What is Lean Coffee?
Lean Coffee is a wonderful format for people to quickly organize a conversation on topics that are most relevant for who shows up.
If you have never attended a lean coffee, I suggest you first view Jim Benson's 3 minute video (Jim co-created this meeting format).
For facilitation details, you could read any of the following
- Vic Bonnacci's description with some handy tips
- Phillip Rogers Lean Coffee Facilitator's Guide
- my facilitation tips at the end of this template in Google Docs
- or see Gerry Kirk‘s handy visual cheat sheet below.
Why use Lean Coffee?
I've used lean coffee to reboot Agile Orlando, to run multiple team retrospectives, for meet-and-greets for potential new collaborators, and to crowd-source ideas for future talks.
However, one of my favorite ways to use lean coffee is to connect people across an organization or community who would not normally bump into each other. Jason Little does a great job of explaining how this can be used for organization change in his book, Lean Change Management.
Virtual Lean Coffee? Can this work online?
Absolutely! I started to run virtual lean coffee discussions online in 2013 when I wanted to connect with other agile coaches and discuss topics of interest to us. I developed and evolved a virtual lean coffee template for using Google Docs.
If you are looking to run your own virtual lean coffee, consider that your tools should support:
- creating cards
- add and edit text on cards
- group cards together (to make it easier to find similar topics)
- vote on cards
- sort cards by vote (auto-prioritize)
- move cards between columns (when the group is ready to start or end discussion.
- To have an adjustable timer that anyone (or just the facilitator) can control – you may choose a shorter timebox if you are continuing a conversation on topic once or twice
- To record epiphanies or decisions
- To record actions from any of the cards
There are a few online tools that now provide this functionality.
- agile.coffee – a free version of FunRetro for lean coffee – FREE
- Retrium – supports 1-9 above – PAID
- Lean Coffee Table – appears to support 1,2,4-9* – PAID
- funretrospective.com – supports 1-9 above – PAID
(*) – indicates I have not used this tool … yet
Most sticky-note apps can support 1-3 and some will support 4. However, these new set of tools may be worth looking at because the other features (5-9) can be big time savers if you are running multiple virtual lean coffees per month for multiple groups.
If you try any of these out or find other tools, please let me know.
Suggestions for the lean coffee facilitator (from Mark Kilby)
- Here is a typical invitation I send out for any lean coffee:
Lean Coffee is a great place to ask questions and share your stories of using agile and lean software approaches. We discuss any topics on Agile and Lean software development that are of interest to whoever is gathered. You suggest the topics, then, we prioritize our list of topics democratically. We manage our discussions via a Kanban “board”, timeboxes and Roman vote (thumbs up/down). For more info about lean coffee format, see this page.
- I find lean coffee works best with 5-10 people, whether virtual or in-person.
- I have run lean coffees for 3-4 person gatherings where we had many topics to discuss. However, if it’s that small a group, you typically do not need the structure of lean coffee. Just make sure everyone has a chance to contribute to the conversation.
- If you have more than 10 people interested in lean coffee, I would recommend multiple tables (multiple sessions or breakouts if virtual) so that everyone has a chance to truly participate. Lean coffee is not as valuable if you lurk.
- As facilitator, all you will need:
- An audio channel (phone bridge, Google Hangout/Meet, Zoom, etc)
- A copy of the lean coffee board that all can access. Share it with participants who have RSVP’d.
- That’s it. You can have a great lean coffee discussion if you have a small group, an audio channel and a shared information radiator. The nice thing about also having a shared Google Doc is you can capture notes together.
- As a group, you could also benefit from:
- A shared meeting tool is helpful if you have a new group or some new members. Sharing your screen the first couple of times to orient them to the Google Doc goes much faster. If you have people familiar with remote meetings and Google Docs, you can skip this. However, if you use a meeting tool like Zoom.us, you can have audio breakout channels for large groups (>10 people). You will need separate lean coffee boards for each breakout.
