Facilitation, Open-Space

Lean Coffee: Lessons Learned Hosting & Facilitating

TL;DR: Lessons learned from hosting and facilitating Lean Coffees at public meetups, within companies and at conferences.

I have been hosting and facilitating Lean Coffee for a number of years now, for the Lean Coffee JHB Meetup, at companies where I’ve worked, and at several conferences I’ve attended. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about hosting and facilitating. Quite frequently people ask me for advice on starting a Lean Coffee. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Lean Coffee
Lean Coffee is a lightweight structure for an informal gathering where the participants decide the agenda at the start of the gathering in a just-in-time way. The aim is to have many shallow discussions about a broad range of topics instead of deeply discussing only one or two topics. All you need for a Lean Coffee is somewhere to gather (hopefully with either good coffee or beer), someone to invite people, and someone to facilitate (after a while the gatherings become self-facilitating).
The discussion around each topic is time-boxed, so that we don’t spend too much time on a single topic. Lean Coffee was originally developed to discuss Agile/Lean coaching, but you can discuss anything. You as a host decide if there are boundaries to the topics which can be discussed.

Its very easy to host a Lean Coffee, all you need to is:

  • Secure a space for the event. This may or may not need to be booked. For public events, we usually just show up at a coffee shop, sometimes without warning them. The venue should be appropriate for the number of people you’re expecting (see Group Size below).
  • Invite people. Get the word out there. Most public Lean Coffee groups I know of use meetup.com which works well. For conferences, getting Lean Coffee added to the official conference program works well, as does Twitter, and getting conference hosts to announce it.
  • Secure stationery for the gathering. This might entail bringing it yourself or asking other people (or a sponsor) to provide it. Generally all you need is a few pads of sticky notes, and some pens and/or markers. If at a conference, there’s likely to be some stationery around that you can use. You may want a whiteboard or flipchart too depending on type of venue and number of people (see Facilitating below).
  • Make sure there’s a supply of good coffee and/or beer. Its ok for people to pay for their own coffee at a public Lean Coffee (sponsorship is always great though). Try make sure there’s decent stuff.

Facilitating means you’re holding the space and managing the flow of the event. You can think of it like directing the traffic at the gathering. Facilitating typically includes the following:

  • Dealing with any rudeness, conflict, hostility, high emotions etc if they occur. We’re allowed to disagree but we’re not allowed to disrespect each other.
  • Create a flow board (otherwise known as a Kanban board or Personal Kanban board), with ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’ columns. The board is used to keep track of where we currently are in the event.
  • Explaining the flow of Lean Coffee (see Flow below). This includes when you will retrospect and end. I have a set of laminated cards I use on the flow board to demonstrate the flow.
  • Moving the cards and topic sticky notes on the flow board as the event progresses.
  • Mention the Sticky Note Tips (see below) before the brainstorm.
  • Reading out the proposed topics one by one, in any order you like, prompting the proposer to pitch their idea.
  • Explain dot voting procedure when its time to vote for topics.
  • Read out the new topic again at the start of each new discussion
  • Keeping time and indicating when its time for the silent thumb vote (see Flow below).
  • Deciding whether to keep the current topic or move on to a new one based on the number of votes.
  • Moving on to a new topic if discussion dies down before the timebox has ended.
  • Making sure that once a new topic has started, people stop discussing the old topic and move on to the new one.
  • Stopping timeously to retrospect and running the retrospective.

The flow of Lean Coffee is:

  1. Explain: Explain what Lean Coffee is, especially for first-timers. The Lean Coffee section above should be useful for this. Use the points below to describe the flow.
  2. Introduce: Everyone gives a 20-second, 2-sentence introduction of themselves. The content of the introduction should be germane to the theme of the Lean Coffee, especially if it is bounded. You might want to skip this step if there are a lot of people at the gathering.
  3. Brainstorm: Each person, silently, writes a brief summary of the topics they’d like to discuss on a sticky note (see Sticky Note Tips below). A topic can be anything, usually a question the proposer has, or something they’ve been thinking about. Unless there’s a theme, I tell people they can propose anything, since the group will vote on what they want to discuss anyway.
  4. Pitch: The facilitator goes through the proposed topics one at a time, sticky by sticky, in whatever order they like, and reads out the topic summary. The topic proposer then gives a quick spoken pitch of the topic. The pitch should be just long and deep enough to allow everyone to vote on which topics they want to discuss.
  5. Vote: Everyone votes on which topics they’d like to discuss. Voting is done with dots (i.e. dot voting). A vote is created by making a dot on a sticky with a pen or marker. The vote doesn’t count unless the person says ‘ping’ loudly while marking the sticky. Everyone gets a certain number of dots for voting, typically 2 or 3. The number is determined by the number of participants.
    A person can distribute their votes in any way, all votes on a single sticky, or one each on as many stickies as there are votes. Topic proposers can vote for their own topics. Once voting has finished, the facilitator orders the stickies in most to fewest votes, and places the stickies in the ‘To Do’ column of the flow board. The facilitator decides how to handle stickies with the same number of votes.
  6. Discuss: This is the meat of the event. The group start discussing the topics, starting with the topic with the most votes. The topic proposer starts the discussion, usually with the summary, and maybe a little more depth. The discussion continues until a time limit is reached. The time limit is usually decided by the facilitator or group at the beginning of the event. I usually use 5 minutes. I have also heard of 8 minutes and 15 minutes.
    Once the 5 minutes are up, a silent thumb vote is held, where each person signals whether they think discussing the current topic is valuable, or a new topic should be chosen. Intent is shown by a thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture. People may abstain by using a horizontal thumb. It is important that everyone understands what thumbs-up and thumbs-down means, since different Lean Coffee groups have their own conventions. My convention is: thumbs-up = I’m still interested, same topic; thumbs-down = I want a new topic. The idea of voting with thumbs is that it is silent and doesn’t intrude on the discussion.
    If there are enough ‘same topic’ votes, the discussion for this topic is extended, but is again timeboxed. My ‘extension’ timebox convention is 3 minutes. I’ve also heard of 5 minutes. I’ve also heard of not allowing extensions. My convention is to allow up to 2 extensions (with another silent thumb vote after the first extension). If a discussion is really animated and entertaining, with shouting and fist fights, I may decide to allow a discussion to continue as long as I want. You can decide on how many extensions you want to have. Once the discussion of a particular topic has ended, whether through ‘all extensions used’, enough ‘new topic’ votes, or if the discussion ends before the end of the timebox, the next topic is discussed. If you run out of time or topics, then you start the retrospective.
  7. Retro: How was the gathering? What can be improved next time its run so that it will be a better, more valuable, more rewarding experience? A lot of the content of this article has come from retrospectives.

