Welcome To Agile Espresso For Highly Collaborative Meetings

Have you ever sat in a meeting and thought “OMG… when will this end?… I’ve gotta get out and get xyz done.”  You didn’t feel engaged, you didn’t feel valued.

A silly question I know, of course you have!

Sadly meetings like this are common place.  It’s how most meetings around the world are run… and they kill productivity and collaboration.

I’ll let you in on a secret… If I have to sit through another rambling meeting… one that I cant add any value too, I’ll lose the will to live.

Recently I was having a coffee with a friend and this topic came up.  He started telling me about the Lean Coffee framework and how it had transformed his company.   Ummm… no… it’s not a skinny coffee as the name might lead you to believe.  It’s actually a framework for running lean meetings.

Driven by the fear of another life-sucking-meeting and armed with my recently acquired knowledge, I decided right there and then that I had to transform the way I ran meetings, not all meetings but some.

Imagine how much time is wasted every day by people attending meetings who don’t have any value to add, who just sit there because they were invited, or worse still, who sit there hoping they will be able to raise their topic.  Scary… and definitely not the greatest way to deliver the best value to your company.

So I set out to transform how I ran meetings, and hopefully to inspire others to follow suit.

The outcome from these meetings is not necessarily detailed answers to all questions.  The aim is to foster collaboration, involvement and innovation, to get discussions started, to make them public (out of the domain of the team), and to identify the right parties to find an answer.  Most answers will be detailed in secondary meetings.


In the spirit of agile I came up with some guidelines and implemented them in a few meetings.  After these meetings we held a meeting retrospective, and passed that feedback into my guidelines to further improve the framework.

Below are my notes on my version of the lean coffee for meetings.

An Agile Espresso meeting is a highly democratic way to set an agenda, collaborate,  and self manage, but be warned, there is still a place for structured and ‘pre-agendered’ meetings.

The 7 Guiding Principles

Before I started I quickly sketched a list of guiding principles for this framework and came up with these…

  1. Ensure meeting is self managed and collaborative
  2. Create an environment that promotes involvement and ownership
  3. Ensure meeting follows agile manifesto
  4. Ensure meeting focuses on highest business value topics
  5. Ensure attendees are adding value
  6. Avoid rambling meetings
  7. Manage meeting high-jackers

My first cut at a solution

With the lean coffee framework and the agile manifesto in mind I set out to come up with meeting guidelines that meet the above guiding principles.

I started with the obvious agile approach… Think It, Build It, Ship It, Improve It… so I did just that and used the sprint retrospective philosophy to identify and implement improvements.

A lean coffee starts as a fluid, agenda-less meeting.  What?!  Stay with me here… the agenda will become clear.

Agile is about creating self managing teams, so I feel that the mix of the two will be a great place to start.


This is an agile style meeting, so of course it has a board, it’s familiar and agile teams are used to them.

Grab 5 post-it notes and write the following on them…

  1. Proposed
  2. Discuss
  3. Discussing
  4. Discussed
  5. Discuss Later

Stick these on a wall and create a board with 5 lanes.

Agile Espresso Meeting Framework Board Lanes

Agree on meeting length.  I’m a big fan of 40 minutes, long enough to setup, build agenda and kick off some discussions.  Be flexible on the time tho.  If attendees can stay, and if a great discussion is flourishing ask for the thumbs vote and see who wants to continue.  Remember innovation needs to be fostered.

Building The Agenda (5 Minutes)

This is the ‘Proposed’ lane.

With self managed teams in mind, agenda topics are proposed by the attendees.

Every person at the table is given a pack of post-it notes and a pen.

Each participant writes topics that they want to discuss, along with a two line description… one topic per post-it.

Stick these post-its on the board in the ‘Proposed’ lane.

These are the topics that individuals want to discuss in this meeting, or the proposed agenda.

Allocate no more than 5 minutes to this process.

Selecting The Agenda (5 Minutes)

This is the ‘Discuss’ lane.

Still, with self managed teams in mind the agenda topics are selected by the attendees.

