An Essay for the World Café 20th Anniversary

Reflecting on the origin of the World Café and inquiring into the value that we should uphold as practitioners for the promising future…
by Daisuke Kawaguchi, Chief Researcher, Human Value

peaceworldIt has been 20 years since the World Café was born into this world by Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, and other practitioners. Since its birth, enormous numbers of café conversations have been conducted to shape better futures, and now the World Cafe is known as one of the greatest methodologies for generative facilitation in a variety of areas. In Japan, as well, the movement of the café conversations has been wide-spread with a large influence on our way of communication and collaboration after the book of “The World Café – Shaping the future through conversations that matter” was published in Japanese translation.

Reflecting on the very early days, a founder, Juanita Brown once said to me under the beautiful sunshine in Jonesborough, “The name ‘World Café’ came from the desire that the café conversations will be able to contribute to the World Service in the future.” I believe this desire has been half-fulfilled as we see the values and impacts that the World Café has accomplished so far.
Today, 20 years later, the world surrounding us is totally changing. With the increase of complexity and ambiguity, there can be seen a lot of tough conflicts, problems or fragmentations that cannot be solved without the efforts of dialogue. I assume that the role of the World Café and the conversational leadership will become larger, greater, or bigger than ever.

In order for us to go further to the promising future, I think it is important for now to inquire the positive core values of the World Café once again so that we can grow and leverage them in a reinforcing way. Therefore in this essay, I will firstly go back to the origin of the World Café to inquire the philosophy and principles in the methodology. And based on the reflection, I would like to clarify what we should uphold as change practitioners to explore and amplify the greater potential possibilities of the café conversations.

The origin of the World Café – Reflecting on the way it was generated shows us the essential value –
David Isaacs wrote in his article about the day The World Café had been invented in 1995. Juanita and David were preparing for hosting the gathering of intellectual capital pioneers. They were supposed to have a dialogue at the patio outside their living room for the right settings of open conversational atmosphere. However, it was a rainy day, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!). They were worried. But while they were thinking about how they can make the hospitable space inside creating the relaxing mood for generative conversation, a lot of ideas were improvised. They brought a table in their living room with coffee and croissants beside, covered it with a tablecloth, and put the flowers on the table as if it were a real café. In the meantime, some other members joined the arrangement and it became more playful. Some added the crayons to each table, and others made the lovely sign for the front door saying “Welcome to the Homestead Café”. They enjoyed their creativity even in the process of preparation.

The guests were welcomed and delighted with such a hospitable space. They gathered around the café table naturally and started conversations with coffee and a croissant. It was not like a formal meeting but a genuine conversation where members shared their thoughts and questions spontaneously. Somehow people began to scribble the ideas and insights on the tablecloths almost before they realized it. And while they were engaging in such conversations, one member naturally suggested, “Why don’t we leave one host at the table and have our other members travel to different tables, carrying the seed ideas from our conversation and linking with the threads that are being woven at other tables?”

As a consequence of such fruitful conversations, huge amount of collective insights and discoveries were unleashed. Being surprised and impressed by the energy, Juanita, David, and other practitioners had a reflective conversation on the process they had followed and distilled the essence of the naturally growing great conversations. They identified 7 principles of hosting conversations that matter from the reflection and established the methodology now called “The World Café”.

While thinking back to the origin of The World Café, Juanita Brown said that despite the lack of formal guidelines or dialogue training among participants, the natural emergence of easy and authentic conversations had been able to be happened.

And I think this natural emergence itself has a very important meaning.

We tend to have a fixed assumption that we ought to have a great facilitator or leader, clearly defined goals and agenda, and appropriate rules for conducting effective conversations. However, from the meaning of the origin story of the World Café, we can learn the essence that if we can put ourselves on the natural flow of the conversation in the hospitable space with a higher purpose, conversations that matter can be nurtured without any formal direction. As well, understanding of the diversity can be deepened, connectivity is strengthened, knowledge and wisdom are shared, and a courage to take a next step is generated inside the each participant. Nobody needs to control anything. I believe this is the fundamental perspective of the World Café.

As a practical matter, a lot of structural tips and wisdoms for the natural emergence of conversations without controls are embedded in the simple format of making the World Café space. Those wisdoms include a fine balance of numbers in one table and distance sense which makes all the members want to contribute to the conversation, the scribbling on the flipchart covered with a table that enables us to share and connect the ideas and discoveries flashed across our mind, a famous cross-pollinate process that broadens our perspective and breaks our mental model, a profound harvest moment where new meanings emerge individually and collectively with synchronicity, and above all things, a hospitable café-like space where people can be open and themselves with warmth and tenderness to others… And to our surprise, the methodology of café conversations is still in progress now.

Our company, Human Value opens the World Café practitioners’ course once a year, and every time we inquire the meaning of each structural tip one by one in that course, we are impressed by the depth of the philosophy by recognizing that each tip is well-woven and connected as if it constituted an eco-system.

However, what I would like to focus here is that if we host the café conversations with unconscious command and control mindset by losing the understandings of those meanings and philosophy, a magical moment with collective wisdom is not likely to happen. Although it might be seen like the World Café on a superficial level, totally different things would happen in a controlled café conversation.

For example, what would it happen if someone host a café conversation with an attitude such as “Our members are not used to open dialogue. They can never be able to proceed conversations effectively and get to the conclusion. O.K., let’s put a well-trained facilitator on each table as a host and let him or her lead the conversations. As well, they must wonder where they sit at the cross-pollinate process before the second round starts. So we should decide where they should sit and give them the table number beforehand…”

Seemingly, those conversations might proceed smoothly and some outputs can be gained. On the other hand, participants might have uncomfortable feelings unconsciously as if they were moved under the control of the hosts.

