World Café for conversations that matter

There are many examples in nature showing that swarms or colonies can achieve extraordinary things. Just think of ants which are tiny as individuals but do miraculous things together. They carry large objects, form bridges and find the shortest route to bring food to their nest. Although each animal decides for himself, collective decisions are made, which are borne by all. In this way, they tackle obstacles and overcome challenges they couldn’t on their own. And they do all this through self-organisation, without a formal leader giving instructions.

The game show "Who wants to be a millionaire?" is another example of the “wisdom of the crowd”. Here a candidate can turn to the audience for help, which proves to be a safe choice, as 91% of the viewers’ answers are correct. Research also confirms that the average estimate from a large group is almost always more accurate than estimates given by the majority of individuals.

But what does all this have to do with business? What can we learn from small animals or a popular game show? Perhaps that answers to some of our organisational challenges can be found collectively from inside the organisation and that this might be an even better choice than a top-down decision-process led by only a few. So why not harness the “collective wisdom” of your employees to explore topics in depth and create new opportunities?

One approach for doing this is the “World Café”. It’s an easy to set-up workshop where people explore “questions that matter” by having several rounds of conversations in different groups. It’s an efficient way to facilitate open discussions to access the “collective wisdom” in the room. During our winter session of Krauthammer University in January we tried it ourselves and worked with more than 100 people on deepening our approach to “employee engagement”.Among many others, Hewlett Packard and Aramco are two corporations that have launched World Cafés with good results. HP used the process for a corporation-wide safety initiative by asking for input from their employees about safety issues. The outcome was impressive with the accident rate across the company decreasing by more than 33%. Aramco, the Saudi Arabian state oil company began using World Café events in its engineering and operations services division in 2003 and credited the approach to giving their staff a better understanding of how the corporate strategy linked to their roles.

How does the World Café work?

1. Set up the room like a café with small round tables of four people. Provide
paper tablecloths, coloured pencils and refreshments!

2. The host gives a warm welcome, explains the purpose and the process
and makes people feel at ease.

3. Each round of conversation (normally three rounds) is introduced with a question relevant to your context and purpose.

4. Encourage all participants to write, doodle and draw key ideas.

5. After completing the first round of conversation, one person remains at the table as the host while the others move as "ambassadors” to different tables. They bring key ideas, themes and questions to the new table.

6. The table host welcomes the newcomers and shares the essence of the previous conversation. As the round progresses, the conversation deepens and ideas, questions and themes begin to link and connect. At the end of the second round, each table in the room is cross-pollinated with input from prior conversations.

7. After three rounds of conversation, the whole group gathers to share their thoughts and ideas which are captured on flipcharts, or by other means, to make the collective wisdom of the whole group visible to everyone. At this point, the Café normally ends.

The power of questions:

To ensure a successful outcome for your World Café, it’s important that you formulate powerful and relevant questions. They should be open-ended and thought provoking. Strength-based or appreciative inquiry questions are a good starting point.

During our “Krauthammer engagement journey” we discussed these 3 questions:
1. What example can you give of a time you contributed to individual or team engagement in your career?
2. What is the Krauthammer magic, “the ingredients”, enabling engagement of clients and participants?
3. What personal beliefs could you share with everyone about the “Heart of Engagement”?

The World Café approach enables innovative thinking by making use of collective intelligence. It’s a great conversational method for achieving strategic dialogue and cooperative action. Showing employees that their contribution is needed to help shape a positive future is a strong driver for achieving common goals. So if you want to engage and mobilise your people in order to find new approaches for some of your challenges, then the World Café might be the right way to do so.