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Running a World Café cleanly

World Cafe

Recently, I was asked to facilitate a diverse group of human rights activists to agree on a campaign roadmap for security law reforms in Malaysia. There were several challenges. Mostly, these stemmed from overstretched resources and overworked activists.

The first challenge was getting everyone to agree on what they would work on. The issues were complex and wide-ranging and the group needed to decide what they would prioritise. The second was enabling the group to kickstart the campaign in time for a parliamentary sitting that was just around the corner. The third was ensuring the energy for a sustainable campaign. And the final challenge was helping the activists to think systemically so that their actions would create as much leverage as possible for the reforms to take place.

I wanted to facilitate them cleanly and get them to also self-facilitate as cleanly as possible. And my allegiance was not to Clean Language. It was to the group’s desired outcome of developing a two-year road map for reforms. This is when I discovered how I could introduce Clean Questions and Systemic Modelling in a World Café process, in order to give the activists what they needed.

The principles

Combining clean with World Café is a natural choice. Both have similar underlying principles. For example, an important guideline in World Café is to “listen to understand”. When we use a clean approach, just the process of repeating back someone’s exact words before we ask a question helps make this happen. At the minimum, it acknowledges what the person has said and makes them feel heard and understood.

A clean approach also means I hold a stance of “It’s OK that I don’t know. Let me find out.” That results in me asking questions from a place of curiosity so that I can listen to understand better.

Another World Café principle is to “listen together for patterns, insights and deeper connections”.

In Systemic Modelling, the facilitator is tracking for patterns across the group. At the same time, the facilitator is also implicitly or explicitly inviting group members to notice their own patterns and the impact these have on themselves or the group. Often as a facilitator, I ask a group, “What are you noticing?” Or I might say, “Shall I tell you what I’m noticing?”

The World Café guideline is to “focus on what matters” corresponds to when I get a group to consider what will be the best leverage to bring about the outcomes they most need.

A final similarity between World Café and Clean Language is that of “connecting ideas” to help individuals think systemically about their desired outcomes. A great clean question is: “When [X], then what happens to [Y]?” For example, “And when security laws are removed, what happens to the threat of terrorism?”

The process

In order to keep the World Café process as clean as possible, I first introduced clean questions and clean principles to the participants. I began with the Five Senses exercise and then got the participants to practise using a few clean questions while doing a Clean Setup with one another.

I also introduced some clean questions they could use to develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goals.

These activities prepared the way for the participants to self-facilitate as cleanly as they could when we moved into the World Café process. The steps for a clean World Café were as follows:

1. Participants decide which scenario they most want to address

Using only situations from the group that had been deliberated beforehand, I invited participants to choose the scenarios they most wanted to address in reforming Malaysia’s security laws. They wrote those up on Post-it® notes and stuck them on the wall. This allowed for similar ideas to be clustered together.

I then asked participants to state if they wanted to host a World Café on the scenario of their choice. The caveat was that they needed at least three other people in their group before they could host a café. If they couldn’t get those numbers, they would have to decide which scenario they wanted to work on that had enough group energy behind it.

2. Developing outcomes for their respective scenarios

At each café, the host was asked to state what they were going to do about their chosen scenarios. The collaborators would share if they had different ideas.

Everyone was invited to use clean questions to find out more about each other’s ideas.

Ideas were jotted down on Post-it® notes.

3. Tapping into group intelligence

One person stayed on as host at the respective cafés. The others spread out to the other cafés to be collaborators there. Each host would present their café’s ideas. Then, collaborators would ask clean questions to make those ideas even SMARTer.

Collaborators also asked the host, “What support will you need?” and the answers were recorded on Post-it® notes.

4. Developing an action plan

Participants returned to their original café. They used a SMART action planning template, Post-it® notes and clean questions to plan out their actions for security law reforms.

5. Reporting back

Each café then reported back three actions they would take during the campaign. The other participants then asked clean and cleanish questions about those actions.

Final step: Drafting of Strategies & Actions

Each café then spent some time drafting their action plan so that it could be submitted to the campaign secretariat.

The result

Facilitating a diverse group to come up with sustainable strategies and actions for a complex issue was certainly challenging. But the World Cafe + Clean Language process allowed the energy and passion the activists felt for the issues, as complex as they were, to result in ownership and concrete action steps. For example, within less than two weeks, the campaign was able to generate a concise comparative study on security laws in the world that was subsequently used in a parliamentary briefing.

One participant said about the event: “Coming up with a plan together in an environment which was conducive for listening, was really useful - everyone could own the plan.” Another said: “We learned to understand others. And we were able to put our ideas into the campaign draft.”


About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a certified Level 1 Clean Facilitator, and the first certified Level 1 Systemic Modeller in Asia. She is an associate of People Potential in Singapore and Malaysia; Training Attention in the UK; and Change 3.0 in Holland. She can be contacted for a free experience of Clean Language for individuals and groups at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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