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Making an Impact with World Café Conversations

M. Frances Baldwin, Ed.D.

Designed Wisdom, Inc. November 2021

For The World Café Foundation Signature Learning Programs

“Think of yourself as a consultant planning

an intervention using action research.”

Objective – Explore the work required for making an impact when designing and hosting World Café Conversations


Purpose: Pre-work essential for tailoring experience to client reality

Challenges: The client. The host

Process: Figure and ground – from volume of information to focus.

Bridge: From prework to design and delivery


Sometimes the lasting contribution that the host makes begins with engagement on the pre-work (your questions and observations). This is my rationale for the action research framing. As you gather information in your prework you are building a relationship; educating the client on new ways of thinking; providing an outsider picture (mirroring) of client strengths; patterns; courage; even avoidance by pointing out what is not talked about). You are also stepping into another perspective that may differ from your experience. By reflective thinking you are acting while doing your research; action that is sometimes transformative. However, the greatest gift from a World Café experience may be clarity that makes moving forward in a more informed manner possible.

All too often World Café activities do not reach the potential available, or possible in a system or situation. There may be multiple reasons; sometimes the degree of turmoil, confusion or pain in the client situation is too chaotic to incorporate the inclusive, democratic forward-thinking qualities of The World Café. The scope of the work or available resources (including authority, time, money, and people) may not allow or justify the investment as World Cafes occur in a wide range of settings: within a conference attached to keynotes; teaching/learning presentations at events; short-term meetings, within retreats. Sometimes the café hosts have not invested in the efficacy and extensive value to be discovered in this simple but powerful concept. 

In my years of practice, I have experimented with more expansive and spacious applications of World Café important to my consulting practice. In the process I identified opportunities for broader applications and outcomes simply by digging deeper into the core beliefs of World Café.

This presentation for a Transformative Learning Community focuses on one of those opportunities; pre-work; the scope of what to do before embarking upon the actual design and delivery.

Every occasion of hosting a World Cafe requires some degree of prework to ensure the best outcome. With minimal, well-planned meetings (action research) you may determine if World Café is a good option; if so where is that door that opens the potential in this situation or group. The objective from contact to delivery is to create a picture of the whole gestalt; then position the particular purpose or picture within the context of that bigger whole. Why? Because only by appreciating the whole can you determine (in collaboration with the client/sponsor) if your focus will be effective to a deeper issue rather than simply a symptom of a deeper issue.

Challenges to essential prework:

A: Clients’ perspective or motivation inconsistent with values of World Café

  • Seeking something interesting and different; not necessarily an impact

  • Seeking answers to existential dilemmas or solutions to problems that seem intractable.

  • “Do not teach us anything just come in and help us find a solution.”

  • Not willing to invest time to do this well.

  • Low expectations for change or impact; other efforts have failed; just circling the wagons one more time.

  • Time

  • Authority

B: Café hosts

  • Lack of knowledge and/or faith in the efficacy of TWC as instrument for change

  • Focus fixed prematurely, on creating a design, rather than creating conditions for success. Especially beginning with what are the questions we can ask.

The Process 

My focus here is World Café as an intervention rather than an exercise or event; applied to organized groups, communities, or organizations; even for a short term, one-time engagement. A consulting intervention approach:

  • Contact/Inquiry/Request. Overview of Client; overview of World Café; resonance

  • Understanding context (where within the big picture is this issue/opportunity arising)

  • Clarifying specific purpose and expectations (figure ground) zooming in on optimal focus

  • Collaborating with hosting teammates and clients to design the café experience.

  • Hosting the Café experience

  • Closure

This is not a linear process as the activities overlap, connect, emerge naturally, and repeat. The desired results from an intervention:

  • The client group sees itself through the eyes of the café host.

  • Client gets clearer picture of the inquiry (their original ask) in relationship to big picture.

-from problem to possibility

-building upon strengths (appreciative lens)

-seeding a generative, life-affirming mindset toward problems  and challenges

C: Skills. Collaboration between client and café host builds capacity within the client organization.

Pre-work includes the first three activities, although other phases of work may emerge anywhere along the way.

Options and Examples of Pre-Work

  1. Review website, social media, and published materials later to client or situation.

  2. Assume

    1. Potential client to be capable of and working from a place of integrity.

    2. There is something here for you to learn.

    3. Client will become collaborative partner in designing. Be explicit about this in the language of the contract

  3. Bring appreciative lens (look for and name strengths as this is building block); bring your open heart and of course deep awareness.

  4. Be explicit about your purpose:  I want to learn about you and your objectives before we embark upon designing a World Café. I will also help you to learn about World Café, although most learning will occur as you engage in the process.

  5. Use simple language (especially tied to the presenting theme) to describe World Café. Make it a way of organizing and making valuable what people already do…. talk: with unique methods that make talk productive and creative. (Craft your own simple definition).

  6. Ask questions that flow with the conversation which may be different from your pre-plan.

  7. Ask open-ended questions that stimulate client to tell as much of the story as possible. Or make a statement: “Tell me how that came about.”

  8. Listen for recurring themes, assumptions, anything that is not clear. Share with client.

  9. Summarize your picture of the situation (larger environment within which the client exists) and the story. Concerns, history of what client and constituency have already done, and what is most important now. Client agrees and edits their summary.

  10. Now you are ready to embark upon the question of whether World Café is a good fit, alternative ways of weaving World Café into the ongoing work or a bigger project.

Bridge to Design

The more you know about the culture, context and purpose driving a request/contract to do a World Café the more meaningful, useful, and interesting the work. The more we learn about how to access and make visible (nail down) culture, context and purpose the better we become at “seeing situations fully.”

The art of designing is the second opportunity for broader applications and outcomes of World Café. In my training as a Gestalt practitioner, designing experience was a key learning. Not only do you not bring a hammer looking for the next nail; you do not own a hammer. Presence to current reality is the mindset.

Design includes planning the collaboration with members of client group, teambuilding with co-host, crafting questions, structuring the Café, harvest, and closure.

In a recent talk on change Bruce Mau describes designing in this way:

Designing is putting things into context. The core of design is demonstrating my understanding of someone else’s experience and problems. We design the way that we live and take responsibility for it. Your life is a designed life; we live in a designed world. (1)


  1. Book: Mau MC 24: Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work. 2020 Phaidon Press Inc. 65 Bleecker Street New York, NY 10012 Bruce Mau is a Canadian designer, innovator, and educator. He began his career as a graphic designer and has since applied his design methodology to architecture, art, museums, film, eco-environmental design, education, and conceptual philosophy. Mau is the Chief Executive Officer of Massive Change Network, a Chicago-based design consultancy

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