- A chat channel – in case folks can’t break in on the audio channel or are having other technical issues. You could use comments in the Google Doc, but I find a separate group chat tool is easier to monitor, especially if it has visual notifications that show up in your screen sharing tool (for Mac folks, “bouncing icon in the dock”). For more on backchannels, see “Remotely Agile – Why You Want a BackChannel in Distributed Meetings” at markkilby.com
- Before your lean coffee session:
- Create a copy of lean coffee board and make it shareable/editable so that anyone participating can access if they have the URL link. Be sure to send out your version of the board before the Virtual Lean Coffee. You can also share a URL in a chat channel if you are using a separate chat tool. Encourage participants to add and edit notes with you.
- When participants first join, conduct a “tech check” by making sure everyone can edit your board. I typically do this by asking them to add their name to the list of participants. Also, this avoids anonymity which does not mix well with lean coffee. I find people tend not to be as open and sharing if there are anonymous lurkers.
- It’s handy to have a way to “share” a timer by screen. You can either share a timer on your local machine or by using an online countdown timer in a browser window. If you are not sharing your screen, you can give some verbal reminders of time or update participants in a backchannel.
- During lean coffee:
- Generating topics: Let everyone know that any topic is fair game. Usually, the purpose of “lean coffee” is just knowledge sharing and building community. So even an “off the wall” topic will generate some good discussion. Sometimes I’ll even suggest an odd topic as a way to get the creativity flowing.
- Voting: When it is time to “dot vote”, I recommend assigning a number of votes equal to one third to one half of the topics suggested. Too many votes and people go into analysis paralysis and voting will take too long. I typically say something like: “Now it’s time to vote on our topics. You can place one vote on each topic you are interested in or put them all on a topic you are very passionate about. It’s your choice.” You can read more about dot voting here and here.
- Be sure to explain how the timer and roman voting works before you launch into your first topic. Also, pay attention to the energy in the conversation. If you find the conversation is dying down, you can always move on to another topic or call for a quick roman vote before the timer goes off. Remember, you are serving the group, not the process.
- As one topic starts to wind down, you may want to post the title of the next topic in the notes or go back to the lean coffeeh board if screen sharing.
- When closing, it’s helpful to get people reflecting on what they will take away from the session. A meeting is only valuable if everyone can take something back to their desk. You could ask:
- What did you learn or what epiphanies occurred for you? (Thanks for this Jim Benson)
- What topics need action?
- What might you do different after lean coffee today?
- What else might you ask or share? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Agenda (detailed script for the facilitator):
- Opening and Check-in – How do we want to meet our purpose today?
(review purpose and agenda and see if it works for us) (2min)
- Tech Check – Is everyone connected with the tools? If using this GDoc, an easy check is asking everyone to put their name at the top of the GDoc after “Who is here?” If using other tools (phone, other collaboration software, kanban board, video?), think about how can you make the tool introduction and tech check part of the welcome.
- What topics do we want to discuss (2-5min). Tell everyone that this is their chance to suggest topics. Everyone can enter a topic per row under the “TOPICS TO DISCUSS” column of the kanban. Give the group at least 2 min. Once the 2 min are up or people stop entering topics, ask each person to give a 10 second summary of their topic. This works best if you give an example.
- In what order would we want to discuss these topics? (3min)
(everyone gets X votes signified by # before the topic; we go in order of most votes; X = # of topics / 3 typically)
- For the highest priority topic, what do we want to discuss? Set a 5-9 min timebox based on total number of topics. I personally like 7min. Start the timer when you start discussing the topic. Keep the timer visible if screen sharing or announce when there is a minute left and time runs out (but don’t cut short a good conversation).
- Do we want to continue? — At the end of the timebox, we vote in chat or the GDoc to continue (+), stop (-) or don’t care (0). We’ll continue for another 2-3 mins if there is a (+) or we may allow a “final comment” (30sec). Reset your timer. Don’t extend your timebox more than twice.
- Closing – What is one thing you take away from today’s conversation
(action, idea, suggestion for next lean coffee or something else)? (last 5 min, 30 seconds per person)
I appreciate the encouragement and participation of some of my early virtual lean coffees by Andre’ Dhondt and George Dinwiddie. You are always ready for a good conversation and so am I.
I am grateful for feedback from my friend and facilitation colleague Curtis Michelson on version 2. Thank you for holding the space.
My deepest gratitude goes to Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith who developed the original concept for lean coffee (see more at http://leancoffee.org ). Without this simple idea, I could not have re-built Agile Orlando, Agile Florida, or launched many other projects. Thank you.