Tired of meetings? Try Lean Coffee Hour

CalendarThis was a screenshot of my calendar last week. Fairly typical of most professionals I’d say; meetings peppered throughout my day, some a simple 30 minutes where various inputs were needed, others half day problem solving sessions I was either hosting or involved with.

It also seems fairly common that this doesn’t describe the whole picture of a working week either; each one of these sessions required some kind of preparation in various degrees, some it was enough to dedicate 10 minutes of thought on my commute home to, others required about 10 hours of content preparation (here’s looking at you, 1pm – 3pm on Friday afternoon). It’s not only the physical preparation, but the mental preparation too. I can’t count how many sessions I’ve tried to host only to be met with stern faces, crossed arms and little participation (Exhibit A), or complete disconnection from the topic I wanted to talk about due to losing focus. It’s exhausting.

Exibit A

Exhibit A: My son’s face when I suggested a family meeting about our increasing odd-sock problem.

Or it would of been… had I not dedicated myself running as many of my meetings as Lean Coffee Hours as humanly possible.

What’s a Lean Coffee Hour? 

An agenda-less, structured meeting. Sounds scary, right? I was skeptical too, as I clutched tightly to my well thought through agenda and 30 page slide deck (both of which often failed to engage my attendees) But I’ve become a convert and a massive proponent of this way of working in the past year or so.

Surprisingly, a ‘Lean Coffee Hour’ regularly contains no coffee, and rarely lasts an hour thanks to it’s increased focus.  The thinking and principles behind it are incredibly Lean though: cutting down on preparation time, focusing where the value is added and most importantly engaging and motivating those around the table to discuss topics they feel passionately about. Perfect.

You will need: 

  • Post-It Notes
  • Sharpie
  • Plenty of enthusiasm
  • A digital clock, mobile phone alarm, or a timing mechanism.

How do I set my first one up?

  1. Get your attendees prepared. For many people this way of running a meeting will be new. They may be shocked, in denial, and sit with arms folded, (à la Exhibit A). Communicate early so the change isn’t ‘sprung’ on the attendees. Let them know that the agenda will be decided, discussed, and created by those around the table at the meeting.
  2. Get yourself prepared. Set up is incredibly easy. I start with a meeting Kanban board, with three columns,  I have three columns in mine, “Ready?”, “Doing” and “Done”.  I also have plenty of post-it notes and Sharpies on hand.
  3. A brief introduction to the agenda for the agenda-less meeting. This involves reminding the attendees of the topic of discussion, and an outline of the steps below.
  4. Generate your meeting agenda. Invite attendees to write what they need to discuss, the decisions they need to reach, the items they’d like input into – one per Post-It. I join them in this activity, and ask them to put each of their Post-It’s under the ‘Ready?’ section of my Kanban.
  5. Affinitize! Multiple Post-its on the same topic? No problem! Affinitize the topics into categories, be sure to check you’ve understood a Post-It before you affinitize it under another.
  6. Vote! Each person gets two votes (tick marks, dots, stickers) in which they can select the topics they’d like to talk about. They can use these votes both on one topic, or split them between topics. You now have your agenda, and a prioritized order of what needs discussing.
  7. Talk! Set a timer for 6 minutes. Six seems to be the magic number – 10 seems too long and the topic is exhausted, and 5 often results in an unsuccessful resolution. The person that put up the most-voted for topic says 1 – 2 sentences on the description of the Post-It, and what they’d like out of the discussion (eg, a decision, consensus, information etc). The group then discusses the topic of interest, asking questions, collaborating, offering support until the outcome is achieved for that topic.
  8. Decide! At the end of the 6 minutes, hold a simple ‘Roman Vote’. Thumbs Up – Issue resolved, Thumbs Level – Keep talking (2 minute timer set), Thumbs Down – Issue not resolved, keep talking (4 minute timer set).
  9. Next! Move your topic from ‘Doing’ to ‘Done’ and select your next most voted for topic. Repeat until all highly voted topics are covered.
  10. Closing. Ask each attendee for their biggest take away, and what they’re going to do next. I tend to capture these centrally to keep track of actions; I often have ‘Update on previous actions’ as a topic I want to cover in most meetings, this ensures consistency between long-running projects or common threads within a team.

Working this way has so many advantages, but like any new skill or tool it takes some time and practice. There’s a number of huge positives working in this way; increased focus, the ability to get investment and passion from the attendees and collaboration between teams to resolve problems to name a few.

Perhaps most importantly (and completely selfishly), it’s also cut down my preparation and ‘post-meeting actions’ time by about two-thirds.

I’d love to know your thoughts! What’s been your best meeting experience? What’s been your worst? Have you run a coffee hour? What advice would you give to others? 

“When we invite people to meetings and we give them a strong agenda upfront, we are completely robbing ourselves of all of the wisdom that the meeting attendees would bring with them.”

–Jim Benson, 2014



4 thoughts on “Tired of meetings? Try Lean Coffee Hour

  1. Elisabeth Swan says:

    This is so great – simple materials (post-its and pens) and simple tools – Kanban Board and Affinity diagrams – Even just changing the name from “Meeting” to “Lean Coffee Hour” makes a difference. Thanks for the great instructions Kristy!

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