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Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter

I would love to hear from folks who've graphically recorded World Cafes - how do you approach it, what do you find works best, what innovations have you come up with to enhance the experience, etc. etc?

The challenge for me is always how to manage the tsunami of information that comes out during the final harvest. Even when I collect ideas at the end of each round and start getting them up on the chart, there is still that big burst at the end, and I feel like I need 8 hands to capture it all!

Looking forward to hearing from anyone with ideas - including those who may not have graphically recorded Cafes themselves but have hosted or otherwise participated in dialogues where the visual recording was done particularly well!


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Recently I was again faced with the difficulty of organizing contents in a very short time and being able to have participants vote on the ideas they liked most as soon as the harvest was over.
I had been invited By Javier Ruiz of Labein Instituto in Bilbao in Spain to host hosts. Here is what we came up with to the satisfaction of all.
We created a "chain of capture" breaking and allocating each task to a different person:
One was facilitating the flow of expression standing with the group. One was sitting, writting on postit. One was sitting, grouping postits and naming the main idea. One was standing, writing the main idea on the paper wall. One was standing, illustrating what had just been written on the wall.

2 minutes after completion we were ready to welcome participants vote
And we had a ball working this way.
Pictures attached ( Alexandre Paris squating in front of his work)

Pierre Goirand ( France)
Hi, Avril -

I did one a few months ago, and decided afterward that I should re-assess the content:image ratio. See this post here and the extra material here.

The client sat in the audience and wrote down every single words that was said at the end - a true academic. I struggled between the text-based content and the images and did neither well. I decided afterward that maybe an event like that lends itself to someone capturing each word on a pad, and then allow the graphic recorder to post the content that most helps the group evolve its conversation. Especially since I was told that people were enthralled with what I was doing on the big screen, humble as it was.

Hope that helps!

I work with a front of the room facilitator and know the three questions in advance. During the group discussion and flipchart recording by teams, I walk the room and get to know what they are focusing on - symbols, messages, etc. and develop a mural based on that imagery. When it is time for the report out at the end - the synthesis of the messages for each question, I capture those in areas I have reserved ahead of time. My facilitator/partner also captures on a clipboard. I usually get 90% of what they call out and fill in the gaps based on the facilitator's capture. See attached mural.
We call it the 'Popcorn Record' when all the info 'pops' out of the group pop-pop-pop and you need to capture and there is no time for graphic synthesis other than happy/sad faces and circles.
We find in this kind of situation you need to have your metaphor ready in advance - ie popcorn/clouds, apples around a tree, coins for a wishing well and then you work to catch them

When Laurie and I facilitate a world cafe feedback we usually add an extra 10 minutes to the end of the discussion and ask the groups to pick their top three ideas or for large groups top one idea - then we ask for 'main ideas' and then mind map off these main ideas. We tend to find the WC has a wonderful effect of bringing discussion into focus ...

Laurie acts as facilitator an captures text to the chart and I build the graphic around it ( we're married so we can touch) and maintain the technical support (pen ink etc..). (I'm told it's quite entertaining to watch us draw)

So a facilitator who can shape the process to slow down the and focus the feedback makes for an excellent and effective record.

My first significant recording at a World Cafe was a logistical nightmare. There were about 50 tables and about 200 participants. I had a 16 foot stretch of paper on the wall and there were three rounds of conversation on the topic of improving numeracy in schools in the South-Western region of NSW, Australia. I walked amongst the tables during the first round, taking pictures and jotting down ideas that were emerging. I hadn't visited more than half of the tables before the round ended. I was trying to understand the gist of the conversations but didn't feel that I understood enough, and a lot of the writing was illegible or too small to read.

It got even worse during the second round. By the third round my head was spinning and I still didn't feel confident enough to commit anything to paper. The two hosts had been in the Industry for more than 20 years and managed to pick up enough of what was emerging to feed me the information while I quickly scribbled the ideas on the Cafe Graphic at the end. They even jumped in and wrote stuff down which of course meant different styles of writing which spoilt the look of the Graphic. I was really unhappy with what eventually emerged as my Cafe Graphic and I wouldn't have shown it to anyone. Fortunately I had volunteered my time and materials and it didn't cost them anything.

My second World Cafe recording went a lot better. There were about 10 tables and about 40 participants. Logistically, I was able to cope with walking around and harvesting the ideas and writing them up. The hosts and I had also come up with a basic theme so I had had a chance to think up, and practice, a few images. This Cafe was on 21st Century Learning; essentially building pathways between different educational institutions in Australia that would result in combined offerings to students. Because I knew what images I was going to use, I was able to draw images while participants arrived, and also during and between the three rounds of conversation. I could sense that participants enjoyed and appreciated the activity which appeared spontaneous.

Although simply transcribing what participants were writing down is a key part of recording, I didn't achieve what I'd hoped which was to assist in uncovering the "voice in the centre of the room".

Each of the participants of both World Cafe's received what I call a Cafe' Memory. It's an Adobe Air application I developed that allowed them to pan and zoom the Cafe' Graphic and also to view and rotate images taken of the table tops.
Hi all -

Wow, thanks to everyone who weighed in on this topic! It's really helpful hearing the challenges and solutions other folks have come up with.

