Running a PMO World Cafe

People that know me, know that I love everything to do with PMOs (geek, I know) and I regularly volunteer for the Association for Project Management’s PMO Specific Interest Group – especially helping put on local events where PMO practitioners can get together in an evening. Often it’s a guest speaker for the evening and a few Q&As afterwards, but there’s one thing I’ve learnt about PMO people – they love getting together with other PMO people and comparing notes. It’s not like being a Project Manager, often there may only be one PMO person in the whole organisation – so where do they get the support, advice and learnings from?

With this in mind we decided to go with something more interactive, whilst at the same time making sure everyone got chance to speak and find out about other delegates.

That’s why we chose the World Cafe idea.

What is a World Cafe?

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a World Café, the whole idea is about bringing people together that have a mutual interest in a certain topic; making the environment a little less formal than a “business meeting”; keeping the groups small (up to 5 people per table) and setting a time limit on how long a particular topic can be discussed.

“The opportunity to move between tables, meet new people, actively contribute your thinking and link the essence of your discoveries to ever-widening circles of thought is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Café. As participants carry key ideas or themes to new tables , they exchange perspectives, greatly enriching the possibility for surprising new insights.”

Find out more at

Pre-Cafe Organisation

Event Listing

I know I wanted to make sure people who were interested in coming along would know this evening meeting was going to be very different from previous meetings. I set the tone from the beginning with the event listing:

“A knowledge café or world café is a type of business meeting or organisational workshop which aims to provide an open and creative conversation on a topic of mutual interest to surface their collective knowledge, share ideas and insights, and gain a deeper understanding of the subject and the issues involved.” Wikipedia

Our mutual interest for the evening is PMO.

The PMO World Café is an evening focused on sharing insights and knowledge into key areas of PMO challenges that organisations and individuals currently face. The café topics for the evening will be carefully selected in advance and participants will have the opportunity to choose topics which are closely aligned to their current situations.

For example; if your organisation is focused on portfolio management at the moment the café topic would be, “how does the PMO help to embed portfolio management?” The discussion group can consist of people of all levels of experience and skills because we’re all capable of bringing a new angle to an issue.

The world café evening is a very interactive evening – there are no presentations or main speakers, the participants are the attendees themselves – so be prepared to come along and contribute.

The event is aimed at PMO practitioners, project managers, programme managers, anyone with an interest in PMO.

The Invite

After people started booking onto the event (in the end there was a waiting list because it was so popular) I also thought it would be good to send a different type of joining instruction. Here’s the invitation I made:


For me it was all about expectation setting – I wanted people to know that this was a very interactive session and a little less formal than they’re probably used to.

Thinking About the Room Set-Up

Just has with a real cafe, with a World Cafe you make the environment as informal as you can. I knew people were going to be encouraged to doodle and scribble whilst they speak so we had to have paper tablecloths. I also wanted a scented candle on each table, plus a pot of flowers. Marker pens would be placed in disposable coffee cups and the menu stands would hold the name of the “courses”. I had to have Christmas tunes playing from old crooners and mood lighting until we would be ready to get started.

All of these were inexpensive and easy to source.

The Night of the PMO World Cafe

As diners arrived (well they’re not just delegates at a World Cafe!) they were greeted with some great food and drinks. The maître d’ for the evening, checked everyone in on the registration and gave them their “menu” to look at whilst they mingled.

I made sure I had some “head waiters” for each table. These were people I know who were interested in PMOs and most of these I’d met through the PMO Flashmob. Because each diner would be moving around after each course, I wanted to make sure that there was at least one person who stayed with the table. The head waiters role was to facilitate the conversation; encourage people to doodle and draw; welcome each new diner at each different course (and if appropriate mention some of the previous diners points) and provide the final three points of interest – one from each course.

I wanted to make sure everyone had instructions on how the evening would work before entering the main room. Time is tight at a World Cafe – so whilst they were waiting for the cafe to open they had chance to read about the evening.

Here’s the menu that described what would happen and also the questions that we’d pulled together for the evening:


The questions were choosen before the session to allow enough time for printing. I also wanted to make sure that diners that evening were able to set a question if there were any burning issues they currently had at work. I decided on a Specials Board and just put together quickly on the iPad (I’m using the Brushes app):


How it Worked

With the music turned down, I declared that the first course was about to be served. Diners made their way to their first choice – their starter (each course was clearly marked on the menu holder on the table). Where a particular course was popular (more than 5 people) they were advised to come back for the next sitting – their main course.

For 20 minutes, each table chatted, doodled and scribbled before time was announced.

They then moved on to their next course and then 20 minutes later onto their final course.


Bringing it all together

After the three courses had been served; each table waiter was asked for their three main points of interest from the three separate sessions they had hosted. In keeping with the World Cafe ethos we decided to capture these points digitally – diners could see what was being written on the large screen via the iPad:


I think it was important for people to both hear about the main points and see them being captured at the same time. It was all about doing something differently rather than one person having to write-up the scribbles from the tablecloths – which let’s face it are never that good after the event. It was about focusing on the people who came along to the PMO World Cafe rather than worrying about writing something up for the wider membership who couldn’t make the event. The bottom line is – if you care enough about the subject, make the effort to turn up and learn first hand.

Lessons for Me

It wouldn’t have been as successful as it was without the “head waiters”. They were the glue that held it all together and stopped it becoming a free for all. Another piece of advice, “It’s about your life experiences, not your life history.” With these kinds of round table events, there is a tendency for people to talk too much about their own experiences and life history. We warned people beforehand that it was their experiences we wanted – not their whole life stories.

Preparation of the materials beforehand were vital if the whole cafe vibe was going to work. It’s not just about “on the night” but about theinvitations and menu setting beforehand too.

Above all it’s about getting everyone around the table to contribute and talk – even though the tables were small – just five people, there will always be some people who hog the limelight – which makes the “head waiters” role even more important if they’re going to move the spotlight on.


Here’s just some of the feedback from a couple of people who took part:

“I attended the London version of this yesterday evening along with approximately 50 people actively involved in PMO/PM at different degrees of experience. A challenging but fun evening that I would wholeheartedly recommend. Tables of four or five (rotating) were a great basis for mixing and discussions and putting the PMO world right, whether based on a menu of pre-defined set questions or “dishes of the day” defined by the attendees themselves. Is “Agile PMO” a contradiction in terms? We thought not. Did we have practical suggestions as to how PMO can improve supplementary budgeting (end of year spend it or lose it)? Yes we did. Imagine a world where every implemented PMO succeeds – what would it take?”

“I can really recommend this. I went to the one in London last night and it was a great event, everyone I spoke to got something out of it, and left a couple of people wanting more. It is great to see something different being done that allows the SIG members to discuss a range of subjects, and it is amazing to see everyone’s different perspective on the same question.”

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  1. Having seen the term bandied around I had not quite understood the concept. This is a great insight and having read it I can see the benefit and will look to participate in the future. I really like the short sharp focused discussions at the heart of the event and the cafe concept.

  2. Thanks Paul; same here I thought it would be difficult to do but actually it worked quite easily, mainly because the people who turn up really want it to work too. I had quite a few people afterwards saying they were going to try it back at the office too.

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