The Social Lean Coffee

When something goes surprisingly well, you’re basically obliged to blog about it, right?

What’s Lean Coffee?

Lean Coffee is a way to have meetings/gatherings whose agendas are democratically created! I really really really love Lean Coffee, since it gives everyone at the table an opportunity to raise subjects they want to talk about, not just the people who always talk.

Basically, you all suggest topics you want to chat about and then vote on them to create an ordered backlog of topics. Then you start with the subject that has the most votes, talk about it for a specific and strict amount of time, then vote on whether or not you’d like to continue talking about it as a group. That stops individuals from going on and on and on, with everyone feeling too awkward to stop them or use their own voices. You move through the topics until you run out of time!

There’s a fuller explanation on this Agile Coffee website, if you fancy it.

9 people sat around a round table that's covered in paper notes, and at the far side of the table, I am speaking while looking quite serious.

I’ve loved doing Lean Coffee since the very first session I was part of, at TestBash Brighton 2019. Even now, when I get bad Imposter Syndrome days I look at the above photograph and remember going into that room thinking that I’d have nothing to add or say to all these ‘real testers’. I was just there to listen to their tales and opinions which were far cooler and more important than mine. When it came down to it however, I actually did have stuff to add to the discussion, and it was a really awesome morning. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to relay my experiences around such knowledgeable folk if not for the format.

Why do a social Lean Coffee?

So we recently began doing a biweekly remote social call over lunch, alternating with our biweekly remote social call over beers, and we had two problems:

  1. There were a lot of lengthy silences where no one knew what to say
  2. Between the silences, we heard the same loud voices as always (such as mine xD)

While the scrum master and I were chatting about how we could improve the social calls without making them prescriptive or embarrassing, I remembered the Lean Coffee session from TestBash, ones I ran at my old workplace as well as this virtual one organised by Simon Prior. Lean Coffee is usually used to bring up points about a particular broad subject, for example Simon’s was Modern Test Leadership, and the one at TestBash was about testing in general – but they don’t have to be work-related, do they? So we agreed to try out a lean coffee session where any topics are acceptable – so long as they are not related to work, careers or software development.

I’m sure we’re not the first people to use a Lean Coffee session this way, but I felt Very Smart.

The Prep

One more time, just in case you’re a new reader, I super duper love the virtual whiteboard tool Miro. I’ve also used MetroRetro, and I’m sure there are more, but Miro is my favourite virtual meeting friend, and nothing will ever change that until I find something shinier.

(this blog post not sponsored by Miro) (in fact, I make no monies from this blog because I worked in adtech for two years and now I hate ads and I never want to see one on my site, you’re welcome)

I set up the board ahead of time and added a few examples in case no one wanted to be the first to put something up. For a bit of fun, I made pngs of the monopoly tokens with transparent backgrounds to be used for ‘dot’ voting, and popped a photo of the band Steps behind the Steps section. Only one person recognised the band during the session, and it was not who I expected. It was truly an excellent moment.

I was very excited. Like, bouncing around the room excited. (I have a strange and powerful love for facilitating meetings.)

The Session

I’m not going to tell you the specifics of what we talked about since those chats are between the participants – what happens in lean coffee stays in lean coffee. In general terms though, it went well.

I had to explain the concept a couple of times while people were trickling in for the first ten minutes or so, but once we got going it was easy for new people to join in the conversations. I screenshare’d the speaking timer so that everyone could see it, and it wouldn’t be difficult or awkward for me to try to get someone to stop speaking, because it was shared information. Some of the topics were a bit silly or obviously jokes, and those ones got voted on the most because we’re all silly badgers. They also ended up being the most enjoyable to discuss, because who knew where they’d go!

The best part is that we held an impromptu ‘who has the best doggo’ competition, so here are some doggos:

Doggo number one is a little floofer with round paws and tiny beans. Doggo number two is a big floofer who licked her owner a lot and was very demanding for pats and fusses. Doggo number 3 is a smooth pupper with dangly legs, who also did some face licking during the call. It was pretty tough to judge, but we got distracted before a winner could be declared anyway.

Oh, and there was this very pretty white cat who was just as demanding for fusses as doggo number 2:

In the end, our board had a lot of topics on, and we had time to discuss five of them.

  • A colleague’s face hurt
  • Best dogs
  • Our favourite shapes
  • Best toast topper
  • Meeting face-to-face

We also had a bunch of topics there was no time to discuss

  • The next generation of PC graphics cards
  • A request for DIY people to work in return for pizza
  • The nutritional content of ice cubes
  • What people are eating
  • The weather
  • Scones
  • Badmouthing whoever isn’t here right now
  • A few things which were specific to particular colleagues, that I have censored out


It was great fun both facilitating and taking part in the social lean coffee. Having a virtual board with an activity on it as a common point of interaction stopped people from going afk during the call, and encouraged the lurking humans to come out and take part in the discussion. The lean coffee definitely succeeded in getting everyone chatting and learning about each other in a way the social calls haven’t done in the past.

Surprisingly, the ‘favourite shape’ topic was the most popular, probably because it’s inclusive. Not everyone had a dog to show off, but most people can think of a shape they like, even if they don’t have a particular favourite. While we were voting on whether to keep talking about it, one person was practically bouncing out of their seat with the thumbs up because they hadn’t told us their shape yet, so I overruled the democratic voting system and tyrannically decided that we’d use the extra 3 minutes to get the last three people to talk about their favourite shapes. I couldn’t think of a suitably cool answer, so I went last and then umm’d and ah’d until the very last seconds on the timer, before saying “My favourite shape is-“

Beep Beep Beep.

It’s a cliffhanger for next time, gotta give them a reason to keep coming back for more y’know? And I get an entire fortnight to think of a shape I like… (at the time of editing, my fortnight is up and I still have no cool answer, oh no)

One thing to note is that the facilitator really needs to keep an eye on who’s talking or not, and for how long. Sometimes the quieter people want to talk but they need an ‘in’, especially when more typically vocal people are in the middle of a long rant or story. It’s interesting though, because once you prompt someone to talk once – “hey X, you looked like you were gunna say something earlier”, or “what about you, Y, do you have a favourite?” – they clearly feel more comfortable talking of their own volition later. I hope this carries on to other more formal meetings, so that the quieter folk feel safer talking in ceremonies in general because of good experiences in the social calls. That’d be a really cool outcome.

Overall, I’d say it was a great success. It was engaging enough that the lurkers began to turn on their cameras and check out the virtual board, and very quickly everyone on the call was actively participating. We still had the same voices as usual talking a lot, but the lean coffee format stopped them from being able to run off on tales that take 20 minutes to tell. Everyone was being aware of the time and leaving enough for others to speak up. It was pretty good.

Oh, but we did have one argument that was never resolved. Cheese and pickle toast: does the pickle go under or on top of the cheese? I decided to resolve this by asking twitter:

Just under 60% of voters said that the pickle should be placed on the cheese toast after it had been grilled, but those who voted in other ways were still vehement that they were right. All I can say is thank goodness for science, and for Louise Gibbs:

Louise was part of the pickle-after-grilling crew, but after conducting experiments she discovered that the best method is actually to mix the pickle and grated cheese together before grilling.

I like neither melted cheese nor pickle, so I’ll take her word for it.

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