Imagine a room of nearly 200 people from five global regions and different functions across one organisation. This was the first meeting of this kind, and we wanted to encourage everyone to build relationships across the organisational silos and learn together about challenges and opportunities facing the organisation. A World Café seemed an obvious inspiration: multiple conversational rounds at small hosted tables, with participants switching tables (and groups) between rounds.
Usually, we just ask people to find a new table after each round (and encourage them to ensure that they are sitting with new people each time). There’s no need to over-structure if self-organisation works as well. In this case, we were concerned that an invitation to self-organise would a) cause a sense of chaos and insecurity and b) lead participants to sit with people they know or people they’ve just sat with.
Balancing chaos and order
So we decided to experiment. Our objective was to a) give everyone an easy and quick way to find their next table and b) reduce overlaps between group compositions.
In much smaller settings, we had used instructions before that asked half of the participants to move clockwise to the next table while the other half moved counter-clockwise. With so many tables participating in the World Café, we needed to step up this approach. In this case, we chose to assign everyone a starting table (and made sure that these were nicely mixed by function and region). In addition to their table number, each participant received a group rotation indicator (i.e. a number between -2 and +3). To find their next table, participant were then invited to take their current table number and add the rotation.
- For someone with the assignment 6+3 the sequence of tables would thus be: 6 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18
- For someone with the assignment 1-2, we clearly explained how to move around the circle. The sequence then became: 1 – 33 – 31 – 29 – 27
Focus on the task, not on the process
It took a moment of explanation (and fun Math practice), and we were good to go. Participants enjoyed the ease of change-over and were looking forward to meeting the next bunch of colleagues. Those who had difficulties finding their tables were easily helped by the people around them – only person came up to the facilitators to ask. This allowed everyone to direct their attention to the task at hand – building collective knowledge with ease and clarity.
And so… if you ever need a little more structure to your World Café groupings, why not try a little Math to mix things up?
A big thanks to Sabine Soeder and CoCreativeFlow for this fun experiment!