I had the great pleasure of coaching a team of folks last night who were running their first World Cafe. I’ve been working with this crew for a while – a core team looking at the future of the Victoria Presbytery of the United Church of Canada – and this was the first time they’ve stepped up to run their own conversational process as part of our work. Last night it was a Cafe to sense the future of what the Presbytery could be and do. And they did great.
One of the advantages of coaching is that one gets to reflect on the little bits and pieces of practice that make things work. Last night a number of them came up, so I thought I’d share them here.
Give instructions one at a time. Don’t give a long list of instructions. At the beginning of the Cafe let people know how the time will flow, but when it comes time to invite people to do certain things (move between tables, change questions, reflect, summarize…whatever) just give one instruction at a time. It is important that people know WHY we are doing a thing, but not important that they have the whole flow. And especially if your instruction involves them moving, then don’t give any more instructions until they have stopped.
Invite people to mark the paper early. The paper in the middle of the table is for all to use. “Typical” facilitated sessions imprint people with the pattern that someone will take notes while everyone else talks. It’s important that before the conversation begins, you invite people to pick up a marker, write something and draw something on the paper in front of them. That way, before the conversation begins, folks know that the paper is for everyone to use, there is no top or bottom, and images and words are equally welcome.
Have one more marker and one fewer post it note than people. If you have tables of four, give them five markers. This means that people can trade colours without prying a marker from someone’s hand. And if you are summarizing key findings, have three post-its for a table of four, to encourage people to pick three things together rather than just having everyone put their best thought down. World Cafe is about tapping and making visible collective intelligence. You lose that if you just have individual thoughts.
Build in silence. At the conclusion of a round, have a minute or two of silence. It calms the room down, allows people to reflect and integrate what they are hearing and makes it easier to give directions. This is especially important if you are wanting people to raise their level of awareness from what is important personally to what patterns are emerging. It requires a shift in awareness to see that.
Collect post its before having a summary conversation. Last night we used post its at the conclusion of the third round to capture the patterns that people were hearing consistently in all three rounds. Collecting the post-its before we had a summary conversation meant that people couldn’t “report out” and instead we hosted a “conversation with the whole” whereby we roved around asking people what stood out for them. What emerged was indeed a conversation and not a boring reporting out of things that everyone knew anyway.
Avoid the temptation to use a different question for each round. This is important. Having a different question for all three rounds creates three shallow conversations and inhibits pattern finding. It can also leave people feeling like they are being led down a garden path and it doesn’t leave a lot of space for emergent conversation. For all Cafe beginners, I always suggest they do their first Cafe with a single question for all three rounds. This gives you a clear picture of how the process can work to surface COLLECTIVE intelligence.
Keep the question simple and broad and make sure you can answer it on your own. Trust the group. They want to have a conversation, not guess at answers that you are trying to get them to. Last night our question was simple; given a context in which the structures of the Church are becoming increasingly unsustainable and in which congregations still need to be connected on a local level “What should Presbytery be and what should it do?” That was it. Three rich rounds on that, with lots of great insight and some amazingly courageous admissions (“Time to finally admit that this structure is dead.” etc.)
Invitation matters. Even though the 50 people we had out last night are used to being together every few months, the core team mworked on their invitation for a month. They held the purpose of the event close (discovering what the new shape and function of the Presbytery could be) and they shared the question with participants, even before we had decided on what the final question was. The team made sure people RSVP’d on the invitation which helped us to know the logistics of food and space, and also gave a chance for the conversation to begin as folks started sharing what they were thinking right away. This primed the conversation and meant that people were really ready for the work. Ninety minutes was not enough.
Know what you will do with the harvest and tell people. People learned in the invitation what our plans were for the harvest. This even was about helping the core team design some experiments over the next year for new ways that the Presbytery could meet and be useful to the two dozen United Church congregations on southern Vancouver Island. We summarized the patterns that people found (above photo) and began right away writing a report. But the bigger piece of work will be engaging in design over the next couple of months to create new and interesting gatherings in line with what the Presbytery members actually want.