World Café Method: An Important Approach to Collaborative Problem Solving

Another aspect of collaboration is the ability of organizations to foster communication among diverse sets of stakeholders. This could be needed because of typical bureaucratic relationships that prevent cross-company communication, or it may be required because the “usual suspects” can benefit from engaging new sets of eyes upon a given problem. World Café Method is an excellent approach in such situations. World Café was first developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995 (see Brown and Isaacs, 2005, 2016) and it has been applied to thousands of challenges throughout the world. The “seven core principles” are worth reviewing and are important foundations for any efforts in this area. World Café is especially beneficial if you seek to bring together diverse perspectives in a creative, collaborative, low-risk environment, and it is great if this is an otherwise highly charged issue. Basic steps (which can be varied and adapted) include:

Step 1: Randomly assign participants to tables of 5-8 members. Pose an initial question that is within the knowledge of all participants. Assign or have the group identify a Host to facilitate the discussion. Seek lots of ideas and generative energy (see other approaches to problem solving). Use flip charts, either standing or as the “table cloths,” to record ideas. For example: “Brainstorm possible topics our group might discuss in the coming year, issues that are important to address and which would engage many of our members.”

Step 2: The Host remains at the table. Other group members then seek new tables, reassigning themselves so no more than two members of the previous groups now arrive at their new tables. The Hosts all welcome new members, reviewing the results of the previous round of discussion. New members are then encouraged to briefly share any salient points from the prior round that helps inform and improve thinking at this table (this serves as a functional “report out” of the previous round). This group then moves on to address a second question related to deepening understanding of the problem. For example: “Review the list generated by the first group, then add any other ideas that the new members feel are worth bringing from their prior discussion. Then identify 2-3 of the “best ideas worth developing” that excite the group.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2, moving on to new groups… Hosts always remain at their original tables to welcome new participants and guide the discussion. Post final ideas from the group on the walls of the room so they can be easily viewed in the next step of the process. For example: “Take one of the ideas previously identified. Develop this idea more fully, so others would understand what it is, why it matters, and how it might be implemented within our organization.”

Step 4: This variation on World Café is one I have used many times with great success… it’s called a Gallery Walk: Invite all participants to silently walk around the room, viewing the results of the previous efforts. After a few minutes, invite all to share what they noticed from the results of the their deliberations (you can use ORID as a way to guide discussion), then determine next steps that align with the role of those assembled and the issue at hand. For example: Participants quietly walk around the room, noticing all of the “top issues” that have emerged. After 5-10m, invite them to stand in place (or return to final tables) and call out, “What did you notice? How did you feel about it? What are some qualities of the ideas that are emerging, and why do those matter to you and the group? What might we do next with the ideas that have been offered?

It often follows that the Hosts then follow-up with conveners to form ad hoc planning committees to further prioritize ideas that have emerged from a World Café Process. In that way, ownership is broadened beyond the “planning committee” that may have been in place before the event, and this energy translates into a powerful force for action and follow-up that many organizations tend to lack. I’ve utilized variants of World Café in many contexts.

One favorite experience involved about 350 finance experts, meeting to sort out areas of improvement in 35 topics related to accounting and other financial reporting. Through WC, they were able to collaboratively and creatively develop dozens of improvements, then use a Gallery Walk to observe and comment (with sticky notes) on relationships among ideas generated. All results were then transparently shared and a planning committee implemented many of the ideas over the next two years. It is still reflected upon, several years later, as a major breakthrough in how this organization addresses financial issues.

I love teaching World Café to others simply by doing it, then later providing the name of the process and the theory. As noted elsewhere, Kolb Learning Theory informs much of how I work with adult learners, as engagement leads to reflection, curiosity, and application to real challenges learners are facing in their workplaces.


Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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