Our World Café: Kitchen Table Conversations for Change

This story is reprinted from the You Learn Something New Every Day blog, thanks to Gillian Martin Mehers from The World Conservation Union in Gland, Switzerland:

World_Cafe_ODC_Jan09This morning our Director General invited the headquarters staff for a World Café on our institution’s Organizational Development and Change process. Fifty-four of us met in the cafeteria to participate in the process. Here are some of our “hot” reflections on the event.

World Café is an innovative way to think collectively about an issue, with conversation as the core process. In our case, 12 conversations happened in parallel, and after each of the four rounds we took some highlights from these conversations. With interesting, rather iterative questions, you could feel the energy build as people made connections and meaning for themselves and others. Here are the questions we used:

•What is your vision of a highly relevant, efficient, effective and impactful IUCN?
•What underlying assumptions have you had about how we, in IUCN, work? How might these need to shift?

•What can we do to help identify and embrace opportunities for IUCN’s organizational development?

•What patterns are emerging from the three earlier conversations? What are the implications for you and for us?

World_Cafe_ODC_Jan09-2 The results of the discussions will feed into our organizational development and change process, through the people in the room, their teams and our individual action. Additionally the process itself will help us move towards some of our articulated goals around creating a culture of dialogue, interaction, and an enabling environment for innovation and cross-pollination of ideas.

Since we (the Learning and Leadership Unit) are the ‘process people’, we captured some of our learning about holding a World Café in our institution. Here is what we thought went well, and what we would do differently next time. We are also sharing our learning with the World Café online community at the request of David Isaacs, one of the authors of The World Café book. (More knowledge resources on The World Café can be found on the Society for Organizational Learning‘s website here.) [note: there are free hosting guides and other resources available on the World Cafe website]

What worked well with our World Café:

•    The process brought lots of positive energy to a conversation about change;

•    People appreciated being listened to;

•    Mixed groups combined different teams and levels within the organization and gave opportunities to get to know new people (when we asked the group if this process had given them a chance to speak to someone they did not know, almost every hand went up);

•    It was hosted by the Director General and connected to a real internal process where people had questions and a desire to contribute;

•    It linked with an in-house tradition – Wednesday morning sponsored coffee – a weekly coffee morning for staff supported by our Learning and Leadership unit and the Human Resources Management Group to promote internal dialogue and informal learning;

•    We held the World Café in our cafeteria, so instead of trying to transform a formal space (like a meeting room) for informal conversation, we went right to the organization’s kitchen literally for these conversations, which changed the interpersonal dynamic. There was kitchen noise and the sound of coffee machines making it all the more real;

•    We did not use a flipchart to take down the “popcorn” ideas between each round. We wanted to avoid to externalising the ideas and actions too much and directing the focus away from the group. Instead the comments came from within the group, were given to the group (and not a flipchart), and stayed with the group. We did, however, record them all for future use, which we will share with participants, among other ways through the use of a wordle (take a look at this application that creates beautiful word clouds, if you have never seen one)

•    We distributed an “ideas form” to give everyone the opportunity to share some of their top ideas with us afterward. We handed this out just before the end and also sent an email for people who wanted to send us some ideas electronically. People did a great personal prioritization for us and themselves, and the act of writing it down also helped people to go through the synthesis process and create a set of potential next actions that might help them remember what was most useful for them.

•    We put flipchart-sized graph paper on all the tables as grafitti sheets. People used them for recording ideas. Added benefits: the gridded paper (instead of plain) made it seem more like a checkered table cloth, and the white paper reflected on people’s faces making the photos better!

What we would do differently next time:

•    In a room not made for speeches (i.e. a cafeteria), acoustics can create challenges for facilitating and hearing ideas from the tables between rounds. To address this we used a soft whistle to get people’s attention and asked people to stand up when sharing their ideas. Next time we would get a louder whistle (!) and we would contract lightly with the group in advance to quickly conclude their conversations when they hear the whistle.

•    In our briefing, we would emphasize further that the host is responsible for ensuring interactive conversations, but not necessarily for recording or reporting back. At the beginning, making this clear would have helped our host volunteers come forward more quickly.

•    Whilst the vast majority of participants stayed throughout, a few people trickled in and out due to other commitments, which was fine. We might have created better messaging to ensure a crisp start.

Only a few people had participated in a World Café before, out of our 54 participants; now that people know how it works the next time we might not notice this.

We got some terrific ideas and comments out of our World Café, including many thanks for running such a process internally. People seemed to be happy to take this kitchen table approach to connect and make new meaning together around our organization’s future. And this open process provided plenty of opportunity for everyone’s ideas and concerns to be laid on the table – besides the kitchen sink – which was nearby anyway.


  1. I was recently watching a TED Talks link regarding PANGEA day, May 10th, ( all around the world (180 countries) for 4 hrs, people will gather to watch the same films, to see the world through someone elses eyes, tapping into the power of film to cross borders and create more understanding- it was Jenane Noujam’s 2006 TED WIsh for winning the $100,000 prize and her effort toward world peace… she is the Director of Control Room. Check out the site, listen to her TED talk and I encourage all World Cafe facilitators to host an event and follow it with WorldCafe conversation. As I read through the site, I’m concerned the real leverage for this kind of event is in the conversation that follows, especially if that conversation is facilitated via the elegant, participatory structure of a Worldcafe, feels like a wonderful match up. I hope you agree.
    steph ryan, whidbey. WA

  2. You’re absolutely right, Steph, and I think many World Café hosts (along with many others) did have follow up conversations after this amazing PANGEA day!

    I’d love to hear more about your own experience watching the films and the conversations that followed…

  3. I am fascinated by the march gathering. Environmental stewardship seems to be taking hold as an underground movement in my region. Business is only now catching on its critical importance.

    Anyone use environmental stewardship as a workplace team building tool? Please share how you are doing it. I need evidence to bring forth in my community.

  4. Is there a participant pledge somewhere on the website for hosts to give to participants at the start of the cafe to set ground rules and etiquette?

  5. Hi Wanda! Thanks for writing. I’m not sure I understand your question correctly, but let me try: World Cafes always start with the host welcoming participants, conveying the World Cafe Etiquette, and giving them context for the rounds of conversation to come. Does that help?

    There are a number of resources for World Cafe hosts on our website that outline the Cafe Etiquette. One is the free “Cafe To Go” booklet and another is a free printable graphic image of the Cafe Etiquette in three sizes – both are available in the “Tool Kit.”

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