Lean Coffee is a fantastic technique to facilitate discussions or meetings. I’ve used it to host company meetings, user group meetings, knowledge sharing sessions, and even as a retrospective format. It is simple to learn, has a lot of benefits over traditional meeting facilitation techniques, and is a lot of fun. At a time when most technology and software companies are working remotely, there are several tools available to help you host a virtual lean coffee.
When I was coaching software development teams with Industrial Logic, we started each day of the coaching Dojo with a Lean Coffee session. It was a great way to share knowledge across teams going through the Dojo experience separately, but also a way to include organizational leadership in conversations.
Lean Coffee is a structured, but agenda-less meeting. Participants gather, build an agenda, and begin talking. Conversations are directed and productive because the agenda for the meeting was democratically generated.
Follow these simple steps to host a lean coffee session:
Lean Coffee was created by Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith in Seattle in 2009. They intended to create a group to meet and discuss lean techniques but didn’t want to create an organization with committees and speakers, they were looking for something much lighter-weight. They wanted a group that did not rely on anything other than people showing up and wanting to learn or create.
I use the lean coffee format often. It’s easy to learn and fun, but more importantly, it democratizes conversations. I tend to reach for it when I see power dynamics at play in meetings. If individual contributors and leaders are in the same meeting and I see voices not being heard I’ll plan a lean coffee. Even in groups that don’t have power dynamic issues it generally increases the engagement of all of the participants.
While it’s easier to hold these sessions in person. There is a variety of tools available to help you facilitate a virtual lean coffee.
Miro is one of my favorite collaboration tools, so it is the first one I reach for in virtual collaboration sessions.
Lean Coffee Table is an online tool built specifically for hosting lean coffee sessions.
Agile Coffee is a tool that is built using the FunRetro virtual retrospective tool. While limited in functionality and not the slickest of the tools, it is a great option if you don’t want to require your attendees to have an account.
Retrium is a virtual retrospective tool that has a Lean Coffee template.
Zoom is a virtual meeting tool that can be paired with any of the above Lean Coffee tools. I recommend it here specifically because of its breakout room functionality. When you are hosting multiple groups for a virtual lean coffee the breakout room functionality is necessary to allow the groups to work together and then rejoin the larger group to share insights and decisions.
Breakout room features are currently in development for Microsoft Teams, once available that will become a viable alternative to Zoom for hosting Lean Coffee sessions.
There’s no right or wrong answer when trying to determine when to use the Lean Coffee format. If you want to share knowledge, have a brainstorming session, get increased (or more even participation) those are good cases for a Lean Coffee. Add it into your retrospective format rotation, especially if your teams are recycling the same format in every retrospective. Experiment with it and see how it works for you.
Follow these links for additional information about Lean Coffee: