People who work in the nuclear power industry track their lifetime exposure to radiation as a function of the maximum allowed by law. If only a benign regulatory agency would set limits for exposure to PowerPoint presentations. Lamentably, many would learn that they have exceeded the lethal dose. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores a better way: one that marries the best that the virtual form of collaborative innovation can offer with the long-standing, effective approach of hosting an in person World Café.

The military, which runs on a bracing admixture of tradition and ammunition, enjoys its moments of clarity. Several years ago, the U.S. Army, in depicting the tangled web of events and influences that characterize the Afghanistan War, produced the following, “mother of all slides” (figure 1).

Figure 1: the tangled web we weave in Afghanistan

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Gen. James N. Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, was later heard to say, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” He noted that showing a parade of bulleted lists implies certainty where none exists. PowerPoint stops dialogue when his staff most needs to challenge their assumptions.

I agree. I agree, regardless of whether the topic is prosecuting the Afghan war or dominating the baked goods category at retail outlets in greater Des Moines. When you convene a group of people, seat them, and power the projector, the collective IQ in the room drops by half. Conscientious hosts provide hand towels to catch the drooling.

Others agree, too. Others have spent years exploring how to convene a group of people in a way that respects the gifts they bring to the table and that yields results, not deep REM sleep.

A number of people have devised a number of approaches. The one that, through its accessibility and power, resonates the most with me is the World Café. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs invented the approach in 1995. In this article I explore how we might leaven the World Café, which offers in-person collaborative innovation, with the virtual complement.

Setting the Stage

Fans of the collaborative innovation blueprint know that engagement, both internal and external, can occur both in person and virtually (figure 2).

Figure 2: the virtual and physical complements of internally and externally focused innovation

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The internal form may include some or all the people in your immediate organization. The external form may include people outside your immediate organization, including, for example, your customers or members of the community at large—your neighbors.

People consider blending the in person and virtual forms of engagement for a number of reasons. Members of the community may live apart from one another, making continuous, in person engagement challenging. Time may likewise play a factor. The following table compares the pros and cons of each form (figure 3).

Figure 3: the pros and cons of the in person and virtual forms of collaboration

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The Whole World [Café] in Our Hands

The World Café excites me for many reasons, not the least of which is that I have seen the approach transform the conversation—and the people engaged in the conversation—in powerful ways. The tagline of the approach is, “Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter.”

The mechanics follow. The hosts arrange the meeting space as—literally—a café, with the ambience that word suggests: round tables that can hold 5-6 people, with candles or flowers on each to set the right atmosphere. Each table has craft paper for a tablecloth, along with markers. World Cafes may include 100s of people. They may last for a couple hours or for a couple days.

The hosts invite the participants into the café environment. People take their seats at the tables. The hosts introduce the topic either by way of general guidance, which maps to the open form of collaborative innovation, or by way of a specific question, which maps to the enquiry-led form.

The participants engage on the topic or question for a period of time—20-30 minutes—drawing their insights on the craft paper tablecloth. The hosts then ring a bell or bang a gong (get it on). Everyone except for the designated table captains circulate to a new table. The table captain remains at the table to share with the new group the insights that the previous group discussed (i.e., they serve as the table’s persistent memory).

The bell tolls. People circulate a couple times. At the end of the session the captains hang the craft paper on the wall and share what their respective tables explored.

World Cafes excite people because their design assumes that they have gifts—perspective, insights, and ideas—to share. Their structure promotes engagement between people in a way that allows them to see how the contributions relate to what others think. This sort of approach encourages diversity of perspective which in turn requires diversity of participation.

The following figure depicts the seven design principles for hosting a World Café, per Brown and Isaacs (figure 4).

Figure 4: the seven principles that define the World Café

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Extending the World Café with the Virtual Form of Collaborative Innovation

Since Juanita Brown and David Isaacs developed the World Café in 1995, the virtual form of collaborative innovation has evolved to the point where it can serve as a useful adjunct to this powerful form of in-person dialogue.

Let’s explore the possibilities by the World Café’s design principles…

  • Set the context: World Café hosts can apply the virtual form ahead of the event to pose the larger, overarching questions that define context.
  • Create hospitable space: idea submission forms, along with the ability for people to create unique, virtual identities tied to the event, begins the welcome.
  • Explore the questions that matter: Asking the question about the question has power, especially ahead of the event. What question, were we to explore it fully, might lead to breakthroughs during the World Café?
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution: The virtual form can serve as a powerful means of inclusion. Travel costs money. The virtual form can include people before and after the World Café who otherwise would not be able to participate.
  • Cross-pollinate and connect diverse perspective: the virtual form may prove particularly powerful by enabling the conversation to persist after the World Café ends. Capturing findings from the event allows people to deepen the connections between ideas and between themselves. Practically, World Café participants cannot take the craft paper home. They need a virtual alternative in order to continue pursuing the core question together.
  • Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions: I do not see a direct link between this design principle and the virtual complement. The effective use of audio in virtual environments eludes us.
  • Harvest and share collective discoveries: transferring the themes, concepts, and ideas that people developed during the World Café to the virtual equivalent makes perfect sense, given how far we have traveled in the Digital Age. Our capabilities today allow for threaded, persistent discussions and for complete transparency amongst all community members.

Parting Thoughts

The capabilities that enable virtual collaboration have reached a stage where they can serve as a useful adjunct to the in person World Café. The virtual form extends the invitation to the many: people who, for whatever reason, cannot attend the event, proper. The virtual form allows the conversation to begin before the event and to persist after the hosts have snuffed the last candle on the table.

Please drop me a line if you, too, have experienced the World Café as a means of inviting authentic engagement. I welcome the chance to learn from your experiences.

How might we abandon PowerPoint, embrace the World Café, and leaven in person engagement with the virtual form of collaborative innovation?

By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.