Agendas are so 20th Century
– Jim Benson, co-creator of Lean Coffee

How much time do you waste in meetings? If you’re not facilitating and didn’t write the agenda, are you fully vested in the meeting? Wouldn’t it be great to eliminate some of the waste (and get your time back)?

These are a few of the questions that Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith faced when they came up with Lean Coffee – a simple yet revolutionary new meeting format.

(The story goes that back in 2009 Jim didn’t want to deal with the hassles of organizing speakers or the logistics of the venues, so he and Jeremy opted for this lightweight solution. They agreed to meet every Wednesday morning at the kakao coffee shop in Seattle: Lean Coffee was born.)

What is Lean Coffee?

From the Lean Coffee website, we have that “Lean Coffee is a structured, but 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 Lean Coffee format is both easy to follow and effective at facilitating learning and collaboration through group discussions. Although the name combines ‘Lean’ (eg. Lean Thinking, Lean Startup, etc.) and ‘Coffee’ (implying casual morning sessions), neither the topics nor the meeting times need be so rigid. For instance, I’ve attended Lean Coffee meetups held in mornings, afternoons and evenings. You can gather at a local coffee house, a pub or at your office. Most successful Lean Coffee groups maintain a reliable cadence, meeting at the same time and place each week or two.

Tools for a Lean Coffee

Here’s what you need:

  • a pad or two of sticky notes (3″x3″ is fine)
  • something to write with (markers work well because they’re visible from farther away)
  • a timing device (eg. a smart phone)
  • table & chairs
  • people
  • optional: a camera (to take pictures of actions & idea maps)

As you see, nothing here is expensive or hard to find.

How it Works

The steps are simple, straightforward and can be modified depending upon the situation.  Here’s the simple version:

  1. Setup a Personal Kanban
  2. Identify what you want to talk about
  3. Vote & discuss

That’s it.

[update 5/15/15] For those who want more of detail, here is comprehensive list of steps:

  1. (optional) Select a theme
  2. (optional) Everyone writes their name on a card and keeps it in front of them.
  3. Write topics onto notecards (one topic per card). No limit to the number of topics. (Pro-tip: keep the words per card to a minimum for readability.)
  4. Set up a personal kanban board with three columns: To Do, Doing, Done. (Pro-tip: add a fourth column (“Actions”) to collect action items as they come up.)
  5. Spend a few minutes introducing each topic, sharing a sentence or two describing the idea on each card.
  6. Vote. Each participant gets three dot votes (or more – you choose). You may cast all your votes on one topic or spread them across multiple cards.
  7. Rank the more popular topics higher in the backlog (the “To Do” column).
  8. Now that you have an agenda, move the top item into the middle (“Doing”) column.
  9. Set the timer (eg. smartphone) for five minutes — or whatever length the group determines is reasonable. This is the initial timebox for discussion.
  10. When the time limit is reached, hold a simple roman vote (thumbs up, sideways or thumbs down) to see if there’s interest in continuing the discussion. If so, set the timer for a shorter duration (eg. three minutes) and continue discussing. You can repeat this step as many times as necessary until the group loses interest in the topic.
  11. When the topic runs out of gas, move its card to the right (“Done”) column. Bring the next highest card over from “To Do” into “Doing” and repeat the process.
  12. (optional) At the end of the session, elicit key take-aways and/or action items from the group. This is usually important if you’re using the meeting to drive decisions or create work. Taking a photo of the board or any artifacts (mind maps, etc.) is also handy.

Remember: it’s not an agenda until we vote on it.

Uses of Lean Coffee

I attended my first Lean Coffee at SFAgile in May 2012 (where I also met Jim). It was a 2-day conference setting with a very open, unconference feel. On the second morning I made it to this ad-hoc Lean Coffee – it was certainly not on the conference agenda. Topics ranged from the standard (“what is Scaled Agile?”, “how do you point stories?”) to the unusual (“best breakfast food”) to the necessary (“what is lean coffee?”). In that respect, it was a great introduction to the agenda-less structure.

