The Art of Hosting

from the emaillist, June 2015:


I am hosting a short series of World Cafe sessions where the topics/questions between the sessions do not change, but the attendees do. This was a choice made by the hosting/design team to engage a broader sector of community members than a single date/time would allow.
My question for you is this: Based on your experience, how would you handle the harvest of the first iteration? Use it to seed the second iteration? Allow the second group to start from the same 'blank slate' the first group had? I suspect in our AoH community of practitioners we have even more creative ways of finding a middle ground between those two.
Your thoughts and experience will be gratefully received!
You have hit on the most difficult problem for World Cafe's or any time we want what has been learned by one group/person to be taken up by another group/person.  I have a suggestion that has worked very well for me. Compile a large number of significant quotes or ideas from the first session, not bullet points or summarizations, but original words of participants in complete sentences. They can be quotes from ideas offered at individual tables or from the  ending discussion.  The important thing is to use participant's actual words - the raw data, so to speak.  Put each quote/item on different piece of paper and post them on the walls around the room. Depending on the size of the group you need from 30-100 items. Before the first round of the second Cafe starts, instruct participants that they are to act as researchers and their task is to make sense of what the first group found by reading the quotes on the wall. Provide each a pad and pencil for this task. Allow at  least 20 min for this research.  Then hold the first round of the second World Cafe, doubling the length of the first round. In the first half of the first round have participants tell each other their findings and hold a discussion about those findings. In the second half of the first round ask participants now to speak from their own point of view on the issue. Then proceed with rounds as usual. Give it a try and see what you think.
Well it is actually the biggest problem with any strategic conversation which is is why I have the principle that “I’m not planning a meeting, I’m planning a harvest.”  Once I know what our outputs will be and how the tangible and intangible results of the meeting will be used I can plan a process, with harvesting and hosting working together within the conversation and extended beyond the conversation.  
It is essential that this be the centre of design.  Even an informal conversation between a few people - if it has any strategic importance at all - requires a prior consideration of the purpose and methods of harvesting that are specific to the needs of the client, community or organization, and specific to the particular moment in time that the conversation is serving.  
For practitioners, I have learned that this requires us to create all kinds of harvesting and hosting strategies with our clients.  There is really no one best practice that fits all requirements.  
Nancy’s process here, similar to the ones that I have been designing, are excellent when you are needing to work with a large number of ideas and when it is important for the group itself to be sensemaking (Jen Mein posted a lovely process on Facebook yesterday along these lines). These processes are critical in situations of pure complexity, where diversity and collective sensing is required.  This is a very energetic and participatory form of harvesting and trusts the group completely with the meaning making, which I think is fantastic.  
And of course, other needs and other contexts will require their own hosting/harvesting strategies. For the practitioner, your most important role is helping a planning group discern the need for the hosted/harvested process and to help them make informed choices about what will be most helpful.
I love seeing these conversations about discerning much more subtle strategic choices.  It is a key part to developing one’s depth of practice.  
And I would say you need to take it a step further still.  What we're really working towards are consciously creating systems which lead to systemic change.  AoH started with an emphasis on hosting conversations and that fairly quickly expanded to harvesting as well.  That's great and perhaps sufficient if what we're looking for is to catalyze more individual action.  It's still pretty week if we are looking for collective action and systemic shifts.

My own work is making it several other important dimensions visible.  I think of:
  • much more careful attention to invitation
  • emphasis on curated knowledge that needs to be brought into the room
  • meaning making and story making from harvests
  • strategic sharing of those stories
  • strategy which loops back to invitation
  • creating and sustaining wide fields of action and learning (commonly called communities of practice)
It's time for us to step up from hosting events to hosting systems of change.


All of this is harvesting practice to me. I don't use the noun "harvest" any more, opting instead for much more precise language to describe the outputs and outcomes if processes. Sometimes what we are harvesting us consciousness and systemic change. If so we need to create an infrastructure for that to happen. The inquiry about going beyond the basics is what prompted Tim Merry, Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Caitlin Frost and I to launch our Beyond the Basics inquiry to dive into the theory and practice of exactly this imperative. 

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More from the emaillist:

Hi Amy

On a practical level, there are options to introduce harvests from earlier cafes at any point in the process - I think the choice of options. does depend on context.

Sometimes, I have done a relatively blank slate first round of Cafe, so that people can arrive, download and meet others without being swamped by other data and then introduced other harvest material after that stage.  And sometimes, I have done separate Cafes as if they were completely separate, because it feels more important for a group to hear and develop their own voice, before trying to do anything else.  And, one time I can think of, I brought people from an earlier cafe to a later cafe, so that there could be a dialogue around differences / similarities between groups, as that felt useful in that context.

I think it matters that people feel valued (i.e. we want to listen to them as 'cleanly' as we possibly can) and that they don't feel manipulated (i.e. we are up front with what we are doing and don't spring surprises on them, as if we know more than them and they are just fodder for our clever facilitation), but beyond that I think there are loads of options, depending on context and where we think we are going.

Good luck with it.

Best regards

Chris Chapman

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