In 1995, a small group of business and academic leaders were meeting at the home of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in Mill Valley, California. None of them had any idea they were about to create a social innovation that would spread rapidly around the world.
Yet they did. With their plan for a morning large-circle dialogue disrupted by rain, the two dozen participants spontaneously formed into small, intimate table conversations about the questions that had drawn them together, recording their insights on makeshift paper “tablecloths.” They periodically interrupted these conversations to switch tables so the insights and ideas that stayed with them might circulate, deepen, and connect. Harvesting the table conversations enabled them to notice the emerging patterns in their thinking, which then enriched subsequent rounds of conversation. 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.
They had discovered the World Café.
Later they asked: “What happened here that enabled such great conversation and breakthrough thinking around critical strategic issues?” Through action research and experimentation in several countries, they subsequently identified seven key World Café design principles and began to articulate the core concepts of conversational leadership that underpin the process.
Since that rainy morning in Mill Valley, California, the World Café approach to strategic dialogue, multi-stakeholder engagement, multi-generational collaboration, and cooperative action has been enthusiastically embraced by tens of thousands of groups in settings as disparate as large multinational corporations, small nonprofits, government offices, community-based organizations, and educational institutions in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.
Through this collective effort, innovative approaches to critical issues in socially responsible business, health care, education, environmental protection, social welfare, conflict resolution, sustainable development, and many other fields are being discovered and implemented.
The key to its success lies in the simplicity and power of the World Café process and the principles that underlie it. World Café hosts and conveners are learning that the core design principles of the World Café can be applied in many different ways, and that the process resonates with traditional practices of dialogue in many different cultures.
After two decades of development, the World Café is now at a new threshold, as exciting developments make this another pivotal moment in the evolution of this global social innovation phenomenon.