As I’ve mentioned a bunch of times, I tutor an Agile Project Management course at the Queensland University of Technology. Its been useful to me on a number of fronts, from making me think more about what the concept of being agile actually means to me, to simply giving me more experience speaking in front of large groups of people. On the other side of the equation, I hope its been equally useful to the students.

A secondary benefit of tutoring is that it exposes me to new concepts and activities that I’ve never really seen before. I’d never heard of Scrum City until we did it with the students back in the first semester, and the topic of todays blog post is a similar sort of thing.

Lean Coffee.

An Unpleasant Drink

Fortunately, Lean Coffee has absolutely nothing to do with coffee, well not anymore anyway.

Apparently the term was originally coined as a result of a desire to not have to organise speakers or deal with the logistics of organising a venue for a regular meeting. The participants simply met at a particular coffee shop and started engaging in the process which would eventually become known as Lean Coffee (one because its lightweight and two because it was at a coffee shop).

At a high level, I would describe Lean Coffee as a democratically driven discussion, used to facilitate conversation around a theme while maintaining interest and engagement.

Its the sort of idea that aims to deal with the problem of mind-numbing meetings that attempt to deal with important subjects, but fail miserably because of the way they are run.

Who Needs a Boost Anyway?

It all starts with the selection of an overarching theme. This can be anything at all, but obviously it should be something that actually needs discussing and that the group engaging in the discussion has some stake in.

In the case of the tutorial, the theme was an upcoming piece of assessment (an Agile Inception Deck for a project of their choosing).

Each individual is then responsible for coming up with any number of topics or questions that fit into the theme. Each topic should be clear enough to be understood easily, should have some merit when applied to the greater group and should be noted down clearly on a post-it or equivalent.

This will take about 10 minutes, and ideally should happen in relative silence (as the topics are developed by the individual, and do not need additional discussion, at least not yet).

At the end, all topics should be affixed to the first column in a basic 3 column workflow board (To Discuss, Discussingand Discussed.

Don’t worry too much about the relevance of each topic, as the next stage will sort that out. Remember, you are just the facilitator, the actual discussion is owned by the group of people who are doing the discussing.

I’m High on Life

Spend a few minutes going through the topics, reading them out and getting clarifications as necessary.

Now, get the group to vote on the topics. Each person gets 3 votes, and they can apply them in any way they see fit (multiple votes to one topic, spread them out, only use some of their votes, it doesn’t matter). If you have a large number of people, a simple line is good enough to avoid the crush during voting, but it will take some time to get through everyone. Depending on how big your wall of topics is, its best to get more than 1 person voting at a time, and limit the amount of time each person has to vote to less than 30 seconds.

Conceptually, voting allows the topics that concern the greatest number of people to rise to the top, allowing you to prioritize them ahead of the topics that concern fewer people. This is the democratic part of the process and allows for some real engagement in the discussion by the participants, because they’ve had some input into what they think is the most important things to talk about.

That last point was particularly relevant for my tutorial. For some reason, when given the opportunity, the students were reticent to ask questions about the assessment. I did have a few, but not nearly as many as I expected. This activity generated something like 20 topics though, of which around 15 were useful to the group as a whole, and really helped them to get a better handle on how to do well.

That’s What They Call Cocaine Now

After the voting is finished, rearrange the board to be organised by the number of votes (i.e. priority) and then its time to start the actual discussions.

Pick off the top topic, read it out and make sure everyone has a common understanding of what needs to be discussed. If a topic is not clear by this point (and it should be, because in order to vote you need to the topic to be understandable) you may have to get the creator of the topic to speak up. Once everything is ready, start a timer for 5 minutes and then let the discussion begin. After the time runs out, try to summarise the discussion (and note down actions or other results as necessary). If there is more discussion to be had, start another timer for 2 minutes, and then let that play out.

Once the second timer runs out, regardless of whether everything is perfectly sorted out, move on to the next topic. Rinse and repeat until you run out of time (or topics obviously).

In my case, the topics being discussed were mostly one sided (i.e. me answering questions and offering clarifications about the piece of assessment), but running this activity in a normal business situation where no-one has all the answers should allow everyone to take part equally.


I found the concept of Lean Coffee to be extremely effective in facilitating a discussion while also maintaining a high level of engagement. It has been a long time since I’ve really felt like a group of people were interested in discussing a topic like they were when this process was used to facilitate the conversation.

This interests me at a fundamental level, because I’d actually tried to engage the students on the theme at an earlier occasion, thinking they would have a lot of questions about the assessment item. At that time I used the simplest approach, which was to canvas the group for questions and topics one at a time. I did have a few bites, but nowhere near the level of participation that I did with Lean Coffee.

The name is still stupid though.