I have been studying the café method for about 15 years having been a frequent attender of David Gurteen’s public café events in London, having done a masterclass with David on how to organise a café and having organised one myself.
Cafés are an extremely powerful device. They are not like any of the other teaching ‘tips and tricks’. Because they are powerful, they are also dangerous. A café is not like a focus group, for example. If a focus group is like a sponge, a café is like a scalpel. A sponge is a very useful device but there is a limited amount of damage that can be done with it, even if you get grit in it or use the wrong kind of cleaning product. A scalpel, on the other hand, can be the difference between life and death for the patient but you wouldn’t want someone to use one who didn’t have the proper training and experience.
The World Café (Brown & Isaacs, 2005) approach avoids structure beyond the basic café organisation. It is very good for getting people to think about things in new ways. From a well-run café, participants often go away feeling stimulated, excited and open to new ideas. However, it can also open-up rivalries and divisions and is generally not good for identifying specific courses of action. A badly run café may seem to the participants, boring or, because of a lack of specific outputs, a waste of time. An exponent of the café method says, “While The World Cafe´ approach has the potential to make significant contributions to large group knowledge exchange and collective meaning making, it has suffered from being used by inexperienced facilitators and for reasons not well suited to the method. Participants, as a result, have failed to achieve the results expected and, in some cases, formed negative opinions of a lasting nature about the method and its proponents” (Prewitt, 2011, p.350).
As a method to be used as part of an organisational change programme, the World Café approach is, I believe, only useful at the unfreezing stage (of Lewin’s unfreeze, move, refreeze model) and even then only of limited value. For this reason, I have been working with a consultant, Jakob Werdelin, on modifying the café format so that it can be used effectively to help throughout the organisational change process. Jakob was the main facilitator at the café held at the event I organised last year last year where a more structured café format was used which was very successful.
I believe that if you were to use cafés as part of an organised change process, you can transform your organisation comparatively quickly into a much more effective one.
If you are thinking of running a café yourself, it is essential that you first attend a few facilitated by a professional such as David Gurteen. He runs them free of charge to the public (though he charges corporate clients a corporate consultancy rate) in London two or three times a year. If you go to the Gurteen Knowledge website you can put yourself on his mailing list.
Brown, J. and Isaacs, D. (2005). The World Café. San Francisco, Ca: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
Prewitt, V. (2011). Working in the café: lessons in group dialogue. The Learning Organization, 18(5), pp.350-363.)