The World Cafe is a flexible, easy-to-use process for fostering collaborative dialogue, sharing mutual knowledge, and discovering new opportunities for action. Based on living systems thinking, this innovative approach creates dynamic networks of conversation that can catalyze an organization or community's own collective intelligence around its most important questions.
Filled with stories of actual Cafe dialogues in business, education, government, and community organizations across the globe, this uniquely crafted book demonstrates how the World Cafe can be adapted to any setting or culture. Examples from such varied organizations as Hewlett-Packard, American Society for Quality, the nation of Singapore, the University of Texas, and many others, demonstrate the process in action.
Along with its seven core design principles, The World Cafe offers practical tips for hosting "conversations that matter" in groups of any size- strengthening both personal relationships and people's capacity to shape the future together.
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About the Author
Juanita Brown, Ph.D. is co-originator of the World Café and has served as a Senior Affiliate at the MIT Sloan School’s Organizational Learning Center (now Society for Organizational Learning), as a Research Affiliate with the Institute for the Future and as a Fellow of the World Business Academy.
David Isaacs is President of Clearing Communications and designs strategic dialogue forums with senior leaders in the U.S. and abroad. David is also a co-originator of the World Café and serves as adjunct faculty with the University of Texas Business School’s Executive MBA Program.
The World Café Community is made up of organizational and community leaders and others who are fostering conversational leadership across the globe.
Read an Excerpt
Beginning the Conversation:
An Invitation to the World Café
I am a child of the sixties. During that time of social and political upheaval, many of us were determined to tell it like it is, to see beneath the surface of things to what really mattered. That inner fire that fueled my early years as a social change activist is now tempered by a compassion born of more than thirty years of working intimately with the dilemmas and paradoxes of personal and institutional change in corporate settings. My self-righteousness and certainty have slowly given way to a humility developed out of a growing sense that there are many ways to tell it like it is—that any story worth telling can be experienced from multiple perspectives. It is with this awareness that I share with you the story of the learning journey from which the World Café has emerged and continues to evolve.
When I was growing up in suburban South Miami, Florida, our living room and dinner table were always alive with conversations. These weren’t just any kind of conversations. They were passionate discussions about big questions—justice, democracy, and civil rights. From conversations like these in homes and churches, the civil liberties movement in Florida was nurtured and grew into a force for decency and fairness at a time of great turmoil in the South.
I remember, too, the spirited conversations we had at my adopted grandmother’s home in southern Mexico when I was a teenager. Trudi Blom had been exiled from Europe during World War II, and there, in the remote state of Chiapas, she founded a global center for dialogue and action on environmental issues— much before it was fashionable to talk about sustainability. At her long dining room table, anthropologists, writers, scientists, and local travelers joined together for delicious meals with Lacandon Maya rain forest people and Chamula highland Indian guests. The diversity of the group always contributed to learning, discoveries, and connections that never could have been anticipated. Today, half a century later, the Na-Bolom Center still serves as a place where diverse people and perspectives meet in dialogue around the dining room table.
During my early years as a community organizer with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers’ movement, it was in the thousands of informal meetings—conversations among those seated on tattered couches in ramshackle homes and labor camps—that small miracles occurred. Through dialogue and reflection, the underlying assumptions that had kept farmworkers stuck for generations began to shift. As workers shared tortilla and bean suppers, they also shared the if-onlys of their lives and imagined the impossible. With practice, they began to ask the what-if questions. And from the what-ifs came the why-nots!
Over the last quarter-century, my life has taken me to large corporations as a strategist and thinking partner with senior executives as they struggle to embrace the challenges of the knowledge era. In this world, my language and descriptions have changed to those of strategic dialogue and conversation as a core business process. My community-organizing emphasis has evolved to focus on and embrace the informal communities of practice that are the home for social processes of new learning and knowledge creation. But the essential threads of my life remain unbroken. It is still my deepest belief that it is through conversations around questions that matter that powerful capacities for evolving caring community, collaborative learning, and committed action are engaged—at work, in communities, and at home.
Conversations That Matter
Through our conversations the stories and images of our future emerge, and never has this process been more critical. We now have the capacity, through neglect of the planetary commons on which our lives depend, to make this precious earth, our home, uninhabitable. We now have the capacity, through escalating violence and weapons of mass destruction, to make our precious human species, along with many others, extinct. Yet this is also a moment of opportunity. We are connected as never before in webs of communication and information-sharing through the Internet and other media that make our collective predicament visible on a much larger scale than we could have imagined only a few years ago. And for the first time, we now have the capacity for engaging in connected global conversations and action about what is happening and how we choose to respond—conversations that are not under the formal aegis of any one institution, government, or corporation. It is time for us to engage in those conversations more intentionally. Our very survival as a human community, both locally and globally, may rest on our creative responses to the following questions:
How can we enhance our capacity to talk and think more deeply together about the critical issues facing our communities, our organizations, our nations, and our planet?
