Lean coffee: How to run informal meetings

Ditch the agenda try lean coffee instead

lean coffee Range

It all started in a Seattle coffee shop in 2009. Jeremy Lightsmith and Jim Benson, apparently tired of the formal meeting format replete with committees, speakers, and lots of bored attendees, created a brand new meeting format.

That’s how Lean Coffee was born—and today, you’ll find Lean Coffee sessions happening in coffee shops all over the world.

These sessions have even escaped the bounds of coffee shops and migrated into the business world.

Much like scrum, it’s a meeting facilitation technique that aims to keep things light and fast-paced so that you and your team can stay productive. And in this guide, we’ll show you how it works.

A step-by-step guide for running Lean Coffee meetings

These meetings are relatively simple to conduct. Just follow the steps below to get the Lean Coffee format just right.

1) Ask team members or meeting participants to select a topic

Get started by picking a topic or theme for the meeting. This doesn’t need to be a super specific topic, like “fix the user interface issue on the career page.”

That can be an action item in a meeting themed around sprucing up user interfaces.

Instead, keep discussion topics more general, like a brainstorming session for page design or something else that your team needs to focus on.

2) Write each participant’s topics on sticky notes

Now you can delve into the subtopics. Have individual participants sit around your Lean Coffee table (or Zoom table or digital whiteboard for virtual sessions) and write down items to be discussed on sticky notes (or on your virtual Kanban board).

3) Set up personal Kanban boards

Next comes organization. Whether you’re using a virtual Kanban board or sticky notes on a wall, create personalized Kanban boards for small groups within the whole meeting group.

Each board should have three columns labeled "ready," "doing," and "done."

4) Meeting participants break into groups and start meetings

Once there are Kanban boards set up for each small group, it’s time to break into those groups and get started.

Follow the list of steps below as a Lean Coffee template to get your meeting started:

  • Have all participants lay out the topics they’ve written down within their groups.
  • Have everyone vote on topics using the dot voting method. Everyone gets two votes.
  • Each participant should choose two topics and put a dot on them to signify their votes. If you’re doing this virtually using a remote collaboration tool, use your card system’s commenting feature to vote.
  • Organize the topics in the “ready” section based on the number of votes each received.
  • Each group should pick the topic with the highest number of votes and move it into the “doing” section.

5) Set a timer for 4 to 5 minutes and start the discussion

Four to five minutes is just a guideline that plays on lean thinking methodology. Some teams prefer to limit per-topic discussion to just 90 seconds, while others prefer longer sessions.

Whatever you choose, it’s the meeting format itself that counts. It’s a kind of timebox technique that helps everyone plan their time wisely to ensure a productive meeting.

Make sure discussion times provide enough time to discuss each topic, but not so much time that the conversation shifts into unproductive territory.

Have each group set their timers and begin discussing the topic they’ve placed in the “doing” section.

6) After the timer goes off, vote on the results of the meeting discussions

What happens when 90 seconds or five minutes isn’t enough time to work through a topic? Lean Coffee sessions account for that with another round of voting.

If you’re meeting in person, use the thumbs up, thumbs sideways, and thumbs down system. For virtual meetings, people can type out their votes in the comment section of each card—or spice things up with emojis to represent each vote.

Here’s how it works:

  • Thumbs up means a participant wants to continue the discussion.
  • Thumbs sideways means a participant is unsure or ambivalent about continuing the discussion.
  • Thumbs down means a participant feels it’s time to move on.
  • If you get a majority of thumbs up or sideways votes, reset the timer and continue the discussion. Repeat this cycle until you get a majority of thumbs-down votes.
  • When you get a majority of thumbs-down votes, move the topic from the “doing” section to the “done” section. Then move the topic with the next highest number of votes from “ready” to “doing.” Reset the timer and start up a round of new discussions.

Repeat this cycle until everyone has worked through all of their topics or you’ve run through your allotted meeting time. These cycles help keep discussions lively—and they also ensure that once people start losing interest or a topic starts to stall, you aren’t losing much time before moving on to the next topic.

7) Document key meeting notes for future projects

Note-taking is crucial—and for Lean Coffee, you can do it one of two ways, depending on your team’s preferences.

The first way is to have a wrap-up session at the end of your Lean Coffee meeting. During this session, the group will discuss key takeaways and action items from the smaller group talks. Jot these down for future reference.

The other way you can document key meeting notes is to create each Kanban board with four columns instead of three: “Ready,” “doing,” “done,” and “actions.” Use the actions column to document decisions, next steps, or key takeaways from the discussion.

Defining Lean Coffee

No, it’s not a cup of joe with skim milk. Lean Coffee is a meeting methodology popular among agile teams—and you can learn a lot about it from the Lean Coffee website.

In brief, Lean Coffee is a way to host structured meetings without creating an agenda beforehand. It starts with participants gathering, either in-person or remotely, and the first part of the meeting is devoted to team members creating the meeting agenda. From there, the conversation can begin.

Often, these meetings are more productive because you’ve effectively crowd-sourced the topics for discussion—and this means participants are more engaged because they’re the ones who decide which action items take priority.

Items needed for an effective Lean Coffee meeting

Since the entire idea behind Lean Coffee is to create the agenda within the meeting itself, you’re going to need some supplies:

  • Writing utensils (Sharpies are a favorite) so that each participant can jot down ideas
  • Sticky notes or note cards with painter’s tape
  • A timer
  • A big table or a wall on which to arrange your stickies or note cards

Host Lean Coffee meetings with Range

Need a great way to host virtual Lean Coffee sessions? Range has your back.

Use Range meetings and have everyone join in to add topics, vote on topics, or add to the discussion.

Try Range for Free

No credit cards required to practice better teamwork.
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Lean coffee: How to run informal meetings
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