If you are running 40 minute meetings you have already used up 5 minutes setting up & building the agenda, you will use 5 minutes to select the agenda (this process) so you will have 6 x 5 minute slots to discuss topics.  This process is to select the top 5 (this gives you 5 mins slack time)… can be less than 5, most important topics to discuss.

Everyone at the meeting has two thumbs up votes, and only two thumbs up votes.

Attendees can use their votes on two topics or twice on one topic.

To vote, attendees give a thumbs up or thumbs down on topics.  Keep a tally of thumbs up by writing it in the bottom right corner of the post-it.

You now know the topics that need to be discussed.  People who cant add value, or are not needed at the meeting are now free to leave and deliver value elsewhere.

Move the selected post-it notes into the ‘Discuss’ lane and order from most popular at top to least popular at bottom.

Allocate no more than 5 minutes to this process.

Discussions & Check Time

This is the ‘discussing’ lane.

As soon as a topic starts to be discussed, move it’s post-it into the ‘Discussing’ lane.

Agile Espresso Meeting Framework Board

Now we have a democratically selected agenda, the discussions can start, but need to be managed by the attendees.

I’m a big fan of TED talks (if you haven’t watched a TED talk treat yourself and go here www.TED.com).  The short time span allocated drives the focus towards value and ‘getting to the point’, it makes people think before they talk, so I decided to but a limit on discussion times… but this didn’t feel too democratic or self managed so I added a twist to let attendees decide.

The topic creator kicks off the discussion for a set ‘check time’.  In this meeting the ‘check time’ was set to 5 minutes.  This means that every 5 minutes the participants vote on whether or not to continue discussing that topic… once again thumbs up or thumbs down.

I set this check time period, however it could easily be set by the attendees back in the setup phase.  I chose 5 minutes because the topics did not require in-depth debates.

A note from our last retro suggests letting the team set the check time.  Just be aware of the meeting setup overhead and keep it in check with the end goal of a focused, paced meeting with outcomes.

Topic creators take their own notes during the discussion.

Majority rules.  Thumbs up win… another 5 minutes is allocated.

Thumbs down win… move post-it into the ‘Discussed’ or ‘Discuss Later’ lane and move on to next topic.

‘Discuss Later’ is used to park topics that require more time than the meeting has allocated, or to park topics that the majority of the attendees do not see valuable enough for them to all be involved in.

When post-its are placed in the ‘Discuss Later’ lane, the names of the next meeting attendees must be added to the post-it.

This keeps discussions relevant to the majority of attendees and stops rambling meetings.

This continues until all the ‘Discuss’ post-its have been moved into the ‘Discussed’ or ‘Discuss Later’ lanes.

Close Out

This is an important step and should not be forgotten, this is what helps build the teams knowledge base.  It is how the team can share their findings with people who did not attend the meeting.

Once all topics in ‘ Discuss’ have been moved to the ‘Discussed’ or ‘Discuss Later’ (or time has run out) the discussion is closed.

This is optional: The meeting organiser can now kick off the meeting retro.  This should take no longer than 3 minutes to complete.  Collect suggestions on how to improve the lean meeting.  If this is not done during the meeting, ensure it is covered during the sprint Retro or other process reviews.

The meeting organiser takes a photo of the board, notes who attended, the date, time and location, then packs up the impromptu board and throws out the post-its.

The meeting organiser and topic creators upload their notes and photo of the board to the team collaboration tool, and these notes serve as the meeting minutes and add to the knowledge base.

If you are the scrum master or in a similar role it’s your responsibility to ensure any topics that have not made it into the ‘Discussed’ lane are addressed with the relevant people.  If you don’t have a similar role the meeting organiser must take this responsibility and work with the topic creator.  This may involve convening another meeting with the relevant people.

And that’s it.  I’m having a graphic artist knock up an infographic that I’ll attach here for download so you can carry these Agile Espresso meeting guides around with you to make it easy to try this out.

I’ve only been using this meeting style for a couple of months now but have noticed a huge increase in productivity from meetings.  Collaboration has surged, people are actually enjoying the meetings!  The other day someone asked how I run such great meetings… well I suppose that triggered this blog post!

Think It, Build It, Ship It, Improve It


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