I started a local Lean Coffee, (Agile Coffee of Southern California), as a means to expand my network and provide the local Lean community with an alternative to the stodgy, agenda-driven events we’ve grown accustomed to. There’s a place for everyone.

I’ve also used Lean Coffee as a medium for my retrospectives and other brainstorming meetings at work. A trained facilitator and a mature team can do just about anything with this format. (I’ve read that some teams/organizations run staff meetings this way.)

[update 6/12/2014] Lately, I adapted my local Lean Coffee to create a podcast. Now one of our monthly meetings is set aside for recording discussions and posting them to iTunes. Though it’s a new experiment, early results are favorable, and we’re considering holding a session virtually (over Skype, a Google Hangout, or the like) and have participants from across the globe join the conversation. Announcing the sessions early and soliciting topics (via a twitter hashtag, for example) is easy enough, and this dynamic adds a layer of excitement and unpredictability.

Power to the People

To sum up, I’ve found that Lean Coffee meetings are much more effective and enjoyable because we’ve turned the control back over to those who can best use it. No longer is there one person dominating the conversation. Gone is the rigid agenda that must be adhered to. Now the invitees run the show, as it should be.

The group has buy-in since they set the topics and vote on the “agenda”. The discussions flow more naturally, going where they need to and staying away from the unnecessary. Everyone has a stake in keeping the meeting on point, and ownership & engagement levels have gone through the roof.


15 thoughts on “What is Lean Coffee?

  1. This looks very interesting. As a budding entrepreneur, I would really like to attend a Lean Coffee session. When is the next event taking place and where?

    • Hi Zoeb,
      Yep, these meetings are a lot of fun, and you can learn much depending on who joins and what is discussed.
      The site maintains a list of lean coffee groups around the world. You can also check sites like for similar events in your area.
      As for my local get-togethers, we meet in the Irvine (California) area, but I’m taking June off. You can see our upcoming schedule here or here.

  2. Wow. Yeah the meeting was agenda less but the damn instructions were godawful to get through. My head was going to explode by instruction number 9 and it actually did by number 12.
    This isn’t Agile, this is bloated meeting wasted time.

    • Yes, MarcoPolo. I agree and have made it (a bit) more concise.
      I got a big laugh reading your comment and seeing the truth in this. It’s a “lightweight” process, afterall 🙂

  3. Thank you for the tips above, they have helped me transition my weekly meeting to a lean coffee format. Based upon feedback from my attendees, this has become our new standard. Based upon your experience, what are some best practices in dealing with late arrivals. Obviously if the topic posting and voting is complete we don’t go back. But if this is the first lean coffee the late attendee has attended, they are often confused about the continuation voting. If they ask the question I take 10 to 20 seconds to explain it, but I was wondering if there were other suggested ways of getting them plugged into the meeting.

    • Hi Tatjana,
      I’ve been thinking about coming into L.A. for a lean coffee session. A few folks have asked.
      Probably on the westside in one of the cities you mentioned. No dates yet, but would be good to schedule a date or two for the summer.
      Wondering if weeknights are good, or if L.A. folks can stand to meet on a (gasp) Saturday morning 😉

  4. I am interested in attending the Orange County (Irvine) sessions. Is there a mailing list I can get on? How do I RSVP for these events?


  5. Victor – Great write up on lean coffee. We actually used Lean Coffee to reboot our agile user group in Orlando. It’s now as popular as our evening talks as people can get their questions answered. We have started “periscoping” what people get out of the lean coffee. Here is an example

    We now have 3 morning lean coffees per month (different days and locations) and one evening beverage-centric gathering. Sticky notes usually not needed for the evening gathering. 😉

    • This sounds truly great, Mark. The growth / adoption of lean coffees (in and out of the workplace) is amazing. We’ve got four different community coffee meetups in SoCal now (from San Diego to Los Angeles). All meeting on a regular cadence.

      I agree that cards aren’t necessary for those evening gatherings – except the kind we use to pay the tab.

      Kudos on the periscope experiment. I was thinking of trying that myself, but we haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  6. I think Mark K should look up ‘periscoping’ in the Urban Dictionary. Am I the only one that finds that Full Fat Milk Meetings actually work?

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