Consolidating a shared understanding

Cross-pollinate and connect ideas

Optimum learning and creativity happens in groups where there is dense web of interactions.

The world café supports this principle with 2 practices:

  • Firstly, contributors have the opportunity to be travelers and move between tables. So the travelers meet new people to exchange with and as they carry key ideas to new tables, they provide new perspectives and the group make new connections. As a result, unexpected learnings, key ideas and patterns emerge thanks to the iterative enriching and refining.
  • Secondly, one person remains at the table as table host for the next iteration. This person will provide meaning of the past iteration to the new joiners and acts as content steward.
  • Thirdly, the disciplined use of questions structures the dialog and maintains the focus despite the reconfiguration of small groups iteration after iteration.

Thanks to this mechanism, people build on one another’s ideas and everyone contributes with their own perspective to create a common new understanding. World café participants describe this experience as a “resonance of thought” and “an accelerated evolutionary development of ideas.”

At the end of the second or third iteration, all the tables in the room will be cross-pollinated thanks to the group mixing and the travelers.

Listen together for patterns and insights

The quality of listening is one of the most important factor to have a successful world café. Thanks to mutual listening and paying attention to the big picture, key ideas and patterns emerge as we connect the elements. Also, participants should pay attention to what is not being spoken about.

Harvest and share collective discoveries

The last step is to take a step back. Each small group returns to its first table and silently reflects on key ideas and patterns experienced in the small group conversations. Thanks to the tablecloths collective knowledge is visible. After that the sharing to the whole group can have different format:

  • Organize a gallery tour of the tablecloths: participants place their paper tablecloths from their tables on the wall so other members can take a tour on the group’s ideas at the end or even during dedicated breaks.
  • Create idea clusters: the participants with the support of the world café host collect Post-Its into affinity clusters so that related ideas are shared to prepare the next steps.
  • Synthetize and share a story: the world café host may create a storybook mixing text and visual to bring the results of the large group work to a large audience after the event.

The World Café process

The roles in the World Café

  • The world café host: in charge of all the preparation and the facilitation of the workshop.
  • The table host (one per table): the person in charge for one iteration of welcoming participants on his/her table and facilitating the discussion and recording.
  • The travelers: the other participants who move each iteration from one table to another.

Before the Word Café, the world café host’s actions

  • Sets the frame with the context, purpose and expectations of the world café to come. Then he or she identifies the audience, prepares the invitation and invites them.
  • Creates a safe and comfortable space.
  • Explores questions that matter to the audience to energize and structure the world café.

At the beginning of the Word Café and before the discussion, the world café host’s actions

  • Welcomes the participants.
  • Explains the purpose of the workshop and the expected outcomes.
  • Proposes the questions and makes them visible.
  • Explains the world café process and guidelines and makes them visible.

For each small table group and for 2 to 3 iterations

  • Each participant introduces himself/herself.
  • The group identifies the table host as part of its self-organization.
  • The conversation about the topic starts between all the participants with writing key ideas and doodling on the tablecloth.
  • At the end of the iteration, after 20 to 30 minutes of discussion, travelers move to a new table and the table host remains.

Meanwhile, the world café host moves among the tables to encourage everyone to participate, to remind the guidelines and to make sure key ideas are recorded.

After the iterations

  • Each group member goes back to his/her original table to share the common key ideas and patterns that have emerged from their multiple conversations.
  • The group collects new ideas that emerged: if somebody has a new idea he/she speaks up.
  • Break, then each group member is invited to go and see the whole group sharing format in one of the options as described in harvest and share collective discoveries: gallery tour of the tablecloths, idea clusters or a storybook.

The world café host fully supports the consolidation and the sharing of the learnings.

The World Café guidelines

  • Suspend judgement and accept different points of view
  • Contribute to make the discussion table a safe place for open and respectful sharing
  • Focus on the essentials
  • Share your thoughts
  • Express what both is in your head and heart
  • Listen to understand (not just to answer)
  • Connect with people and connect ideas
  • Pay attention to non obvious points of view and deep questions
  • Play, sketch, draw and leave your track on the tablecloth as the collective memory of the learning
  • Have a good time and enjoy the experience

Guideline to manage confrontation in small group

Propose the participants to use this 3-statement approach to overpass hard difference in point of view:

– What I heard you say that I appreciated is…
– What I heard that challenged my thinking is…
– To better understand your perspective I’d like to ask you…
The World Café by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs

What’s next? Learn more about Change Management and discover Coaching

Do you want to learn more about the World Café? Here are some valuable references from the creators of this approach, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs

  • The page with the whitepaper on the World Café from the authors in different languages.
  • Their reference book on the World Café.
  • The website of the authors.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × 1 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top