How can we access the mutual intelligence and wisdom we need to create innovative paths forward?
This book is the story of a personal and collective journey shaped by these questions. It is a story in which I have been an active participant, along with my partner, David Isaacs, and a lively global community of inquiry and practice. It is the story of the discovery and evolution of the World Café, a simple yet powerful conversational process for fostering constructive dialogue, accessing collective intelligence, and creating innovative possibilities for action, particularly in groups that are larger than most traditional dialogue approaches are designed to accommodate.
Anyone interested in creating conversations that matter can engage the World Café process, with its seven core design principles to improve people’s collective capacity to share knowledge and shape the future together. World Café conversations simultaneously enable us to notice a deeper living pattern of connections at work in our organizations and communities—the often invisible webs of conversation and meaning-making through which we already collectively shape the future, often in unintended ways.
Engaging the World Café process, principles, and pattern in practical ways empowers leaders and others who work with groups to intentionally host World Café and other types of dialogue as well as to create dynamic networks of conversation and knowledge-sharing around an organization’s real work and critical questions.
How Does a World Café Dialogue Work?
Café conversations are designed on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges. The process is simple, yet it can yield surprising results. The innovative design of the World Café enables groups—often numbering in the hundreds of people—to participate together in evolving rounds of dialogue with three or four others while at the same time remaining part of a single, larger, connected conversation. Small, intimate conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into questions or issues that really matter in their life, work, or community. As the network of new connections increases, knowledge-sharing grows. A sense of the whole becomes increasingly strong. The collective wisdom of the group becomes more accessible, and innovative possibilities for action emerge.
In a Café gathering people often move rapidly from ordinary conversations—which keep us stuck in the past, are often divisive, and are generally superficial—toward conversations that matter, in which there is deeper collective understanding or forward movement in relation to a situation that people really care about. The seven World Café design principles, when used in combination, also create a kind of “conversational greenhouse,” nurturing the conditions for the rapid propagation of actionable knowledge. These design principles are not limited to a formal Café event. They can also be used to focus and enhance the quality of other key conversations—enabling you to draw on the talent and wisdom of your organization or community to a greater extent than generally occurs with more traditional approaches.
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.
The World Café, both as a designed conversational process and as a deeper living systems pattern, has immediate, practical implications for meeting and conference design, strategy formation, knowledge creation, rapid innovation, stakeholder engagement, and large-scale change. Experiencing a Café conversation in action also helps us make personal and professional choices about more satisfying ways to participate in the ongoing conversations that help shape our lives.
The World Café Goes Global
Since its inception in 1995, tens of thousands of people on six continents have participated in World Café dialogues in settings ranging from crowded hotel ballrooms holding twelve hundred people to cozy living rooms with just a dozen folks present. In a global consumer products company, executives from more than thirty nations used the Café process to integrate a new worldwide marketing strategy. Mexican government and corporate leaders have applied the World Café to scenario planning. Leaders from local communities representing more than sixty countries participated in Café dialogues during the Stockholm Challenge, which offers a Nobel-style prize for those creating technology for the common good.
Faculty members in the United States and Europe are creating virtual, online Knowledge Cafés to conduct distance learning programs. In New Zealand and the United States, the World Café has inspired the creation of local venues for hosting Café conversations on key issues related to business futures, sustainable development, and community collaboration. The World Café has supported Conversation Cafés, Commonway Cafés, and Let’s Talk America, key citizen initiatives that invite diverse groups to explore contemporary issues. Local churches and schools have used the World Café process on a smaller scale to build community and access the wisdom of their members.
The World Café can make a special contribution when the goal is the focused use of dialogue to foster productive relationships, collaborative learning, and collective insight
Whether in business, government, health, education, NGO, or community settings, the World Café can make a special contribution when the goal is the focused use of dialogue to foster productive relationships, collaborative learning, and collective insight around real-life challenges and key strategic questions. This is especially true when working with groups that are larger than most traditional dialogue circles are designed to accommodate.
A Community of Inquiry and Practice
The global World Café learning community—as well as this book—have evolved as colleagues from around the world experiment, document their work, share ideas, and learn from each other about the theory and practice embodied in the Café conversation approach.
I will serve as the primary narrator and your host for weaving together the stories, reflections, and conversations among World Café pioneers and others as we share with you our discoveries and the questions at the edge of our “not knowing.” In the Perspectives & Observations sections I’ll share my own personal aha’s and insights, and introduce you to others who are contributing to our learning.
