World Café: How dialogue can be a Competitive Advantage


This post was originally published as a LinkedIn post on July 26, 2017. The original can be viewed here

Leaders, especially CEOs, executives, and managers know that they are only as good as the team of people they are leading. But how can leaders harness the collective knowledge that resides inside the minds of a multidisciplinary employees each working in different departments who have different mental models, perspectives, lived experiences, and cultures? And how can this be done in a way that is simple, fast, and proven to be effective? Does such a method even exist? Fortunately, such a proven method does indeed exist and is called the World Café process. 

What is it?

The World Café process was formally documented in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Since then, World Café has spread globally to countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. 

World Café is an application of the natural human process of having constructive conversations(dialogue) about issues and topics that matter to people. In fact, it is so natural that we do it on a daily basis and aren’t even aware of it. Whether we’re having conversations at the water cooler, at a local pub, on the golf course, or at a social get together, we are engaging in dialogue!

World Café has been used by large multinational corporations, non profits, governments, community organizations, hospitals, and educational institutions to access and leverage the collective wisdom of employees and participants alike. It has been used for large-scale strategy planning sessions by organizations such as The Museum of Science & Industry(Tampa Bay), Sanofi-Synthelabo, Saudi Aramco, and more.

How can World Cafe bring value and competitive advantage?

It’s value emerges when, through meaningful dialogue, we are able to purposefully learn from all participants. Through World Café, we are able to discover and let go of unknown/hidden assumptions that keeps us from creating innovative solutions that work for us, for our stakeholders, and for our customers. Additionally, it serves as a powerful tool that elicits and enables collective wisdom to emerge and for it to be deployed. Finally, as a platform for the rapid dissemination of knowledge, World Café brings to the surface and makes known the often unknown and hidden web of tangled connections/causalities that can exist in large, complex organizations in interdependent environments such as Hospitals, Multinational Corporations, Consumer Packaged Goods corporations, and Government.

Mass coordination requiring input, collaboration, and consensus from multiple stakeholders each with different domains of disciplinary expertise now becomes possible as well as effective. When one decision can have multiple(known and unknown) effects, making well coordinated decisions becomes paramount. Coordination breakdowns are reduced while collective responsibility increases.

How does it work?

Usually facilitated, several rounds of small group conversations are hosted at tables. Participants then move on to other tables, beginning new conversations while taking with them and sharing with others the new insights and perspectives they gained thereby cross-pollinating ideas. As these ideas build on each other and spread, participants rapidly develop a sense of the whole as Silos begin breaking down and collective knowledge and shared understanding rapidly grows. 

Final Thoughts

I’ve been fortunate to witness the power of World Café in action several times in my career and can personally attest to the power of dialogue in sharing, generating, and leveraging new ideas. Within a one hour session, I witnessed ideas come together to form new ideas, learned how cutting costs in one part of the company actually increases the costs of another part, and identified and overcame a crucial yet unknown assumption that kept us from developing a solution.



2)   Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The World Café: Shaping Futures Through Conversations That Matter. San Francisco, CA : Berrett-Koehler Publishers

3) Plasters, C. L., Seagull, F. J., & Xiao, Y. (2003). Coordination Challenges in Operating-Room Management: An In-Depth Field StudyAMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings, 2003, 524–528.


The content of this post is for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes only and is not to be viewed as recommendations or advice from the author.