Enjoy a Lean Coffee

What is Lean Coffee?

Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith founded the Lean Coffee movement in Seattle in 2009. Since then, Lean Coffee events have sprung up around the world. The basic idea is for a group of people to get together to discuss topics around which they share a common interest, specifically around agile, lean, kanban, lean startup, etc. There is also an OpenCoffee movement, founded by Saul Klein in 2007. The intent behind OpenCoffee is to provide an open forum for investors, entrepreneurs and developers to come together, meet, discuss ideas, and find opportunities to work together.

The Lean Coffee format is essentially an approach to facilitating learning and collaboration through group discussions. The ‘Lean’ part of the name has its roots in Lean Thinking, and related areas of Lean Production, Lean Software, Lean Startup, etc. The ‘Coffee’ part of the name obviously comes from that nice drink that some of us are partial to. Meetups typically take place in the morning, at a local coffee house, at the same time and place each week.

Lean Coffee events are increasingly becoming a fixture at many conferences, in a similar way that Open Space has. We had a great Lean Coffee event at LESS2011 in Stockholm last year.

How it works

The Lean Coffee format has a lot in common with Open Space, particularly in the sense that you are asking people to move away from an agenda-driven gathering to a more open, collaborative, dynamic, emergent type of gathering.

The protocol, borrowed and modified from the Sydney Lean Coffee group and Limited WIP Society, is as follows:

  1. Everyone offers topics they are interested in discussing by writing them on index cards (or sticky notes).
  2. Everyone presents his or her topic as an Elevator Pitch (max 1 minute per topic).
  3. Use dot voting to vote on each of the topics.  Each person gets two votes. You can only vote once per topic.
  4. Prepare three columns on a table or wall. Call them “Planned”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Add all topics to the “Planned” column, with those that received the highest votes at the top.
  5. Discuss each topic in turn. Move the index card for the topic into the “In Progress” column. Initially, ask the proposer to explain the topic, then go round the table to give an opportunity for everyone to provide an initial comment, then open discussion.
  6. When the topic is done, move on to the next one.  The topic proposer decides when the topic is done, and moves the index card to the “Done” column.  If someone disagrees, then s/he can raise a new topic.  Expect to discuss 3-4 topics over the space of an hour or so.
  7. Consider time boxing each topic to 15 minutes max.
  8. At the end of the overall Lean Coffee session, run a quick retrospective.  What did you like? What didn’t you like? What are ideas for improvement?

As a variation, particularly if you have a large group, consider splitting into sub-groups if people are particularly passionate about specific topics. Then get back together after the topic discussion to present highlights to, and get feedback from, the wider group.

Lean Coffee at work

The idea and format for Lean Coffee is very simple and effective. It can be used in work too. For example, consider hosting a Lean Coffee event every week in your office. It can be a great way to share experiences and challenges across teams and gather interested people who don’t normally get to discuss these topics together.

If you find your retrospectives are becoming routine, then this is a good way to break out of the rut. There is no leader or facilitator required. The team can self-organize a Lean Coffee style event without any preparation. The team decides which topics to discuss, and how long to spend on each topic.

The only prerequisites are a set of index cards or sticky notes, a set of Sharpies, and some interested and willing people.

Lean Coffee at Agile Lean Galway

We’re going to try running the next Agile Lean Galway meetup as a Lean Coffee event. All our meetups so far have been upstairs in the Dail Bar, Middle Street, Galway.

We’ll kick off at 7pm. Sign up if you are interested in coming along.

Come along if you

  • have heard about Agile and Lean and want to know more
  • are trying to implement Lean thinking at your organization and could use some advice and guidance
  • know a lot about agile and lean and would like to share your knowledge and find out what others are doing
  • like coffee and interesting conversation about agile, lean, etc.
  • don’t like coffee, and just want to join the conversation

If we like the format, and the idea, and there’s enough interest, then maybe we’ll spin off Lean Coffee Galway as a separate event. Maybe as an early morning coffee event?


