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How you can incorporate lean coffee for Agile, QA meetings

Don't let formal meeting agendas turn away attendees. The lean coffee format encourages participation and idea sharing on topics to drive conversation in numerous settings.

Lean coffee is a discussion format that applies a structured technique to informal discussions. This agendaless meeting style fits open-ended discussions, freeform retrospectives or other exchanges to prioritize topics based on the group's preferences instead of preplanned discussion points.

As part of QA and Agile efforts, lean coffee pushes discussion and collaboration instead of a rigid, sometimes tedious agenda.

Formalizing the informal

The core elements of the lean coffee format were designed to accommodate a multitude of meeting setups, from spontaneous in-person meetups to regularly scheduled gatherings.

Lean coffee originated in software development and uses common Kanban techniques to prioritize and track discussion topics. It's simple enough to adapt the basic process to any subject of shared interest, such as a retrospective meeting.

"Lean coffee is a great way to keep track of the progress made during a meeting and also allow for more open discussion," said Fanny Surjana, founder of nutrition and drinks website Quench List.

Lean coffee is one of many meeting formats for open-ended explorations. Alternative formats include the following:

  • Mad Sad Glad retrospectives, which explore the emotional side of the development process;
  • What Went Well retrospectives, which prioritize wins and areas of improvement; and
  • Stop Start Continue retrospectives, used for improving the development and collaboration process.

Lean coffee components

The essential components of a lean coffee meeting include a timer and sticky notes. In a pinch, any writing instrument and paper could work. Attendees may also consider name tags to build familiarity.

Then, meeting organizers create a basic Kanban board by laying out three cards at the top labeled as follows:

  • To Discuss
  • Discussing
  • Discussed

Participants then come up with a list of topics on each sticky note and post them under the To Discuss column. Then, everyone votes on their two favorite topics with a single dot.

The most popular topic moves into the Discussing column, and a timer is set for a specific interval to begin discussion. When the timer goes off, teams vote to keep discussing or move on with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If most people vote yes, the discussion continues for half the original time. Then that topic moves to the Discussed column, and the conversation moves on to the next most popular topic.

The whole process is repeated until the end of the allocated time, at which point participants get a chance to weigh in with a couple of takeaways before the meeting adjourns.

Facilitating participation

The lean coffee format was developed for in-person meetings, but it's easy to adapt for online discussions. Teams should monitor the meeting times with a shared timer visible for all online participants. A couple of Agile meeting tools, including Lean Coffee Table and Retrium, offer specific templates to host lean coffee meetings. Luke Fitzpatrick, guest lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, said teams could also adapt common Kanban apps such as Jamboard, Mural, Miro and Trello to manage online meetings.

Facilitators, rather than leaders, manage lean coffee meetings. They keep an eye on the meeting flow and gently steer people back to the topic when the conversation veers off course. They also encourage and support quieter participants to contribute ideas.

"It is essential to be persistent and creative to make the most of the experience," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick added he finds it helpful to structure a lean coffee meeting around three stages: preparation, discussion and decision-making in a business setting. The first two parts help drive the conversation in the room to prioritize topics and participation. The third sets the stage to implement new learning.

How lean coffee in Agile, QA can benefit attendees

The main benefit of lean coffee sessions is their ability to reduce formality. Without a rigid meeting agenda, a session can help surface problems or celebrate an achievement. Teams can additionally use these sessions to prioritize conversations about industry trends or new techniques. The format also helps facilitate open-ended discussion as part of wider brainstorming sessions.

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