In another café I once attended, negative suggestions such as “Please do not…”, or “Don’t use —“, were embedded in the host’s greeting messages to the guest in the beginning of the café conversations started. The restrictions of the schedule and space might have forced the host to behave like above as he was a very sincere person. Though he spoke very gently, such negative messages unintentionally created the atmosphere of being shrunken and enforced among participants.

Or a pressing question forcing participants think and answer in a fixed way may lose the creativity and dynamism.

I am not talking about the technique. I think these differences were caused by the background philosophy and perspective on the world. If a variety of tips embedded in the World Café to grow the natural flow of conversations were used by a conventional mental model and machinery perspective on the world that we should control participants efficiently and derive appropriate answers, there would occur contradictory unnatural communication. It is as if people were conveyed as a product on the conveyor belt, rather than on the natural river flow of conversations.

Juanita Brown mentioned in her book as follows; “World Café conversations simultaneously create a lived experience of how we naturally self-organize to think together, strengthen community, share knowledge, and ignite innovation. They allow us to see more clearly the importance of conversation as a living force so we can become more intentional about engaging its power. Café conversations demonstrate one innovative way to put living systems theory into practice.” I think this message is the core value of the World Café that we should uphold.

In the table without a formal facilitator to lead, the first round conversation might seem clumsy where a loud talker speaks his or her ideas continuously and others are little suppressed. On the surface level, it can be considered to be undesirable status. However, when the round turns into the second, that loud talker can touch a variety of opinions naturally and realize “I might have pushed my opinion on the other too much in the previous round…” by him- or herself. Then at the third round in the former table, the attitudes of the table are likely to change. And if the participants can be aware of this small change, they come to have a confidence that we can change the relationship through conversations by themselves without any external intervention. The stack of these spontaneous change enhances our energy of self-organization which we intrinsically innate.

What we, as practitioners, should focus on is not the way how we operate the World Café appropriately but on the way how we design the hospitable space and natural flow of conversations that can unleash our power of self-organization. Also, we should inquire our being of hosts to hold conversations.

Inquire the further possibility that the World Café can bring – beyond the methodology-
When we embrace this value of self-organized conversation to the full, the World Café will go beyond the methodology and open up the larger possibility. Which is, the chain reactions of self-organizational patterns, where one café conversation creates a seed of new change and the seed evokes another conversation that matters, will make the bigger impact on the world.

Juanita Brown mentioned the reason why a large scale change can happen in our society in her book by referring to a famous architect and philosopher Christopher Alexander; “He suggests that life-enhancing improvements actually co-evolve not from grand plans or edicts from a central authority but from small acts of collaboration based on a repetition of life-affirming patterns – like the fundamental pattern of engaging in conversations that matter – at every level of scale.”

Reflecting on my own cases, I have often had experiences that the small self-organized pattern gradually grew larger.

For example, one company I have supported hosted a large-scale meeting based on the World Café principle for the employees to the aim of building a better workplace. Actually, the meeting event was supposed to be held only once, however, the participants experienced an open conversation across the barriers of organizations in a hospitable space and said “We would like to continue this kind of conversations not only in the event the company held but also our own daily meeting”, or “The meeting we are conducting in our workplace seems to be highly rigid. We want to change the way we communicate”. In order to realize these desires, some volunteer employees started the project to transform their daily meeting itself.

Considering the tight schedule of their daily work and meeting, it is actually difficult to host the World Café every time. So they tried to embed the essence of the World Café such as cross-pollinating and harvesting into their meeting. They also tried to start the conversation with thinking about questions. The participants were firstly bewildered as they had used to the conventional one-way meeting style, but thanks to the effort of the project member, gradually they came to feel the value and importance of the open meeting that the café essence was brought into.

When this style of meetings or conversations took root in their organization, a lot of thoughts and ideas of the employees came to be shared among their workplace. Actually most of those ideas had not been exposed before because of the atmosphere of cynicism, but the change of the meeting style contributed to their cultural change. It led to the improvement of the quality of relationship in deep sense. A variety of spontaneous projects were established from those conversations. As well, those projects were also conducted based on the café principle, and many conversational leaders grew through those activities. Then the seeds of thoughts to involve their customers and local people with their conversations were developed and the scope of their project became wider and wider. These expansions had been never intended at the beginning of the project but were created by connecting the small pattern of changes.

What I have learned from these experiences is that the genuine meaning of the World Café is not the contents or outputs from the conversations but the impact it has on the perspective and the mindset of the people from the meta-cognition side.

When new meanings of the conversations or hospitality are generated inside the people who attend the World Café and step forward to their vision, they will change their way of talking or acting on the others in their workplace or field. Then, new conversations will be nurtured, which will have impacts on surroundings. In the World Café book, they call this type of creating changes through communication as “Conversational Leadership”. I think that another essence of the World Café is this conversational leadership philosophy, transforming our mental model and way of collaboration through the chain values of small changes.

Practicing café conversations at ease with people whom you know well and have similar opinions with you might be good as starting point, but if you just continue such kind of comfortable conversations, it will become difficult for other people who have different opinions from you to join the conversations. It will lack the diversity and does not enhance the chain-reactions of the changes mentioned above. We should contemplate on who we want to invite again for our envisioned future and create open spaces where we can keep generating values with more diverse people.

20 years have passed since the World Café was born, and in order to enhance the possibility, we practitioners should go beyond the methodology. What we should inquire is the way of expanding the beautiful patterns the World Café can shape through conversations that matter to the outer world to contribute to more sustainable society by creating another pattern of the changes.

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