Some sites for Lean Coffee Meetups around the world:

Writings about Lean Coffee

What We Did at The ALE2011 Retrospective

Olaf and I were chatting on the first morning of the first ever ALE conference when he suggested I facilitate the retrospective at the end of the conference. Facilitating a session with 200+ very smart and very vocal people, many of whom are expert retrospective facilitators, and all of whom would have high expectations, was a pretty scary thought. But also a great opportunity to have some fun and do something that would be an experience I would not forget.


In Open Space sessions, hallway discussions, the bar and other forums, I tried to talk with as many people as possible about how they felt about the ALE Network and what comes next. At least three of the Open Space sessions focused on improving the ALE Network. Ivana Gancheva hosted a session on improving the network, and making the conference better. Vasco Duarte and Eelco Rustenburg both had sessions related to getting managers more involved in the community, and in agile and lean generally. I had some discussions with all of them, and with Jurgen Appelo and Olaf Lewitz about their goals. We all agreed that the retrospective should focus on the ALE Network, not just the conference. We also wanted to come out of it with some concrete milestones and actions.


Opening Activities

Rain Dance

I wanted to open with something that would be memorable, a little unusual and also fun. The Rain Dance is a game I learned many years ago at a Pattern Writing workshop, and have used it in a few workshops since. I had never used it in such a large group, but, if it worked out, I thought it could be a lot of fun. This game is used in many different settings. It is a traditional Native American game used to teach children (fortunately I was with a bunch of people who enjoy games!) about rhythms, art and culture. It has been applied to many different settings including workshops for improvisation, music, software patterns and other group settings.

The idea is to simulate the sound of a thunderstorm, creating the sounds of rain that build up to a thunderstorm, and then calms down again as the storm passes. The effect can be quite powerful.

To start, everyone stands in a large circle. With 200+ people the circle took up the entire circumference of the large conference room. One by one, everyone performs the following actions:

  1. Rub your hands together.
  2. Tap two fingers of your right hand against the palm of your left hand.
  3. Snap your fingers on both hands.
  4. Clap your thighs.
  5. Stamp your feet.

These actions are performed in a circle, starting with the facilitator (me!), and moving to the left, going around the circle one by one. The next action is introduced when everyone in the circle is performing the first. Participants keep the previous action going until the new one reaches them around the circle. You then repeat the 5 steps in reverse order. This gives the effect of the storm building gradually, reaching a thunderous climax, and then declining gradually.

The Rain Dance was recorded on video so if it turns out OK and we get permission, I’ll try to post it or link to it when it becomes available.

Project History

We wanted to focus the retrospective on the ALE Network itself, not just the ALE2011 conference. The conference is an important milestone – an intersection in the continuing story of the ALE Network. We thought it would be a good idea to bring everyone up to speed with the history and origins of ALE before looking at how to take it forward. Jurgen talked about the history of ALE, from early discussions and ideas, to discussions at Play4Agile, starting the LinkedIn group, the gathering at XP2011 in Madrid, and up to the present day.

Data Gathering Activities

I used two main exercises for data gathering: Speedboat and Starfish. I split the 200 or so participants into 8 groups. All groups got to take part in both exercises.

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective


Speedboat is a game from Luke Hohmann‘s Innovation Games. It is a great way to understand what your customers don’t like about your product. I often use it in other settings too, e.g., at retrospectives to help teams or organizations understand what about the way they are working is holding them back.

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

The speedboat acts as a metaphor for your product or organization. In this case, the speedboat acted as a metaphor for the ALE Network. We wanted to understand what was holding us back from achieving some of the targets we had set ourselves earlier in the year, including in Madrid.

A Group Playing the Speedboat Game at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Speedboat Game


The Starfish is a retrospective technique I learned from Nick Oostvogels and Pat Kua at XP2011. You can read Nick’s Blog post about it. It was great that Nick was at ALE2011 and participated in the retrospective. I’m always looking for new techniques that will help add a different dimension to retrospectives, or help teams break out of a rut of using the same techniques over and over again. I love the Starfish exercise, and have used it several times since XP2011. I have used it in Sprint and Release retrospectives with teams, and also in workshops with managers, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and program managers.

