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"The Mycelial Cafe"--a virtual and/or hybrid re-imagination of the WC form

This process is inspired by work I've started with the good folks of the Mycelium School, including World Cafe Community stalwart Ashley Cooper. We're talking about what it means to "work mycelialy," i.e. like the network of tiny threads that make up the main "body" of a fungal organism (and play a key role in composting dead plant matter as well as being the source of mushrooms).

This has led to my realization that WC is a wonderful process for weaving lots of threads together and thus a great candidate for putting the mycelium metaphor into action. Here's what I just proposed to our little group, that can serve as a point of attachment for a more concrete conversation around what might be possible if we reimagine the WC form for virtual and hybrid contexts:

“Mycelial Café” (just made that up!) would involve a number of people hosting one or more small group conversations (in-person and/or virtually) over perhaps a week’s time. During and/or just after each one they create some kind of harvest (“tablecloth”) online (Hackpad is a platform that could work well for this) that could be shared with other participants. We would have one or at most two questions that everyone discussed. We could come together a week after the Talk Purpose event* for a final conversation on Maestro where we did perhaps one more round of small group dialogue followed by an extended harvest.  In that closing full group conversation, we would value and appreciate the weaving we have done for its own sake, talk about what we’re learning about working mycelialy, and, yes, hunt for “mushrooms. ” No pressure or expectations that they will emerge, just a comfortable knowledge that, if the conditions were right, they will be there, and perhaps even in profusion.

*Note: Talk Purpose is a regular "fishbowl" style conversational gathering that Ashley and Co. convene. In this example, it serves as a conversation starter. That seems like a nice add-on, but not necessarily essential to the form.

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This is fascinating, Ben! I am so curious to see what could happen with this kind of extended vision for World Cafe online, where the tables are spread all over the world...

What if we could "switch tables" and have a second conversation with people who had participated in the first round?! I also wonder what kind of "cross-pollination" process will occur, just naturally, as people read each others' harvests and comment/build on them...

I think you're right that much of the cross-pollinating can happen in asynch space as people respond to the harvests they read. People who doing their small group convos asynchronously can also certainly switch tables easily enough. If they're working live, either via something like Google Hangouts or conference calling, or in-person, getting together live with a different group becomes trickier but certainly not impossible, especially with enough time and a group that cares about the topic. Four ways to also get live cross pollination without making everyone do multiple rounds are:

  1. After an initial round of live conversation based on a question, take time to look through notes from other tables (assuming you're not the first) and then do another round with the same group you have gathered with that brings in ideas you have found that intrigue you.
  2. Expand the host role to co-convener. Have a number of people volunteer to convene more than one round. They are then in a position to share ideas from the previous rounds they have participated in without requiring that everyone else they have gathered do more than one round.
  3. Since the final Maestro call will have at least one round of small group discussion anyone who joins it that also participated in self-organized rounds will be able to cross-pollinate.

I should add that I am planning to use some variant of this process as my contribution to the national conversation on "Poverty and Wealth in America" that is being convened over the next two months by the National Dialogue Network initiative (that came out of the NCDD catalyst awards). I'm actually imagining doing this for the full two months, rather than just a week, to give the "mycelial mat" plenty of time to grow (although I should note that actual mycelium can grow very quickly when conditions are right!).

For "Round One," I'm considering this question: "When you think about the topic of poverty and wealth in America, what questions come up that you would like to discuss with others (especially people who have different views and backgrounds than you) and what information you would most like to share?"

Then I'm thinking that I might convene a conversation with a small group of people who are experts at framing powerful questions, to decide based on the harvest from round one what the question(s) might be for subsequent "rounds."

This sounds great, Ben. I like your "round one" question very much.

You might even consider simplifying it a bit (simpler & shorter is almost always better, imho)... e.g. "When you imagine a national dialogue about poverty and wealth in America, what question/s would you most like to explore with others?"


Indeed, simpler and shorter is better as a rule.  And you know me--I have a love of the Baroque, so I'm always pushing against that constraint.

And I am also interested in the information piece that you took out. So maybe I want to ask two questions? Perhaps the stretching out of time allows us to tackle slightly more complex framings than we can in a standard 20 minute round, especially when people can look at the written question(s) rather than having to remember them? And also to ask two or more questions per "round?"

What if you had multiple options for first round conversations, and people could choose which one/s to engage? Just thinking "on paper"... it seems to really focus attention when the question is very clear and concise, and it attracts a particular quality of response.

Hi Ben,

I like your concept. And would be glad to participate.
Here's a question I would contribute:
"Are there any financial mechanisms that can act as a major lever to lift significant numbers of people out of poverty? And if so, how can they be utilized?"

Thanks, Robb. Just to be clear, the conversation I see us having here isn't to answer the question I asked above (or whatever revised version I end up with). That will happen online via Hackpad, I expect, as well as on the phone and in person. In fact, let me go ahead and set up a pad right now, so anyone who wants to just dive in can do so!...  OK! Here's the link.  Thank you for diving right in! I posted your question over there and also my info question as a second one for people to consider.

Meanwhile, I suggest that we focus the conversation here on process, i.e. "what might be possible if we reimagine the WC form for virtual and hybrid contexts?"  The work I'm describing is meant to be just one example, and I'm also grateful to have thinking partners in its design since part of "working mycelialy" is to let things evolve, I believe.

Indeed, Ben. I'm perhaps a bit too eager to dive right in!

I have to admit to being relatively new to WC, especially in an online mode. So I may need to get some experience here before I can offer constructive suggestions. That said, I'm ready to rock & roll...  ;-)

I trust your instincts, Robb, and love your enthusiasm. So no worries regarding your level of experience. You've participated in in-person WCs, as well as other large group processes. And you've studied some of the theory. This is all fairly new ground, and so I don't think anybody has "the answers." 

The NDN dialogue will give us a chance to experiment with some approaches, and I'm grateful you want to play there. Let's talk live about that, separate from this thread. I'd love to find some other terrain where we can experiment as well. and to perhaps identify some key questions that help us dig deeper into the main inquiry of "what might be possible..."

Rob -

It's great to see you here! I don't know if you and Ben have met "formally", but I believe you would very much enjoy connecting with each other, as you share common interests and may be of help to one another, beyond this project.


Hi Amy -- Indeed, Ben and I have met and started up a dialog. Kudos to you for sending me in his direction!


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