Cafés are wonderful – but don’t try one at home

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.)

Case Study Scenario – conflict, change and point-of-view

The following scenario is fiction but draws on my own experience in different working contexts. It contains elements of situations of conflict, change and point-of-view so that it may be used as a basis for discussion of these topics.

The Boundary

A man called Fred who is a bricklayer obtains a contract for work where he is to build a boundary which is quite long. He is not good at project management so he asks another man called Ted to go halves with him on the project so that it runs smoothly. Ted is experienced in managing projects so there is a good fit though he has not managed a project exactly like this one before. The payment for the work will all be made at the end of the project so each of them has to put an equal amount of capital into the project and the agreement is that the profit left over at the end will be split equally between them. They expect that they will have to spend about the same amount of time working on the project.

Fred begins work with a small team of juniors working under his direction.

Ted is not familiar with boundary walls when the project begins so he takes the trouble to read-up on the subject and talk to anyone he meets who knows about it. In addition, he looks carefully at any boundary walls he comes across.

After a short time Ted becomes uneasy. In the contract it does not specify what sort of boundary division is to be built. He works out that there is a strong possibility that a fence could be put up instead at a much lower cost which would fulfill all the requirements of the contract. If the wall is all built in the way that Fred is doing it, there will be only a small profit to share at the end of the project and there is a possibility, if there were unforeseen difficulties, that there could be no profit at all.

When he tells Fred about this thought, Fred flies into a rage. Fred says that he has 20 year’s experience of building walls and he knows what he is doing. He says that he cannot work with someone who has such a negative attitude and refuses to discuss the matter any further.

Ted persists. After all, Ted has a half share in the profit so has an interest in maximising it. Fred becomes even more offended and refuses to speak to Ted altogether. So, Ted brings in a mediator.

The mediator first speaks to both parties separately.

Fred tells him that his part in the project is to build the wall. He has a great deal of experience in building boundary walls whereas Ted has none. He says that Ted is negative towards the project but fails to suggest a better way of building the wall.

Ted tells the mediator that his part in the project is to manage the project. He also says that he finds Fred very difficult to work with because Fred will not discuss the project with him.

The mediator calls a meeting so that the two sides can settle their differences.

The mediator says that Fred has described his job as building the wall. Everyone agrees that this is what he has been doing. The mediator goes on to say that Ted has described his job as managing the project and everyone also agrees with this. The mediator says that since both parties are in agreement about what they are doing, they have the basis for a working relationship and they should get on with their jobs.

Soon afterwards Ted leaves the contract. Fred pays him the amount of capital he has put into the project plus a very small amount in recognition of the work he has done.

Points to consider

  • Do you sympathise with Fred, Ted or both?
  • Could Ted have behaved differently? If so, how?
  • How would you analyse the mediator’s approach?
  • How would you have mediated this situation?