Sticky Note Tips
There are a few things to remember which improve the usage and utility of sticky notes. They seem simple, but they’re easy to forget. I’ve made all of these mistakes at one time or another.

  • Write on the non-sticky side.
  • Write with the sticky strip on the top of the sticky.
  • Write only one idea per sticky.
  • Don’t peel stickies off the pad, pull or sheer them off. They stick better this way. Peeling leads to curling.
  • Write large enough so that the writing can be seen from a reasonable distance.
  • Try write with a colour that can be seen on the sticky colour.

Group Size
Group size is probably the factor that affects the hosting and facilitating of Lean Coffee the most.

  • Fewer than 4 people: When there are so few people, I usually discard the Lean Coffee structure and have a regular conversation. At this size venue doesn’t really matter.
  • Up to about 8 people: The public Lean Coffees I attend are usually around this size. Everyone can fit around a single table or a few small tables pushed together. Sound doesn’t need to travel as far. For these reasons venue is not too important at this size. The flow board can be created on the table(s) around which everyone sits.
  • Up to 20-25 people: This size is quite typical for conference and internal Lean Coffee. At this size it becomes difficult to fit everyone at a single table, and for everyone to see the flow board if it is on a table. Therefore you’ll probably need either a large room like a boardroom with a large table, or a room with several tables. At this size you want a room with doors that can close, especially if the venue is adjacent to a noisy area, like the registration or refreshments area at a conference. This is because everyone’s voice should be within hearing everywhere in the room.
    At this size, its not feasible to have the flow board on a table, so I usually use a convenient wall or whiteboard for the flow board. At conferences I usually use a flipchart for the flow board, and a second flipchart to hold the topic stickies before, during and after voting.
  • More than 20-25 people: I don’t have much experience with this group size. A pattern I’ve heard about a few times is splitting the large group into two or more smaller groups, which have their own discussions then ‘reconvene’ afterwards and brief each other on their discussions and learnings.

Internal Lean Coffee
For internal (private company-specific) Lean Coffee, its a good idea to announce at the beginning that everything said in the event is private and confidential and shouldn’t leave the room. This is to make a safe space so that people can open up more.
At one company we tried a few invitation mechanisms:

  • Single invitations for recurring meetings scheduled through Outlook/Exchange. Easy to create and administer, but declined once and forgotten about forever.
  • A ‘private’ group on meetup.com. This didn’t really gain any traction.

And, eventually,

  • A single invitation email per event, sent about a week before the time. This was a bit more admin, but I solved that by copying and pasting the email content and mailing list. This option worked the best. Be warned that people might get tired of your ‘spam’ 🙂

At this same company, people saw it as a something for people involved in software development only, and thus didn’t arrive. It turned out the name ‘Lean Coffee’ was the main reason behind this. I changed the name to ‘Coffee & Conversation’, and in my emails explicitly mentioned that it was for everyone. This increased attendance and diversity.

For internal Lean Coffee, try get your company or department to sponsor some refreshments. Coffee, donuts, sandwiches etc. This is a relatively cheap but effective crowd puller.

Try book a meeting/board room that is very visible and has a lot of foot traffic so that people see you as they walk past. Generate interest and curiosity.

One thing you should be aware of is that the presence of managers (or people to whom other people report) will have an effect on how safe people feel and therefore what they’ll be prepared to talk about. I’ve also seen the presence of senior managers change the conversation into questions that should be part of ordinary operations (this is fine if its the aim of you Lean Coffee but it wasn’t the aim of this one).

* Lean Coffee
* A nice slideshow I found explaining Lean Coffee
* Gerry Kirk’s One Page Intro which I’ve used a lot in the past. I usually have one or two laminated print-outs of this sitting on tables when I facilitate.
* Another great article on Lean Coffee
* Jo’burg Lean Coffee Meetup Group: My ‘home’ Lean Coffee, and where I first learned about it.
* Modus Cooperandi’s Lean Coffee material Modus Cooperandi is Jim Benson’s company. Jim Benson created Lean Coffee.

Please offer your Lean Coffee thoughts, tricks, tips, hacks and resources in the comments!