All pioneering ventures are incomplete, reflecting the particular interests and ways of seeing of those who have been part of the journey, and who make the initial maps of the territory. I am but one among many colleagues who are furthering key aspects of this work. Yet I hope your travels with me through these pages will provide glimpses that stimulate new conversations about where to focus special attention and care in your own organizations and communities.
The research for this book and for my own earlier Ph.D. on the World Café (Brown, 2001) was conducted in the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry, an approach to organizational learning and development originated by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western University (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987; Cooperrider and others, 2003; Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Appreciative Inquiry deliberately focuses attention on what works, what brings life and vitality to an experience, and what’s possible for its evolution. However, keep in mind that the same challenges that come up in any group can arise in a World Café conversation. At the same time, the World Café’s focus on intimate exchange, disciplined inquiry, cross-pollination of ideas, and possibility thinking tends to create psychological safety and lessen inappropriate grandstanding and people’s attachment to their own points of view. The very design of Café conversations often makes these common challenges easier to deal with than in many group settings.
What You’ll Find Inside
Chapter 1 calls on insights from thought leaders across disciplines to reveal the critical but often invisible role of conversation in shaping our lives and our futures. Chapter 2 invites you to consider a new perspective on conversation as a core process—a fundamental means through which groups and organizations adapt to changing circumstances and co-create the knowledge necessary for success. It also briefly introduces the seven core design principles that are central to understanding the World Café approach to dialogue.
Chapters 3 through 9 share the seven core World Café design principles, with each chapter focusing on one of them. The stories that open these chapters reveal the creativity and imagination with which Café hosts from around the world are using these principles to foster conversations that matter. These real life “learning stories,” including the hosts’ dilemmas and discoveries, form the heart of the book. More than any abstract treatise, teaching, or training manual, they provide innovative ideas for how to craft a World Café approach adapted to your unique situation. Each chapter then grounds these experiences in a discussion of both the conceptual underpinnings of each design principle and their general application in a wide variety of settings.
Chapter 10 focuses on the practicalities of Café hosting that have not been covered in detail in the earlier exploration of the seven guiding principles. This chapter is designed to stand alone as a World Café hosting guide to help you plan Café dialogues in diverse settings. If you want an initial overview of the specifics of Café hosting, this is the place to start. It provides the information needed for someone with previous group experience to host a successful Café, particularly if you have attended a World Café dialogue yourself.
Chapter 11 begins with several short stories that illustrate ways leaders are using World Café approaches as part of their own conversational leadership—the capacity to engage the collaborative intelligence of their organizations and communities to meet real-life challenges. These form the backdrop for our exploration of both the organizational infrastructures and personal capabilities that conversational leaders can develop in order to nurture greater business and social value using dialogue as a core process.
Chapter 12 highlights the societal implications and the promise inherent in embracing and acting on the insights and practical experiences explored throughout the book. You are encouraged to become a part of the dialogue and deliberation community, sharing your insights and discoveries as you make your own unique contribution to creating a culture of dialogue wherever you may find yourself.
In the epilogue, octogenarian Anne Dosher, Ph.D., the elder of the World Café, shares the questions that have informed her own life’s journey and why she has committed her remaining years to nurturing a culture of dialogue. Peter Senge, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, then offers an afterword based on our experience together in hosting World Café gatherings with key global leaders.
If you want to learn more about other forms of dialogue, as well as key initiatives that are also making wonderful contributions to the field of dialogue and deliberation, take a look at “Resources and Connections” at the back of the book. And although this book is not an academic treatise, enough reference material has been included in the text to support you in “following the trail” to the conceptual foundations of the World Café and related areas of interest.
How to Engage with What’s Here
Having a common architecture as this book unfolded has allowed diverse contributions in a shared framework, enabling you to engage with the material based on your own reading style and preferences. Each chapter begins with a quotation, an illustration, and a question that illuminate the essence of that chapter, so if you look only at the chapter openers you’ll gain an overview of the book’s main themes. Each chapter’s learning stories highlight the way the chapter’s core ideas are being put into real-world practice. These stories, although simply “snapshots in time” that continue to unfold, enable you to appreciate the many ways you might introduce and engage Café conversations in your own life and work. In the “Perspectives & Observations” sections that follow, I, as your host, will share multidisciplinary insights from leading edge thinkers as they inform our exploration of dialogue and Café learning. At the end of each chapter, you’ll find “Questions for Reflection,” a series of questions to consider as you convene and host conversations that matter.
Each chapter’s learning stories highlight the way the chapter’s core ideas are being put into real-world practice
We’ve purposely included multiple voices and modes of expression as well as graphic illustrations to illuminate key ideas. We’ve also used the following terms—World Café, Café conversation, and Café dialogue—interchangeably throughout the text to describe the World Café process. In addition, you’ll find Café names like Knowledge Café, Leadership Café, Strategy Café, and others that illuminate the many ways people are naming and adapting the basic World Café pattern and process in ways that meet their unique needs and constituencies.
