The Lean Coffee: A Meeting Format for Democratic Discussions

Photo: Charles Deluvio, Unsplash

It’s been about half a year since I’ve been working from home. Meetings are even more frequent now. Yet, have they become better meetings? More efficient? More useful? More… enjoyable?

It depends on how you define a “better” meeting. For me, “better” is not so much about the tool, as it is about the ways we talk to one another. It’s about how we structure our conversations — if there is structure in the first place.

The problem with a lot of meetings is that people don’t feel like they have a say. Perhaps there are power dynamics at play. Or some are just shy.

So, they sit on their predicaments. And these simmer and simmer, until that pot of predicaments boils over, until we have to call an emergency meeting.

Lately I’ve come across a meeting format that’s solved that problem: the Lean Coffee format, from the Agile community.

Here’s the recipe for a Lean Coffee meeting:

1. Set a timer for x minutes.
2. Have people write down what they want to discuss.
3. Set another timer.
4. Have people choose the top 1–3 things they want to discuss most, using dot voting. Each person has two dots, which they can put next to their preferred topics.
5. Set another timer.
6. Have people discuss the topics with the most votes.

The Lean Coffee is great for when there’s too much on everyone’s mind, and we might not know where to start. For when too much has piled up.

Ironically, things pile up when meetings become business as usual. When the stock agenda becomes a crutch, rather than a springboard for conversation.

The Lean Coffee is also great for a quick brainstorm. People have the freedom to share their ideas on the spot, without overthinking. When people can vote anonymously, they can think more for themselves. Groupthink becomes less inevitable.

There’s something revolutionary about opening up the floor. The floor, of course, being a place that can excite as well as intimidate us. Growing up, teachers invite us to the whiteboard. In Math, we walk up to solve an algebra problem, and in English, we walk up to spell out a word. It’s both terrifying and rewarding. But it’s in that space, where we have our noses inches from the whiteboard, where we level up.

We can replicate this kind of learning moment during virtual meetings. Multiple people can be at the whiteboard. Multiple views can be heard. Multiple debates can occur.

In a Lean Coffee meeting, it’s like we’re at the coffeeshop. We can’t stay there forever. But, at least each person feels like they’ve been invited. If we want people feeling more welcomed and informed after the meeting than when they joined, it is the invitation that counts. That’s what makes it a democratic format.

Observations on living and working 🔅 Senior Motion Designer at Planned Parenthood // bytanchan.com

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