How to Have the Best Meetings in Your Life

avatar-reverentgeek.jpg David Neal

If I could sum up the amount of time I’ve wasted in meetings over the span of my career, it would be staggering! I’ve been in countless frustrating meetings where rabbits were chased down endless roads with no hope of return, dead horses were beaten beyond recognition, or the loudest person bullied the entire discussion with their personal agenda.

Chances are you’ve had your share of exasperating meetings, too. Years ago I was introduced to a creative solution for the typically terrible meeting, and it has completely transformed my perspective. What if you could have a meeting where…

  • Everyone has a voice?
  • Everyone is more engaged?
  • The most important things are discussed?
  • There are no runaway conversations?

Does this sound like something you and your development team could use? Something every team in your organization could use?

How to Have the Best Meetings in Your Life!

Lean Coffee to the Rescue!

Lean Coffee

Lean Coffee is an effective way to conduct a meeting where an agenda is created democratically at the start. Every person can suggest discussion topics and is empowered to vote on the topics that are most important to them. More people are engaged because the topics are more relevant and valuable. And, discussions are “time-boxed” to help prevent a single topic from devouring the entire meeting.

Lean Coffee can be applied to many different types of meetings. Here are just a few examples.

  • Problem-solving
  • Strategy
  • Planning
  • Retrospectives (looking back, what did we do right, and what went wrong?)
  • Brainstorming
  • Process improvements

What You Need

  • One or more pads of sticky notes
  • Markers
  • A timer (a smartphone countdown timer works great)
  • A simple Kanban board (To-Do, Doing, and Done)
  • A good attitude!

It doesn’t take a lot of materials. For the Kanban board, you can use an erasable whiteboard or an easel to hold a flip chart. It needs to be big enough to hold several sticky notes and be visible to everyone in the meeting.

It’s also useful to have someone act as a facilitator to ensure the Lean Coffee guidelines are observed.

What You Need

Getting Started: Bootstrap Your Meeting Agenda

Bootstrap Your Meeting

  1. Each person generates ideas and writes them on sticky notes.
  2. Take a couple of minutes to quickly discuss what each sticky note represents as a group.
  3. Vote! Each person gets two votes (or you can experiment with three). You can choose to spread your votes across multiple topics or use them all on one.
  4. After voting has finished, sort the sticky notes by most to least number of votes.

Discuss Your Highest-Voted Topics

After voting is complete, you now have your agenda! Discuss as many topics as your scheduled time will allow. Leave a few minutes of the meeting’s scheduled time in the end for final thoughts and capture any action items.

  1. Move the highest-voted topic into the Doing lane.
  2. Start a timer for five minutes.
  3. Start talking! Be respectful and give everyone the opportunity to speak.
  4. If action items are identified, have someone capture them as sticky notes.
  5. When time is up, have a quick vote: thumbs up to continue discussing the topic or thumbs down to move on to the next topic.

If the majority votes to stay on the topic, restart the timer for five minutes (or three minutes) and continue discussing. If the majority votes to move on to the next topic, move the last topic into the Done lane, move the next-highest-voted topic into the Doing lane, and restart the timer for five minutes.

Since topics are “time-boxed” and the entire group makes decisions, there’s less chance of one topic or one dominating person wrecking the entire discussion.

Discuss Your Highest-Voted Topics

After Discussion Time is Over

Capture any outstanding action items and put them on the board. Take a picture of the board to share with the group. If you’ve discussed all the proposed topics, great! If not, these topics can be revisited and voted on again at the next meeting.

Remote Meetings

How to Manage Virtual Meetings

Can you run a Lean Coffee meeting with some or all attendees remote? Absolutely! Here are a few suggestions based on using a physical or virtual Kanban board.

Remote Meeting + Physical Kanban Board

An in-person meeting with one or more remote attendees can still use a physical Kanban board. During the idea stage, someone will need to write down the ideas submitted by the folks who are remote. Use a dedicated camera focused on the Kanban board so the topics are readable to those on the call.

Remote Meeting + Virtual Kanban Board

There are a number of free or inexpensive virtual Kanban products available. The good news is even the most basic Kanban products should be able to support a “To-Do, Doing, and “Done” board and everyone should be able to see changes to the board in near real-time. However, with some products voting might be a challenge. You may need to make creative use of a feature, such as sub-tasks, comments, or task size, to record votes.

Scale Your Meetings to Any Size

How to Scale Your Meetings to Any Size

A single Lean Coffee meeting is ideally suited for a small group. To scale Lean Coffee to a larger group, here are some suggestions.

  • Break the large group into smaller groups of no more than six.
  • Have a facilitator who can coach all the small groups on the general theme or purpose for the current discussion, how to conduct a Lean Coffee meeting, and when to start and stop the small group discussions.
  • A small group could be made of people who are on the same team, or for many reasons you may want to ensure each group is made up of folks from different teams.
  • Each small group should have their own pads of sticky notes, markers, and an easel or a flip-chart size pad of paper on the table.
  • Each small group runs their own Lean Coffee for a set amount of time, such as 40 minutes.
  • At the end of the small group discussion, you may want to ask a representative from each of the groups share a quick summary of their group’s most valuable takeaways and action items.
  • Take photos of the boards and capture action items for later follow up.

Join the Discussion!

I hope you find the Lean Coffee approach as valuable and transformative as I have. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

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