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How to Get the Most Out of a Lean Coffee Retrospective

Improvements within a team are possible in various ways, with retrospective formats being one of them. Retrospectives are meetings held before or after a project to discuss improvements in your team’s workflow. They give you and your team an opportunity to take a step back and adapt to change and on what. However, to become more productive over time, you must be able to find the right format for your team.

Agile Retrospective Fundamentals

Among the various types, let’s focus on one of them, the agile retrospective approach. An agile retrospective is a regular meeting where teams reflect on their last iteration or development procedure and identify actions for improvement. It encourages continuous learning to help make small improvements regularly with immediate effect on your team’s performance.

This is a team-driven format. Every team member plays a part in deciding how the meetings should be conducted and how to bring about the required changes. There are three points which each member focuses on:

  • What worked for the team?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What actions will improve the process as we move forward?

Continuous improvement is the basis of this in any retro and is a key tenet of the Agile methodology. This point is manifested in the ninth Agile principle which declares, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

Lean coffee is the name of a much more relaxed, serendipitous retro format. These tend to be agenda-less and flow with flexible content. However, there is some structure — and perhaps a method to the madness. Participants start off by choosing the topics they want to discuss. Then every member votes for the topics and the ones with the most votes are discussed. All of this is done within a limited time frame and it is the group’s decision whether they want to continue or not after the time has ended. The group discussions facilitate collaboration in the team.

Lean Coffees are simple yet effectively encourage learning. The steps of conducting a Lean Coffee meeting are straightforward and you can modify yours according to fit your  team.

  • First, note down your suggestions and encourage your team to do the same.
  • Next, set up a Kanban board. For simplicity, label them: to do, doing and done. Add an action column if it’s useful for your team.
  • After introducing each topic, take a vote on topics for discussion. 
  • List the topics in the to do column by order of popularity.
  • Move the popular topics to the doing column.
  • Set a timer to limit discussion — long enough to elicit ideas, but not too long to let people overthink. Whatever you find effective in your team.
  • Once the time is up, a quick vote shows whether the group wants to discuss the topic further or end it.
  • Once you’ve discussed a topic, move it to the done column.
  • In the end, the team draws out key takeaways and action items that help drive decisions and create good work.

There is nothing rigid about the topics or the meeting time. Participants can meet anywhere and begin talking. The agenda is truly grassroots and gives a productive direction to the entire conversation.

Pros and Cons

Following the kind of lightweight format, Lean Coffee meetings have advantages and disadvantages. We can understand these better when putting them against traditional meetings and seeing how the differences work or not.

In traditional meetings, organizers do most of the work like inviting participants, brainstorming the topic to be discussed, and setting up the agenda. The participants may either have much interest in attending the meeting or none at all. However, they often have to attend even if the interest level is low and the participants hardly get a chance to influence the content or voice their opinions on the choice of topics.

On the other hand, in Lean Coffee meetings, the participants themselves extract the topics. This gives everyone the chance to discuss their proposed topic, thus increasing their interest in the meeting. As the agenda is set up by the participants, they take an active part instead of staying as passive listeners. They exhibit valuable output with their sources of knowledge and wisdom put together.

Setting a strict time for discussion actually helps Lean Coffee meetings. It keeps members focused on the topic and keeps them on their toes ready to find solutions. This results in more intense and effective outcomes in a shorter time compared to traditional meetings.

One major drawback of Lean Coffee meetings, however, is that unpopular or difficult topics may not make the cut. Those who bring up these topics tend not to not bring them up again either, as they may feel that the least popular topics are not important enough to be brought up next time. That is not very healthy for a team or staff meeting where people should be able to discuss the issues which have personal significance.

Bottom Line

Conclusively, Lean Coffee meetings are found to be a lot more effective and enjoyable. This is mainly because the reins are in the hands of those who can best use them and who are actually a part of the whole thing. The conversation is not dominated by any one person, nor is there a rigid agenda that must be followed regardless of whether somebody agrees with it or not.

The participants are the ones with the controls and have a choice to steer it as they wish. The group becomes more invested in the meeting as the agenda is their own. It gives a natural flow to the discussion, with everyone engaged and taking ownership. Every member plays a role in keeping the meeting on point and giving a productive direction to it at the same time.