Although this book is not a how-to manual or a detailed recipe for creating a World Café event, you’ll find both key ingredients and practical ideas for hosting conversations that matter in many different organizational and community settings. We’ve discovered that one of the strengths of the World Café approach is its simplicity and versatility. In fact, if you have experience leading or working with groups, a careful reading of the stories that begin each chapter along with a close review of chapter 10 will likely give you enough information to get started. The seven World Café design principles and varied hosting practices you’ll find here can be helpful in convening conversations for many different purposes, whether you use the Café format or not. Even if you are not planning to host Cafés personally, the book will provide you with enough perspective to determine if this approach is right for your own organization’s meetings, conferences, or retreats.
As I mentioned earlier, “Questions for Reflection,” posed at the end of each chapter, encourage you to consider your own experience and process of discovery about conversations that matter. Take a moment to ask yourself these questions now:
What drew me to this book?
If I think of this book as a personal conversation with the
authors, how will that affect how I approach what they have to share with me?
What question, if I explore it during my time with this book, could make the most difference in my life and work?
There is ample room for noting your own thoughts and reflections. Imagine yourself in a Café dialogue and think of these pages as Café tablecloths. Notice what connects to your personal experience and your own process of discovery. Jot down your insights about where to focus special attention and care as you engage conversations that matter in your own organization or community. Consider your own questions. Add your voice to the conversation.
In one of his wonderful poems, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado reminds us, “We make the path by walking on it.” By joining us on the path that David and I, with the World Café community, are walking, we hope you will find yourself as intrigued as we are by both the power of conversation and the promise of the World Café. We hope you’ll find the value generated from Café conversations around the world as an encouraging sign for the future.
Table of Contents
FOREWORD We Can Be Wise Only Together, by Margaret J. Wheatley
INTRODUCTION Beginning the Conversation: An Invitation to the World Café
Chapter One Seeing the Invisible: Conversation Matters!
Chapter Two Conversation as a Core Process: Co-Creating Business and Social Value
Chapter Three Principle 1: Set the Context
Chapter Four Principle 2: Create Hospitable Space
Chapter Five Principle 3: Explore Questions That Matter
Chapter Six Principle 4: Encourage Everyone’s Contribution
Chapter Seven Principle 5: Cross-Pollinate and Connect Diverse Perspectives
Chapter Eight Principle 6: Listen Together for Patterns, Insights, and Deeper Questions
Chapter Nine Principle 7: Harvest and Share Collective Discoveries
Chapter Ten Guiding the Café Process: The Art of Hosting
Chapter Eleven Conversational Leadership: Cultivating Collective Intelligence
Chapter Twelve The Call of Our Times: Creating a Culture of Dialogue
Epilogue How Can We Talk It Through? by Anne W. Dosher
Afterword Discovering the Magic of Collective Creativity by Peter M. Senge
Resources and Connections: The World Café
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Authors David Isaacs and Juanita Brown came up with the idea for the World Café when they tried to rescue a meeting in their home that was threatening to turn into a disaster. Leaders from the Skandia Corporation were supposed to have a discussion on their northern California home¿s beautiful patio. Unfortunately, it was pouring. Brown and Isaacs had to squeeze 24 Swedes into their living room. They hastily covered small TV tables with sheets of newsprint anchored with small flower vases. Soon, the place looked like a coffee shop. The delighted guests began conversing immediately, eventually moving among the small groups to hear what others had to say. Thus, the World Café movement was born. Isaacs and Brown include many stories about ways that organizations have used World Café conversations. They provide lists, drawings and discussion questions. Brown¿s commentary on process and principles weaves all this together. She makes grand claims for this approach, believing that conversation is the wave of the future and the best way for people to learn and change. Jargon alert: the authors truly adore New Age gobbledygook. One example suffices: 'Optimum learning and development occur in systems in which there is a rich web of interactions, along with an environment of novelty where new opportunities and spaces of possibility can be explored.' Despite such warm-hearted mush, we recommend this book to managers who are willing to experiment with an innovative meeting format that lets them synthesize experts¿ ideas with the experiences of their own people.
This book is amazingly thorough. It includes the theory as well as the process of The World Cafe. This process enables people to enter into conversations that generate shared meaning, new ideas and deeper relationships. I have participated in World cafes and am delighted that a book is now available. Stories from around the world convey the many varieties of World cafes possible. The book alsosheds light on the metaphor of World cafe -- the way we as humans literally shape our future through networks of meaningful conversation.