As for me, I found the first couple of World Cafes I did very challenging, because I left all the mapping to the end, and found myself desperately scribbling during the large group 'harvest' to try and capture even the key points. Eventually I came up with a solution where I ask each table to spend 3-4 minutes at the end of each round choosing 1-3 key ideas, questions or themes that emerged during that round. (The number of ideas depends on how many tables there are.) They then write these down on stickies, one idea per note, and bring them to me so I can start mapping them on the wall chart while they're engaged in the next round of conversation. That way, by the time we get to the final harvest, I've already gotten a good chunk of material up on the chart, which makes the final round a lot less frantic.

I've tried floating around the room and collecting information during the rounds of conversation, but it doesn't work for me, as I just get snippets of conversation and can't seem to piece them together in any meaningful way. So I've given up on that approach.

What I'm leaning toward now is to focus more on the big picture than the details, so that instead of madly trying to capture all the ideas in the room, I'll try to stand back a bit and attend to the larger story that's emerging. It's going to be hard, because I tend to get caught up in details - but I'd like to see if it wouldn't be more effective to move the recording up to a more "meta" level. I also love the idea of working as a team by assigning different tasks to different people, as Pierre described! (And am envious of Rob for having a permanent partner to work with!)

Thanks again for sharing your experiences - I'm learning a lot from you all!

I can certainly vouch for your approach. The only concern I have is that "prevailing wisdom" suggests that by capturing what everyone is saying, and using their exact words, creates a sense of joint ownership and a feeling that each and every contribution is valued. Do you agree? And if so, how would you work to achieve that?
You have aptly described the firehose experience of trying to capture the harvest. I have not recorded that many WCs, and yet I feel that there are so many opportunities to innovate in this area of the WC that I am thrilled that you have started a thread.

I keep returning to my impressions of the WC before I ever attended one. I was excited about the idea of there being paper and pens on the tables and that participants were creating visual records at their tables. When I went to my first WC, I was frustrated by all the content and visuals that were left on the tables. I have since heard and seen different ways to get that content up on the wall, so to speak, and for me, it feels this is where I am most curious about ways to integrate this in a harvest process. I know Nancy Margulies has some brilliant ideas (of her millions of brilliant ideas) about using smaller pieces of paper, or index cards for example, that people are recording on etc. It will be good to hear from her about this questions as well.

I do feel that for me the harvest, as I have seen it done, seems out of proportion so to speak to the WC process, which is really opening up a system to the many voices, through the rounds of conversations and cross pollinations. This opening up and mixing up of the parts of the system then takes a hard turn as it is squeezed back through the smaller opening of the final harvest, and through yet another filter of the visual recorder.. How can we make this convergent part of the process more inclusive? Do we have larger harvests inbetween, with gallery walks of the harvest maps, to feed back that information into the system for example?

I could go on, so I will stop for now, but want to mention at our annual International Forum of Visual Practitioners conference in Montreal in two weeks, one of our members will be presenting on the subject of harvesting a WC. Below is the description of his presentation. I will be happy to report back to this conversation what I learn in his session.

Thursday, August 6th
Adding More Value to World Cafe Events
Nick Payne, graphic recorder and facilitator,

Over the past three years I have recorded many World Cafe events with a number of different facilitators and have, I believe, stumbled upon a a different and complementary approach to doing this. Feedback from clients and participants, to date, has been universally positive. World Cafe has, embedded within its very design, an efficient means of harvesting the thoughts and comments of all the participants. So this session will open up a discussion on how graphic recorders can add the most value to the process - seeking to map the different options that are available to recorders and to customers.
Attendees will learn:
A different approach to recording World Cafe
more about the World cafe process
a range of perspectives on the recorder's role in World Cafe
What a wonderful thing to be happening....thank you to the Visual Practioners who have been such an integral part of the evolution of the World Cafe...and to you Nick, for offering this space for a learning exchange among visual practitioners.

With warm regards,
Juanita Brown
Julie - WONDERFUL questions, which open up so many new and exciting possibilities! I'm thrilled to hear that Nick will be presenting on this topic at the IFVP conference, and will look forward to your report-back. (Of course, I'm sorry I won't be there myself, but that's a whole other story.... ah well.... next year in San Francisco!)
Julie said: "What I'm leaning toward now is to focus more on the big picture than the details, so that instead of madly trying to capture all the ideas in the room, I'll try to stand back a bit and attend to the larger story that's emerging. ........ - but I'd like to see if it wouldn't be more effective to move the recording up to a more "meta" level."

When I do this kind of harvesting, I never try to capture 'all the ideas in the room'. Indeed, I try to stand back a bit and atten to the larger story. My view on this is that we are not just 'a graphic recorder' = recording in a graphic way what is said in the conversations, but caputuring the deeper patterns, listen for it, and then bring it together in a way that most people have a kind of memory about it. For me this is indeed about the meta-level and that's why it is good to look from a distance, stand back a little...
A next level is then to have an indepth conversation from his harvest with the hosting team (client / facilitator + ?), that brings even a next level of clarity and harvest!
Great contribution, Ria.

My personal concern is that I end up filtering the ideas through my own perspectives, thereby taking on an awesome responsibility as the Recorder. I'm not at all against this since I aspire to "systems architecting through visual dialogue". But I would need to have built up a significant level of trust and credibility with the participants so that they are prepared to accept me as the "architect" of the system under discussion.

But this means moving away from the role of "recorder". Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.


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