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Starting your own lean coffee

At Meltwater, we are great believers in “participant-driven meetings” like unconferences, as we’ve written about in the past. Recently I started a little discussion community using Lean Coffee as a meeting format. Here’s a quick rundown of what it is and why I like to use it and how it works in a remote setting.

Introduction

I wanted to start a community for engineering leaders and managers to stay connected and exchange ideas during the pandemic. To achieve this, I decided to leverage our learnings from unconferences and help the participants themselves drive the topics and content of the meetings by using the “lean coffee” approach. Here are my experiences starting my own lean coffee community.

What is Lean Coffee?

If you have not heard about the lean coffee format it is a pretty simple meeting format following a few simple steps. You will need some post-its and a whiteboard with some columns: “Topics”, “To discuss”, “Done”

  1. Generate topics

    Set a timer for 10 minutes, during which the participants generate post-its for topics they would like to discuss. These are all added to the “Topics” column.

  2. Group topics

    Group similar topics together and remove duplicates

  3. Prioritize

    Everyone votes on their top 3 topics. Move the top voted topics into the “To discuss” column of the board

  4. Discuss

    Set a timer to 5-10 minutes and start discussing the topic with most votes

  5. Continue or move on

    When the timer runs out, Vote if you want to continue on the same topic or move on to the next one.

  6. Repeat

    Move the discussed topic to “Done” and pick the next topic. Repeat from step 4 again.

There is more information about the format on leancoffee.org

Facilitation

One of the aspects of lean coffee that I like is the ease of facilitation. As we have seen above, the structure of the format is quite straightforward, and once that is in place, the meeting practically runs itself. The format is so simple that it could be done by any participant. After just a few sessions, we were able to take turns facilitating the meetings, creating resilience in the system.

Remote Lean Coffee meetings

Traditionally, we have used post-its on a whiteboard but in the age of hybrid workplaces this is no longer practically feasible. During the Covid pandemic I have become a big fan of Metro Retro, which is a great tool for running remote retrospectives and meetings. There is even a lean coffee template to get you started in no time!

In the actual meetings the “raising hand” functionality of our video conferencing software is very valuable since it makes it easier for everyone to be heard. It came quite naturally to the group and made the facilitation even smoother.

In closing

I highly recommend lean coffee as a format for discussions. I have participated in quite a few lean coffees over the years, but I had actually never run one myself. Starting my own was surprisingly simple. I used the [Metro Retro][metro-retro] template to create my own board, found a timeslot & invited some people. After a few iterations the facilitation part felt really easy and the discussions were engaged and focussed. The format also lends itself to engaged, focussed & interesting discussions.

Find a topic that you’re interested in, invite some like-minded people and just try it. I think you will be surprised how simple it actually is to get going!

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