A guest post by:  Ilmari Kontulainen

I wrote a post about holding a coaching exercise in your organization last September. I incidentally heard feedback on the post that at some distant company, far away, someone had actually held such exercise using the instructions I described as a baseline.

After receiving such good feedback, I couldn’t resist the urge to write again about something tangible and concrete. This post will give instructions to another coaching related workshop you can hold in your organization. The workshop is called pro action cafe.


Pro action cafe offers an possibility to discover new insights and outside the box thinking to a problem or topic at hand. In a nutshell the purpose of the workshop is to have creative and inspirational conversation and get input around different topics participants choose to work. The purpose is to get from a problem or a topic to tangible actions in three phases.

Pro action cafe has similar process as Open Space Technology, and some say it also reminds World Cafe. I haven’t tried World Cafe myself, but I have to say that after trying out pro action cafe, it felt much like Open Space Technology, with some changes.

The setup

In pro action cafe there are two roles; the table host and the rest of the participants. The topics are typically announced and described in a circle formed from chairs. The actual discussions takes place in tables, that are set up to contain necessary materials in advance. At least some paper and pens should be provided to allow proper brainstorming. Each table has one table host, who owns the topic he described. The table host also facilitates the discussion. Other means of facilitating the discussion, such as the talking stick, can also be used if needed.

Announcing the topics

As participants have gathered in a circle, a facilitator of the workshop can describe briefly about what is going to happen. After describing the following events, the topics can be announced. When announcing the topics it’s important to remember that the topic is only announced, not discussed.

The number of topics needs to be decided based on number of participants. Three to six participants, including the table host, per topic is a good rule of a thumb. Choosing who has the right to announce a topic can be handled by first come, first served or other suitable mean. The topics can even be result from another exercise, such as retrospective.

The exercise

The exercise is divided into three parts:

  1. Quest behind the question
  2. What is missing?
  3. Consolidate learnings into action

Each of the parts should last from twenty to thirty minutes. A break of five to ten minutes should be held between the parts. During the breaks participants can be counseled to think of a meta level question such as “what did I learn from the conversation?”. The parts can be visualized with a picture that’s shown below:

Pro action cafe process

Part 1: Quest behind the question

In the first part the table host describes the question to the participants. The participants together with the table host should then challenge and clarify the question. The participants should question whether the question is actually right question to ask or elaborate what is the deeper meaning of the question to the table host.

After the first part there is a break during which participants can rest their brains. During the break the participants can also change the table they were, or if they wish, continue with the same table. The table hosts however need to stay, as they own the topic in question.

Part 2: What is missing

As the outcome of the first part is a clarified question, the second part should concentrate on discovering new insights regarding this question. Participants can suggest different ways of approaching the topic, or propose new ideas in general, and together with the table host elaborate these new findings.

Another, perhaps shorter pause is in order after the second part. The same rules apply for the second break. Participants are free to switch tables or stay in the same table. A helpful facilitator can remind participants of this option, as sometimes it’s not evident.

Part 3: Consolidate learnings into action

The third part should concentrate on concluding what has been learnt about the topic, and what concrete actions could be taken. The actions don’t necessarily affect only the table host, but the other participants as well.

After the official exercise, it’s good to have a round robin feedback round or another type of short retrospective, especially if the participants are new to this exercise. Retrospectives help participants to share insights that can be used to improve the following exercises. For example we tried to use the talking stick first, but figured out it’s redundant so in the following sessions we can leave it out.


I learned about pro action cafe in Agile Finland coaching circle that was held this week. Big thanks goes to Tuukka Aaltonen for facilitating the session. The coaching circles cover various topics around coaching. We host Helsinki coaching circles every third Monday of the month. I would love to hear comments if you have tried pro action cafe as a problem solving methodology or as part of retrospective.

Ilmari Kontulainen

Ilmari Kontulainen is the CEO of software production platform Deveo, a lean thinker and continuous improvement fanatic. During spare time Ilmari organizes Agile Finland’s coaching circles at Helsinki, reads and does variety of sports.

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