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Quickly and Collaboratively Set Meeting Agendas with Lean Coffee

Pen and sticky notesIn-person, virtual, conference–the latest model for meetings is entirely crowd-sourced. Designed in Seattle in 2009, Lean Coffee is a structure for meeting participants to gather without a pre-set agenda and collaboratively identify and prioritize topics for discussion.

The Lean Coffee model differs from traditional meeting designs in that the agenda for the meeting is democratically generated as part of the meeting process. As its name suggests, the format for a Lean Coffee is simple and aims to provide the least structure necessary for a coherent and productive meeting. The process is as follows:

  1. KanbanCreate a structure. Set up a simple “kanban board” that includes columns for: 1) To Discuss, 2) Discussing, and 3) Discussed. Throughout the meeting, discussion topics or questions will be moved from column 1 to 2, and then from 2 to 3.
  2. Generate discussion topics. Distribute post-it notes, pens, and dot stickers to participants. Meeting participants write one topic for conversation per post-it note and add each note to the “to discuss” column. The decision to limit the number of ideas (and when) rests with the meeting facilitator. When enough topics have been posted, participants share a 1-2 sentence introduction for each of their suggested topics.
  3. Vote on topics. Each participant gets two dots to stick on the topics they wish to vote for. The facilitator then tallies the dots and identifies the highest-interest topics of conversation.
  4. Discuss high-interest topics. The meeting facilitator announces the time limit for the discussion (45 minutes to 1.5 hours is recommended), and can choose to apply a time limit to each post-it note topic (5 to 10 minutes is recommended). As the discussion begins for each topic, the facilitator moves the post-it note to the “being discussed” column. When the discussion is finished that post-it note is moved to the “discussed” column to provide a visual representation of the meeting flow and allow participants to track items as they are discussed.

Lean Coffee enables meeting participants to have an open-ended conversation that is democratically directed, increasing ownership and participation. The model ensures that ideas the team collectively wants to emphasize can be discussed and agreed upon.

While this approach does not replace the need for structured meeting designs with pre-selected topics and activities, GPG has found that using Lean Coffee as a facilitation method is useful and adaptable for a variety of situations. For example, including a Lean Coffee session near the end of a half- or full-day meeting can provide an opportunity for participants to lift up important topics that were not included in the agenda or did not arise in earlier conversation, or to propose topics that were discussed but that need further attention from the group. An additional benefit of this approach is the documentation of all discussion topic ideas. For a group that meets multiple times, topics that did not receive enough votes for discussion at a previous Lean Coffee session might inform the next Lean Coffee opportunity.

Learn more about the Lean Coffee history and approach at http://leancoffee.org/.