Last Wednesday, after a meeting with Ron Donaldson on innovation and (independently) growing small businesses, I attended one of David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafes. This time it was at Arup at their London offices near Goodge Street Tube. I won’t make any detailed comments on the café itself as there’s a good write-up here and I’ve written about a previous one, held nearby at the BT Tower as it happens, here.
However what did strike me was the difference in ‘tone’ of the different phases of the event.
1. Mingling Before
Quite a few new people attend every event – this is interesting in it’s own right but does mean that on the whole people tend to chat to familiar faces or have the rather quirky conversations you have when you meet a complete stranger!
Another aspect is how the building itself affects the overall mood. The cafes are held in a very wide range of organisations and it’s interesting comparing and contrasting their physical environments. The space at Arup was very large, you never felt crammed in and this definitely helped.
2. Café Itself
David uses speed-networking to break the ice – you have a few minutes with 3 random people, usually those fairly near you. Although you may not learn much (it’s far too short), it’s a good way for getting everyone into a ‘participative’ frame of mind.
The café itself follows and the discussions focus on the theme of the evening, this time the pros and cons of consultancy. The tables had about 6-8 people on them. It obviously depends on who’s attending and the topic but keeping a single conversation going with this number seemed to me a little strained and sometimes side conversations developed (often on spin-off subjects). I think 4 would be a good basic number for productive interactions. David tells me that in his opinion 4 is the optimum number but that he is often constrained by the size of tables available. Maybe no tables at all is a better option!
I’m not sure I learned anything new at the cafe, rather it seemed to me it was a sort of ‘priming’ for deeper conversations that could then follow.
3. Loosening Up Afterwards
After the café proper, I noticed that quite a few people hung around and a lots of small conversations followed. Some would be to take advantage of chatting to the ‘speakers’ and others to old friends of course but there seemed quite a few new interactions going on. Often at conventional meetings there is a mass exodus!
David encourages informal socialising after cafes and on this occasion quite a few people transferred to the pub. This to me was the most interesting and productive phase (and not due to the beer and football!). I had three really interesting and open one-on-one conversations with people I’d never met before (that covered a wide range of topics) but yet were motivated by the atmosphere of the café beforehand in some subtle way. Having a open and frank conversation with a stranger is usually quite tricky as barriers always go up.
Obviously you can’t draw any general conclusions from one event and from one point of view but I think I’ll start thinking about these types of café meetings differently from now on – focusing more on the ‘water cooler’ discussions at the end but appreciating that you need to go through the earlier phases to get the most out of them.