What is Lean Coffee?

Lean Coffee provides a format for individuals to quickly self-organize a conversation on topics that are most relevant for those who show up.

But what does Lean Coffee look like?

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 with Jeremy Lightfoot).

Facilitation Guides for Lean Coffee Chat

For facilitation details, you could read any of the following

Lean Coffee ala Steve Silbert of Sketchnote Army
Lean Coffee ala’ Steve Silbert of Sketchnote Army (shared with permission)
Screenshot 2018-07-08 18.13.37
Lean Coffee instructions from Gerry Kirk (shared with permission)

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 organizational change in his book, Lean Change Management.

WARNING: Lean Coffee can be addictive!

Anytime you attend a public lean coffee group, you will meet “regulars”. Why to these regulars return time after time? Because lean coffee always brings new questions and new information out. It’s always about learning and connecting.

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. I retired that format in 2017 as tools started to emerge to support lean coffees online.

If you are looking to run your own virtual lean coffee, consider that your tools should support:

  1. creating cards
  2. add and edit text on cards
  3. group cards together (to make it easier to find similar topics)
  4. vote on cards
  5. sort cards by vote (auto-prioritize)
  6. move cards between columns (when the group is ready to start or end discussion.
  7. 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
  8. To record epiphanies or decisions
  9. To record actions from any of the cards

Online Lean Coffee Tools

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
  • Miro and Mural – you can even find some lean coffee templates now in their libraries

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.

Going Big With Lean Coffee Chat

I’ve used lean coffee formats in larger retrospectives and meetups of 50+. The key is to design them to keep conversations flowing among as many people as possible. The best way to do this is to break the larger group into group of 6-8, give the group one of the visual cheatsheets above, ask one person to facilitate (using the cheatsheet), and after 45 minutes, ask each table to come up with one key insight to share with the entire large group. You may need to adjust the debrief time if the group is very large.

I have some written examples here:

Slides I used to use in Meetups

Jim Benson has also shared with me how he runs a day-long conference where he:

  1. Asks participants to come up with themes (much like in an Open Space format).
  2. Ask the person proposing a theme to join a table and facilitate
  3. Ask others interested in discussing that theme for 45 minutes to join the table with that theme and run a lean coffee (this means you have multiple lean coffees running simultaneously but with different themes.
  4. At the end of the 45 minutes, each table debriefs, new topics/themes are proposed based on the outcomes of the previous conversations. Go back to step 1 and repeat.

Last round of lean coffees may start focusing more on actions or outcomes.

Have questions on this or other unconference formats? Contact me.