Remote Working Coffee Retrospectives with the Lean Coffee Table

We’ve all been in great retrospectives where the entire team is engaged. We’ve also all been in ones where getting the team to see value in the ceremony is like pulling teeth. I’ve experienced both cases, as a participant as well as a facilitator. 

As a facilitator, every retrospective is like a coffee—with the right blend of technique and creativity it will be as good as you make it. Doing preparation prior to a retrospective is crucial to its success and ensuring that the team sees value, resulting in a more engaged group. 

The ingredients to the perfect cup

I usually start my preparation with some thought and reflection about how the team is doing.

What am I seeing in the team, are our action items from the last retro being actioned, are we repeating the same old comments from the last retro? More importantly, does the team derive value and are they typically engaged in retrospectives. 

Then, as there are many different ways to run retrospectives I’ll think about how best to tackle the ceremony, given where the team is at. I recently decided to do an experiment after my tech leader mentioned the Lean Coffee Table. I had not heard of the Lean Coffee Table, but was quite familiar with running Lean Coffee. I spent a good five minutes looking at the platform and initially dismissed it as an online platform with a digital timer.

The Soy Flat White – not quite

For those of you not familiar with Lean Coffee, it’s an agendaless meeting where the participants come up with the agenda, like running an unconference. Lean Coffee is not necessarily a retrospective format, but rather a format that can be used for any meeting with a bit of background and structure, particularly if you are looking for input and ideas from others.

At the start of the session each participant writes their own agenda items on a sticky note and sticks them up on a board / wall. Then everyone is given a number of votes to vote on the collective items. The items with the most votes get prioritised to discuss and a timebox is given (e.g. 5 mins). Once the time is up, the team then decides if they’ve discussed the agenda item enough or if they should allocate more time, in which case the timer starts again.

Home Brewed

I welcomed the idea of running a Lean Coffee style retrospective for our next team meeting. Within a few days of these discussions, we shifted to remote working due to COVID-19, so I had another look at the Lean Coffee Table and signed myself up for a 30 days free trial. Our next  retrospective was booked and we were doing it Lean Coffee Table style! 

Running the retrospective required us to use an additional tool for video conferencing as the Lean Coffee Table platform does not provide such tooling. So, in this case we used Google Hangouts. Once all participants were online, I ran them through how it worked and we began our Lean Coffee Table style retrospective. We spent a good five or so minutes coming up with the agenda items, and then allocating our total of three votes. The interface is quite intuitive, as soon as you hit the ‘Start Discussions’ call to action it shuffles the cards and creates 4 columns. There were a lot of wows from the team when I selected the button.

The 4 columns displayed on screen are:

  • Topics (You can keep adding topics)
  • To Discuss (Sort automatically based on highest # of votes)
  • Discussing (Physically need to drag a topic from ‘To Discuss’ to here)
  • Discussed (Physically drag once discussion on the topic has ended)

Taste Testing

Overall, the team were pleasantly surprised with Lean Coffee Table. Perhaps it was somewhat of a novelty, the tallying of the votes, shuffling and not to mention the sound when your time is up. At the end of the session, all you need to do is a click a button to export the action items, so there is no need to type up any notes #WINNING.

The Lean Coffee Table approach felt appropriate given we’re now working remotely. It was an opportunity to spice things up a bit for the team and ensure we’re not neglecting our practices. However, it is no different from any other form of retrospective method. It only removes the structured style of such retrospective where the participants are bound to the guidelines of the style the facilitator has chosen. 

A Lean Coffee retrospective shines because of its ability to: 

  • Empower the team and make the ceremony more about them and their needs, what they need to discuss or get off their chests, but also giving you the opportunity to catch otherwise unheard of issues or concerns the team might have.
  • The timeboxed aspect is a mechanism to ensure you stay on track and on topic. It allows you to check in with the rest of the team to decide if you continue discussing a topic or end the discussion as the nominated time has lapsed.

While it’s recommended to constantly change retrospective formats, this will largely depend on your team and what you observe. I’ve used Lean Coffee Table in post-project retrospectives and found it useful as it really opens up the discussion to much more than focussing on what worked, what didn’t and what could have been improved format. It also depends on how open your team members are. The more open, the more value this format will provide. 

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