Agile Practices: How to Run a Lean Coffee

The term Lean Coffee doesn’t sound like a productive meeting session.

But that’s EXACTLY what it’s intended to be. It’s structured in a way that allows participants to quickly talk through various topics they choose in a short amount of time. 

Sounds promising, you say? But then isn’t that what OFTEN happens in meetings with no structure? People just sit around and talk…and there’s often no value.

How is a Lean Coffee better than that?

Read on and find out how a lean coffee is a different kind of meeting than anything you may have experienced.

You may even want to host one yourself.

WHAT is a Lean Coffee?

A Lean Coffee is a type of meeting that allows participants to create the agenda at the beginning of the meeting based on their interests, with timeboxed discussions.

It’s not a new idea and has been around since 2009 when Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith started it in Seattle.

The original use was to support attendees in adopting agile work approaches. But this type of meeting could be used for other topics, too.

I’ve shared other valuable Agile practices your team can use even if you’re not switching to full Agile. This is yet another one that’s easy to try.

The format lets participants have open discussions on the topics selected when at the start of the meeting. 

Participants can both seek guidance and provide guidance on various topics.

It’s since caught on and many groups now hold these informal meetings. 

Why Hold a Lean Coffee?

Why lean coffees are a great tool

There are many ways Lean Coffees are valuable – and even recommended: 

1. Open discussion. Lean Coffees create an opportunity for a group to discuss topics that interest the group, learn from one another, and propel ideas forward

2. Many knowledge levels. It’s a way for people with different levels of knowledge and experience to come together to discuss topics of common interest. 

3. Fulfilling experience. Many people thrive in opportunities to share their knowledge or learn from others. 

4. Many topics quickly. The format allows a structured approach that lets you cover multiple topics in a short timeframe. 

5. Topics of interest. Because participants create the agenda, they’ll be talking about things the attendees care about. The time will be focused on topics that are valuable and important to the group.

Lean Coffees offer a great way for groups to learn from each other and propel ideas forward.

When to Use a Lean Coffee Format?

I’m most familiar with seeing Lean Coffees used in Agile environments, or to discuss Agile topics. 

However, the Lean Coffee format can be applied in other settings, too. You could use it to discuss challenges that project managers are facing – or any other group with common interests. 

You could even run Staff Meetings using the Lean Coffee format. 

And you don’t only have to rely on your workplace. You can set one up in your community to network, make connections, and learn from others.

Lean Coffees are easy to set up and can even be used as opportunities to build your network.

How to conduct a Lean Coffee

How to run a lean coffee

I’m giving detailed instructions for how to run a Lean Coffee. If you just want a very concise list of steps, scroll to the bottom. 

Items needed:

  • Post it notes
  • Something to write with (markers show up better than pens)
  • Timer (phone timer works)

DURATION: 1 to 1.5 hours

PARTICIPANTS: Many sources suggest no more than 7 participants, but I’ve heard of them being done with large groups, too.

AGENDA: Decided at the time of the meeting. (If you need to create more focus, you can have a Theme or High-Level Topic if desired. Otherwise leave it open)

STRUCTURE: The group uses a Kanban board to move topics through various stages: To Discuss, Discussing, Discussed

STEPS

1. Nominate a facilitator.

The group nominates a facilitator (this role can rotate at each meeting or stay the same.)

2. Participants suggest topics in the first 5 minutes.

Participants take approximately 5 minutes to use post-it notes, note cards, or virtual tool to propose topics they’d like to discuss. Participants write one topic per notecard. 

Once time is up, or no more topics are suggested, the participants pitch their topics. 

3. People briefly explain their topics.

Each person who put in a topic explains it briefly in one or two sentences to make sure everyone understands what it means. 

Timebox this segment of the meeting to five minutes so not too much time is used for this activity.

4. Prioritize the topics.

The group takes 2-3 minutes to vote on favorite topics to discuss. The participants then vote on the topics of most interest.  Each person is given 2 or 3 votes to apply as they wish to the topics they’re interested in discussing. (This is called “dot voting.)

A participant can spread their votes out, or apply all to one topic. 

Timebox voting to 2 or 3 minutes.

Once everyone has voted, the votes for each topic are counted and the topics are prioritized in order of popularity. 

All the topics are put in the “To Discuss” column. 

5. Discuss the topics in order of popularity, timeboxing each topic discussion.

The most popular topic with the most votes is then pulled into the “Discussing” column. 

The individual who suggested the topic explains it to the group for more depth. 

The group discusses it for 8 minutes, using a timer to timebox the discussion. 

At the end of 8 minutes, the group takes a vote on whether to continue or move to the next topic. 

The group can vote with a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” approach. (Roman vote)

If more people vote to continue, set the timer for 3 more minutes and continue with the same topic.

Repeat as needed and move to the next topic when the vote is in favor of moving ahead.

If you decide to move to the next topic, move the current topic card to the “Discussed” column. Then move the next most popular topic card from “to Discuss” to the “Discussing” column, set your timer for 8 minutes, and start the discussion. 

A Lean Coffee lets participants decide what they want to talk about, but it’s a very structured meeting.

6. End with a short wrap up.

In the last 5 minutes of the session, ask each person to share one or two takeaways from the meeting. This allows the group to get a review of what was covered and reinforce learning. 

What about topics you don’t get to?

For topics you don’t get to, recognize that you won’t be able to cover everything. 

And don’t worry about saving those topics that didn’t get covered for the next meeting. You don’t want to save them for next time for a couple of reasons:

  • The person who proposed the topic may not attend next time.
  • The person who proposed the topic may have gotten the information they needed through the course of the discussion that was held. 

Remote Teams

If your team is virtual or distributed (with remote attendees) use a tool that allows the group to share a virtual Kanban board and to create topic cards. 

Retrium is one tool that allows teams to suggest topics and dot vote. 

Super short version of the instructions:

  • In the first five minutes, each person writes topics on index cards or post-it notes.
  • Each person explains their topics in one or two sentences.
  • Each person votes on their favorite topics using dot voting with 3 votes per person to apply to topics.
  • The facilitator counts the votes and prioritizes the topics.
  • The group discusses the most popular topic (with the most votes) for 8 minutes.
  • The group moves through each of the topics – timeboxing each – until time runs out.
  • End with a wrap-up of takeaways.

Summary

Though the concept is still new to many, Lean Coffees have been used in many workplaces and cities for several years. They’re efficient ways to have productive and focused discussion on topics that the attendees are interested in. 

And if you attend a Lean Coffee with others not on your direct team, they’re a great way to network, too. 

If you found this article helpful, please share it! 

If you want to know all about how to run the most productive and valuable meetings possible, get my book Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effectve, Focused, and Produce Results.

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