The great thing about the World Cafe format is the possibility to seat people in small intimate groups, and at the same time move them around, engaging and connecting like a big collective mind. Or like Finn Voldtofte used to picture it: like neurons in a brain sending and receiving signals and impulses, developing new thoughts and ideas.
In order to make this possible, you will need to make sure:
- That everything happens in the same room (except lunch/dinner which can be seated elsewhere)
- To organise the tables so people can move around easily without disturbing fellow participants (too much)
- Each table has as a number and a name
- To create the atmosphere of a café (hence: the name)
- Most important of all: no more than 5 people at each table!
1. Everything happens in the same room
With 100+ people participating, it can be tempting to divide the whole meeting up in smaller parts in several conference rooms or whatever is available. Very bad idea.
The magic of World Café is the experience of being together, thinking together, and experiencing the dynamic of moving around, meeting new people, returning to those you know, and so on. Using more rooms loses all that.
Yes, the acoustics can be bad in a huge room (most common argument against the one-room-rule), but that’s where no. 5 so beautifully proves the opposite: That it is possible to have all participants in the same big room if just it’s organised properly.
2. Organise the tables so people can move around easily
Make sure the tables are placed randomly around the room. No straight lines please. When people enter, they should get the impression of a vivid, somewhat chaotic room. It’s good if people have to stop and look around to figure out where they are and what they have entered.
That being said, it’s also important that they can move around. Perhaps this is the only part where World Café differs from a traditional intimate café, where you occasionally have to sit on the lap of a stranger. Remember that we want people to be self-organising. That needs space too.
3. Each table has as a number and a name
People need to be able to navigate when moving through the room. Imagine 40 tables and you’ve just returned from a break and have to find table no. 28 again. You know approximately where you are seated, but with 199 people around you also trying to find their seats, it can be challenging and time consuming. If the table has a number, it makes it easier. Even easier if you know that table 1 and 40 are next to each other. This means that although all tables are placed in the room randomly, as soon as you spot 25 you know your table is near.
Again, it might sound so simple that it is ridiculous to mention, but nevertheless. If you want the organic, casual and cozy café layout of the room, you need some street signs when you have more than 20 tables. Speaking of signs. The poetic beauty of World Café is also the names of the tables. And that is an important way of supporting orientation as well.
I usually have a physical sign placed on the table with a pre-made number and space for writing a café/table name. One of the start exercises for the participants is to name their café. Examples:
- Café Inspiration
- Café High Efficiency
- Café Humour
- Café Strategic Planning
- Café Network
- Café Stress No-More
This way of personalising each table makes the relation to the people sitting around it stronger, and makes it more interesting for other people where to sit when rotating later in the process. It’s amazing how big an influence the name of a table can have on where you want to sit in the room.
4. Create the atmosphere of a café
Decorate the table with candles, flowers and a nice tablecloth. On top of that (or as an alternative to a tablecloth), place some flipchart paper so that people can write directly on the table.
Tell the participants to take their coffee to their tables. Make it cozy. Not all places allow open fire (candles), but with flowers on the table you have already created a lot.
The informal setup makes room for alternative conversations than those between experts and “know-it-alls”, and rather invites to mutual insights and reflections. Having flip-chart paper on the table and asking people to make notes on it lets the participants get used to sharing even the smallest thoughts.
5. No more than 5 people at each table!
The ideal number of people seated at a table is five. If you exceed that you are guaranteed that all conversations will split up into smaller groups at the tables.
Sometimes clients try to push in an easier way of organizing participants, for example ten people at a table, stating, “We want the whole team to be together” and other apparently reasonable arguments. It just doesn’t work, and if it’s a question of having more than the maximum around the table, it is a question of whether or not to do a World Café at all.