For ALE2011 I wanted to use it get data about

  1. What we’re doing as a community that’s working well
  2. Things we need to do more of
  3. Things we need to do less of
  4. Things we should stop doing
  5. Things we should try
A Group Using the Starfish Exercise at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Starfish Exercise

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Data Analysis

Each group had 30 seconds to present the output of their Speedboat exercise. 30 seconds might not sound like a lot, but it does force you to be concise. I asked that subsequent groups to not just repeat what previous groups had already contributed. We started with group 1 and went through to group 8.

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

After group 8 presented their Speedboat output, I asked them to present their Starfish output – focusing mainly on things to keep, things to do more of and things to try. We did the same with all of the other groups, ending back at group 1.

Reporting Back to the Wider Group at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Reporting Back

By now we had heard from each of the groups about some of the major obstacles holding us back as a community, some of the things that were working well, things we want to do more of, and some new things to try. It was time to turn this into something concrete we could act on.

Creating a Plan

Remember the Future

Remember the Future is a great technique for creating a vision of what you want to achieve. However, instead of thinking about it in terms of what you want to do or what you will do, you move your thinking forward to a point in time that comes after the time period you are considering, and look back at what you actually did. The difference in perspective is remarkable.

The time horizon we considered was the coming 12 months. What is it we want to have achieved when we look back after 12 months? So, we looked to a point in time 13 months out and talked about what we achieved.

We created the timeline on one wall of the conference room, with milestones at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and 12 months. There are different ways to get the data  you want for this exercise. In the interests of time I asked everyone to act as one group, write their item on a Post It note, step forward and describe it to the group, and then place it at the appropriate milestone on the time line.

Remembering the Future at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Remember the Future

People were then asked to put their name or Twitter ID on a Post It if they wanted to contribute to achieving that goal. If you weren’t there, or you forgot to add your name, don’t worry. You’ll have an opportunity to sign up to lead or contribute in an area in the next week or so when the output gets published.

Roadmap for future ALE Conferences

We wanted to create a roadmap for the next three years of conference locations. However, the conference attendees are a subset of the ALE Network. We wanted to make sure that as many people as possible from the ALE community had a chance to provide input on the location. What we decided to try wast this: create a shortlist at the conference and then use the LinkedIn group to decide the final locations.

The only constraint on location, same as for ALE2011, is that it must be a reasonably central European location (which unfortunately rules out Galway) that is relatively easily accessible from a majority of ALE Network countries.

Creating a Shortlist for a Roadmap of Future Conferences at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Conference Roadmap Shortlist

I’ll publish the shortlist over on the LinkedIn group. Let’s see how the voting goes.

Closing Remarks

Jurgen closed the retrospective, and encouraged everyone there to sign the ALE Network book that he started in Madrid.


First, a big thank you to Olaf Lewitz for encouraging me to facilitate the retrospective and for trusting me with the responsibility. Thanks to all of you who were there and who contributed so enthusiastically. And finally, thanks for the kind feedback on Twitter and elsewhere. It was an honor to facilitate the first ALE Unconference retrospective.

Next Steps

I need to transcribe all the wonderful data produced by the ALE2011 participants. I’ll publish that in a separate post, either here or on the ALE Network site.

Call for Help

I’ll be looking for some help with the transcription. I want to make sure I don’t become a bottleneck for getting the retrospective output published. There are about 20 photographs that capture the core output of the Starfish and Speedboat. Each photo captures lots of Post It notes. We need to transcribe the text in these photos. It would be cool if we could Crowdsource the transcription. If a few people take one photo each we’ll get it done pretty quickly. Let me know if you’re willing to help out and I’ll send you a JPEG.

5 Books for Agile Coaches

There is a growing body of knowledge on agile coaching, and some of the tools required to be an effective agile coach. These books are a great starting point for anyone interested in understanding what an agile coach is, how to become an agile coach, or generally how to be more effective as a coach or ScrumMaster.

These books assume knowledge and experience with agile, and are not an introduction to agile.

I list them here in the order in which I read them. If you are an agile coach, ScrumMaster, or someone interested in helping teams and organizations achieve higher performance, then these are essential reading.

Book - Agile RetrospectivesBook - Agile CoachingBook - Collaboration ExplainedBook - Project RetrospectivesBook - Coaching Agile Teams

Two of the books are specifically about retrospectives. Retrospectives are an essential tool in our box as coaches, and developing skills with a variety of retrospective techniques is important.