Strategic planning using the World Cafe and Open Space

Today John Inman had a great post on using the world cafe for a five hour strategic planning session with a non-profit.  His process works as follows:

First I asked that the whole system be in the retreat. We had board members, a customer, grant writer, community member, and contractors.

1. Introduction in group setting
2. Introduce the process
3. Pose the question
4. Three cafe tables with three people each, start the cafe
5. Three rounds of conversation each 20 minutes
6. Returned people to original table and asked them to capture the main themes at each table. 20 minutes
7. Harvested main themes in group
8. Group process for prioritization and assessing performance on each focus
9. Opportunity map outcomes
10. Group process to explore opportunities to work on and time frames
11. Assign teams to develop tactical plans to address opportunities
12. Used affinity process to capture everyone’s values, and group into value titles
13. Developed the values for the non-profit from this harvest
14. From conversation developed mission for the non-profit
15. Created list of what the non-profit is and is not for them to develop a story about their organization and it role in the community
16. Provided a foundation for a vision statement to be drafted.
17. Reflection session and adjourn

And all of this in 5 hours. It was the most productive planning session I have ever had and I believe that is in no small part due to driving them into conversation early and the power of conversation transformed the session.

Years ago I developed a process for doing something similar in Open Space.  the challenge was how to hold an open planning conversation on the future of the organization, but address key areas without being controlling.  We designed a day and a half strategic planning retreat with a non-profit by first identifying the key areas which the plan needed to cover.  In this case the organization needed to plan in five basic areas: services, funding, human resources, government relations and labour relations.  We then issued an invitation to everyone who needed to come.  Our process ran like this:

  1. Prepare a harvest wall with five blank spots for reporting, each with one of the five topic headings.
  2. Open Space and invite any conversations to take place but point out that only those conversations that touch on the five planning topics will go forward into the plan.
  3. Open Space as usual with convenors hosting sessions and taking notes.  Convenors type notes up on laptops and print them out, placing the printed copy in one of the five topic areas (or outside the five topic areas, if the conversation was not relevant to planning).
  4. Overnight, compile the reports from each of the five groups and print a copy for each participant.
  5. In the morning, there are five breakout spaces in the meeting room each one focusing on one of the five topics.
  6. People self-organize their participation in a 1.5 to 2 hour conversation on each of these five areas.  I think we asked them to undertake specific tasks such as identifying key priorities, and planning action (including preliminary resource estimates and communications implications).  Also we asked them to identify initial implementation steps.  Rules of Open Space applied, especially the law of two feet.
  7. Groups met and then reported back.  Their initial plans were then sent to the executive of the organization for refining and more detailed resource costing (everyone knew that going in).

Like John, my experience of the process was incredibly productive and the plans were excellent, and sustainable over the long term because there was a huge amount of buy-in from the co-creation process.

These participatory processes are far more than “just talk” and with wise planning and focussed harvests, they are a very fast way to make headway on what can otherwise be tedious planning processes.


  1. Chris,

    Thanks for posting this process I think it will be a great outline for our followers so I have Tweeted it out to them. I think lots of people have a bit of fear on how to facilitate a planning session but this should really help.

    Ed Loessi

  2. Hi Chris,

    thanks for that, me and Jean-Sebastien are just in the middle of a strategic planning process with an important national research center and are using world café and open space. Your experience provides me with some very good tips! ;-)

  3. Timing is everything! Have fun with it.

  4. Great read.

    We are doing exactly the same first half of the process with two UK Government Departments next week. One to define a vision and the other to change culture.

    The second half will hopefully be done at the next sessions due to time constraints.

    You touched on it but what makes World Cafe so powerful isn’t just the quality of the output but the emotional engagement and change of mindset that comes as a result of sharing opinions, experiences and thoughts – and that is what goes on to really drive actions.

    Keep it up!

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