Getting Started with Lean Coffee PDX

At New Relic, many of us participate in unconferences like BarCamp. A natural extension of this movement is ‘Lean Coffee,’ where people create a list of topics and then share ideas around them. I was first introduced to Lean Coffee when a friend invited me to help him start an event here in Portland.

The Format
Lean Coffee meetings begin with no agenda and follow a simple format:

1. We brainstorm and make a list of discussion topics.
2. Vote on the list and choose what we’ll talk about.
3. Set time limits on the discussions (aka ‘timeboxing’) and go through the topics.

We use a Kanban (a visual cue) to keep track of the discussion. Topics get sorted into three categories: what we’ll plan to discuss, what we’re currently discussing and we we’ve already discussed. The time limit for discussions is five minutes, after which we can vote to continue a topic.

The simplicity of the meeting format keeps things moving and us focused. We can vote to continue a discussion for as long as we want, but if people start to lose interest, we can move on something new. And with a small number participants, it doesn’t take many ‘thumbs down’ votes to end a discussion and move on, especially with there are other topics in the queue.

Lean Coffee format

Getting Started with Lean Coffee PDX
I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when we met for the first Lean Coffee PCS. Seven of us sat around a table at a local coffee shop with pens, sticky notes and lots of interesting ideas. We covered a lot of subjects – from communication between sales, support and development teams, to equitable work distribution for teams of specialists, social burnout, processes for measuring continuous integration and estimation tools.

Attendees came from companies both big and small, startups and a variety of industries. This ensured we had a variety of discussions on each topic.

Benefits of the Participating
When I discuss an issue with a group of smart people with different perspectives, they bring up solutions that I might not find on my own. And I’m reminded again and again that software really is a team sport.

For example, one of our discussions was about remote workers and I heard a lot of ideas that hadn’t occurred to me. None of the insights were difficult or profound. (After all, it’s hard to go very deep in a five-minute discussion.) But simply being asked, ‘Have you thought about X?’ can help open up a mental block.

Kanban board

Looking Back
The first meeting was a learning experience for all of us. We quickly learned how fast five-minutes can go by, especially when you’re in the middle of a good discussion. We became much more aware of when a conversation began to wander and better at staying on topic.

After two meetings at the coffee shop, we agreed to move to the New Relic lunchroom and test the format in a larger space. Now we’d like to invite a larger group. If you are in the Portland area, we’d love to have you join us. For more information on future gatherings, visit the Portland Lean Coffee site.

ddelany@newrelic.com'

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