Lean Coffee - The mini-unconference

6 min Edit
"Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea

I’ve attended and chaired my fair share of meetings throughout my many years of professional and community project work. It was perfectly normal to walk out of many of those thinking — “that’s two hours of my life I won’t be getting back!”. Having meetings hijacked by a select loud few, or well understood and agreed points repeated over and over again was nothing surprising - that’s just a reflection on how diverse we are as people and the general nature of meetings… and we all accept it, right?

Well, in a casual brown-bag seminar yesterday at @Xero about Agile methodology, I was introduced by @RSWH66, our Agile coach crusader, to Lean Coffee — an alternative meeting facilitation technique like none that I’ve attended before.

To skip to learning how to conduct a Lean Coffee meeting click here.

So… what’s Lean Coffee?

Lean Coffee is a structured, but agenda-less, meeting facilitation technique that encourages and ensures an open and focused conversation amongst people in a democratic manner. It does so by:

  • Allowing participants to agree at the start of the meeting on the topics to be discussed and their order in an informal setting — Open
  • Timeboxing each topic being discussed — Focus
  • Allowing participants to vote on whether to continue or move on from the current topic based on how they think the conversation is flowing — Democratic

What problem does it solve?

People attend meetings to converse and discuss topics at hand with the purpose of learning or reaching an agreement. However, many good meetings often miss their mark and become a monotonous drag when it is dominated by a select few people, coming in with bias via their assumptions and past experiences. You know off the mark that such a setting cannot easily foster much learning and discovery.

When you are familiar with something, you take it for granted. You aren’t critical of it and so you tend to blast right through it. Just consider what happens when we call a meeting. Are we looking for what we are already familiar with? Are we basing the meeting on our assumptions and expectations that come from past experiences? Jim and Tonianne, Democratize Meetings with Personal Kanban

Meetings with agendas set in stone also inhibit the free flow of information because of the bias in controlled conversation. What if some of the attendees value the importance of other topics differently than you? What if the list and order of topics are set to fulfill political protocol instead of being hard hitting and cutting to the chase of the things that really matter? Furthermore, what is the chance in today’s ever so changing world that the agenda sent early in advance still holds true when the time for the meeting commences?

When you set an agenda, you control the conversation. In essence, you define your own road. When you control the agenda, you control the lessons learned. Since we enter a meeting with only our assumptions to guide us, agendas follow our assumptions. Our assumptions are based on what we already know. But what about the things we don’t know? Jim and Tonianne, Democratize Meetings with Personal Kanban

Also depending on the cultural context of some societies, it can be rude or difficult to limit the time being consumed by individuals who are holding the floor or are thinking that they are adding a lot of value with what they are saying when they are not.

The driving principles behind Lean Coffee were spawned from these challenges and addresses them in a fun and efficient manner with benefit to the majority first and foremost.

When is it applicable?

Like any tool in life, Lean Coffee is a technique that is better suited to certain types of meetings. For example, you would not want to use Lean Coffee in a decision making meeting that expects actions as outcomes. Instead, you can use it as an informal session to discuss:

  • Shared experiences on common themes amongst participants
  • Ideas on becoming more efficient and effective
  • Thoughts on improving processes

How it works

Step 1: Topic suggestions (2-3 min)

Participants suggest the topics they want to talk or hear about by writing the topic title on a Post-it note and sticking it on a wall or desk. Each sticky note must have only one topic written on it. Attendees can put up as many topic suggestions as they want; although depending on the time available the facilitator can introduce limits. The purpose of this exercise to mine out as many ideas as possible that relate to the purpose or theme of the meeting.

Step 2: Voting (2-3 votes each, 1 min)

Each participant is given two or three votes. Voting is done by marking a dot on a sticky note. Participants can choose to use all their votes on one topic or spread them around on more than one that interests them.

Step 3: Set the Agenda

Votes are tallied and topics are ordered on the wall/desk. Success - you’ve guided the participants to come up with their own agenda!

Step 4: Discussion starts (7 min)

The first topic in the agenda is discussed by all participants and is timeboxed to 7 minutes only. Once the time runs out the discussion stops. It is very important for the facilitator to enforce this rule no matter how exciting the conversation was or even if someone was in mid-sentence.

Step 5: Roman Vote

The facilitator asks for a roman vote from all participants on whether they like the flow of the current conversation and would like to continue, or if they are ready to skip to the next topic:

  • Thumbs Up = Keep going
  • Thumbs Down = Next topic

If a topic discussion is voted to continue, then the discussion time is extended for a further 3 minutes before the facilitator asks for another round of voting. A topic can only be extended for discussion a maximum of three times.

Step 6: Repeat

The process of discussion and voting keeps continuing until all the topics are discussed or the meeting time runs out.

Step 7: Wrap-up

Once the meeting is out of time, the participants round in a circle summarising their 1-2 takeaways from the discussion.

And there you have it! All attendees bring themselves in order and discuss the topics that matters to them the most whilst constantly receiving rapid feedback from each other. The result is a highly engaging meeting that is relevant to everyone attending without any hijacking or hidden agendas.

As I said above, I’ve only tried this framework once so far, but I am looking forward to bring it into more meetings that I attend to which is after facilitating free flowing conversation with the purpose of learning.