This week we hosted the Agile SwapShop meet up at Clearleft, and had around 20 people come along to the session. With such a large group of people, and the emphasis being on discussion and conversation rather than presentations, it was important to find a method to allow everyone to get involved and provide a useful structure for the conversation. We decided to try out the Lean Coffee method.

Have you ever been in a meeting with lots of people where it's felt like the conversation was all over the place? You've probably also been in lots of discussions where you've felt that no one is really addressing the most important topic or getting much from the debate. And there's the classic scenario where someone hijacks the conversation and talks about what's on their own agenda to the frustration of everyone else.

Lean Coffee (created in Seattle by Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith) is a very useful discussion method intended to allow groups to democratically agree what the most important topic is to talk about, and prioritise the discussion accordingly. It also makes time-boxing a core part of the method which prevents rambling conversations and groups getting way off track.

Here's a tiny lesson on how it works.

What do you need?

1. One person to lead and facilitate the whole session.

2. Depending on the size of the group (if you have around 6-7 people then you can just stay as one group), you may need a facilitator per group who understands how Lean Coffee runs and can help facilitate the in-group conversation.

3. A decent sized room which can allow for groups to sit together, and walls or white boards where it's ok to stick up post-it notes. If your room doesn't easily allow group discussions, then consider if you've got 'break-out' areas you can also book and use.

4. Sharpies, post-it notes.

How long is the session?

As a rough guide, 1hr 30 mins. It does depend on how ‘meaty’ your subject is as you may find you can complete it much faster. At the Agile SwapShop we discussed ‘Design doesn’t work in the Agile process’ which is a very broad topic. Afterwards, a few people commented that they felt the time went too quickly. If you're tackling a big topic,, I would suggest doing follow-up sessions (you could use the Lean Coffee format again, or the Open Spaces format). but focusing on a specific area of that topic.

Any longer than 1hr 30 mins, you may start to lose focus and there’s a danger of the conversation drifting/people switching off.


Before your session, find out how many people are coming along and decide whether you’re going to split everyone into smaller groups. Anything above 6-7 attendees may suggest you need small group work in the session. In that case, make sure you have some friendly helpers to come along and help facilitate each group (they can be participants in the session).

If you have lots of people attending need to have smaller group discussions within the session, consider what would be a useful make-up of each group. For example, you might want to ensure each group is cross-functional to guarantee a breadth of opinion and views.

How the session works

1. If the people in your session may not know each other, start with quick intros either round the room or in each group. Allow 5-10 minutes.

2. Introduce the topic (if you have one) and explain you’re going to be using the Lean Coffee method for the session.

3. As a first task, ask everyone to individually write down their discussion points (one per post-it note). Allow 5 minutes.

4. In each group, everyone then gets to pitch their discussion topics to their group, giving a very brief outline of what the topic is and why they want to discuss it (but without actually starting the discussion). Allow 10-15 minutes.

5. Ask each group to prioritise the discussion topics they have in their group - you can use either a table or wall for this, and dot-voting works well. What you should end up with is a backlog of discussion topics, with the one that has most interest for everyone at the top. Allow 10 minutes.

6. Take the top topic at the top of the list, and decide the length of your first discussion time-box (I’d suggest 5-10 mins). Start the discussion, and ask someone in the group to capture any key points or ‘take-aways’.

7. At the end of the 1st time-box, the group decides whether they want to continue discussing the topic, or whether that conversation is done, and they want to move onto the next topic. If the session is around 1hr 30mins, then allow 30 mins for the time-boxed discussions.

8. At the end of the session, allow time for reflecting on the discussions and what people’s key take-aways are. Allow 10-15 mins.

9. If you’re running smaller groups within the session, allow time for the whole group to share what they’ve found at the end of the session. Allow 10-15 mins.

What we learnt at the Agile SwapShop:

1. It’s a really good technique for collaboration on topics, but if you’re using it for problem-solving then it’s a good idea to schedule an Open Space session shortly after which is more appropriate for solution-focused discussions.

2. If the intention of the session is to draw out problems, try asking participants to frame questions as:

'When I/someone does <activity>... then <impact/problem> happens'.

3. Groups might ‘merge’ lots of smaller topics under a larger theme which can become too broad to tackle. Try to find specific take-aways/ideas around the more granular topics, but still list them under the theme.

3. If you’re tackling a really broad topic e.g. as we did, ‘Design doesn’t work in the Agile process’, think about booking follow up sessions to look at specific issues/areas under that topic area.

Further resources

Some other helpful resources: