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Lean Coffee

Many retrospective formats apply a structure that categorises team member contributions based on a predefined set of themes. This can be really useful, as it helps focus the team on things that can be improved, removed, or done more often.But what would happen if you tried a completely agenda-less approach to your retrospective session? I encourage you to give this a try. The results are, in my experience, always energising, interesting and collaborative; and always a great team-builder.Allowing the team to completely direct the agenda can surface discussions that may otherwise have never happened. Let's look at a powerful facilitation tool that can assist you: Lean Coffee.Lean Coffee is a structured, yet 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.


The format for Lean Coffee is very simple. This is intentional. It is meant to have the least structure necessary for a coherent and productive meeting. No more, no less.

  1. Setup a Kanban board for the session. The simplest format for this board is just 3 columns: Ready, Doing and Done. Some teams also add a 4th column named 'Action' to hold details of any outcomes, actions or decisions generated in the meeting.
  2. What to Discuss? Hand out post-it notes and pens to attendees. Ask them to write topics and ideas that they want to discuss, one per post-it note. These post-its are then added to the Ready column of the board.Topics can literally be anything the attendees want to discuss, or you can follow a theme. The aim of this approach is to encourage as many unique ideas as possible.
  3. Vote. Each participant gets two votes (if there are a lot of suggestions, opt for three votes) and they can vote twice for the same thing or for two different topics. Simply put a dot on the post-it note that you are interested in.Tally the dots. This gives a prioritised list of topics and you're are ready to have a conversation on each topic in turn.
  4. Discuss. You can either leave each topic to run it's course or set a time limit per topic.A useful approach is to set a time limit for the person to introduce their topic (say 2 minutes) then hold a quick 'roman vote' amongst the group to decide whether they want to continue discussing this topic, or move it to done and continue down the backlog.If the group vote to continue on a topic, set another time and repeat until either an action has been agreed, or the group feel they're ready to move on to the next topic.
  5. Close. Once you've exhausted your timebox for the meeting, or you've exhausted the backlog, you can summarise any actions and close the Lean Coffee session.

Challenging Questions

Normally we propose challenging questions that you can put to your team to bring out more ideas, however, these are challenging questions that you may get from the group and our suggestions on how best to respond."Should we carry-over topics that we didn't discuss in our last meeting into the next one?"There is no right or wrong answer. If you want the administrative burden of holding notes in storage until the next meeting, go ahead. Alternatively, allow each meeting to generate their own topics. If a topic is important enough to one attendee they will probably carry it over themselves into the next meeting."How do we run a lean coffee meeting for a distributed/remote team?"You can use an online whiteboard such as www.webwhiteboard.comYou may find it easier to use a tool built specifically for Lean Coffee. Here are a few that we know of:

  • Retrium | This site contains a set of facilitation techniques designed for agile retrospectives. One of the templates they have is Lean Coffee. Aimed at companies/enterprises. Free to try, then requires a paid subscription.
  • Lean Coffee Table | This is a simple website built just for distributed Lean Coffee. Free to use. Best for meetups/casual use.


Lean Coffee could be one of the best retrospective sessions that your team has never had. It ensures that everyone's voice is heard, not just the loudest in your team.Lean Coffee can generate more ideas than any other meeting format.Lean Coffee creates a participative environment, empowering 'employees' by sharing the agenda and decision-making in how that agenda unfolds.Most of all, Lean Coffee is easy to run and can be used in almost any context. It's an essential tool to have up your sleeve as a facilitator and can bring surprising results given its simplicity.

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