Host a Lean Coffee Online

Today’s post is a how-to for hosting a Lean Coffee session online.

If you don’t know what a Lean Coffee is, head over to The short version is: it’s a loosely structured way to have short conversations about topics that interest the most people in the “room.”

What you’ll need:

  • Some people to have the conversation with (of course!)
  • A web conferencing tool, like zoom or google hangouts, to have an asynchronous conversation with your participants. I prefer something with video, because it streamlines the discussion to be able to see when people thumbs up or down. However, you can also use something with a chat window.

  • A stopwatch or timer.
  • A whiteboard or similar collaboration tool. I have used Trello, Miro, Mural, Fun Retrospectives, Zoom whiteboard, even Jira for this. My favorite options are Fun Retrospectives (because it’s very easy to set up and share) or Mural.
    • Trello requires you to link to a team, which can be an obstacle for ad hoc discussions.
    • Miro requires a paid account if you have more than a few boards, so your discussion might deactivate a board from someone else on your team. Also, Miro’s UI is frustrating because the default is click-to-drag-the-entire-whiteboard instead of, say, click to drag a single item.
    • Mural….
    • Zoom’s whiteboard doesn’t allow the host to move items. You want to be able to move contributions around.
    • Fun Retrospectives is a good tool for this, and has built-in “dot voting.”

1) Set up your board.

Tip: If you are using Trello, install the vote power-up for Trello. You’ll use this for the initial topic generation and voting portion of the Lean Coffee. To install it, go to your Trello board and click the Menu link. Click “Power Ups” and scroll down to Voting. Click Enable to add it to your board.

Note that you can only have one Power-Up per Trello board if you are a free user.

2) Add the following headers to the top of your board: To Discuss, Discussing, Discussed, Takeaways.

3) Schedule your Lean Coffee with friends, colleagues, etc. using the conferencing/chat tool of your choice (slack, Zoom, whereby, etc.) Be sure to invite them to whiteboard if it requires it.

4) When the time comes, go over the Lean Coffee process, and then invite everyone to add a card to the Topics list.

5) Have each person who added a card read it and give no more than 30 seconds of context.

6) Tell your participants to vote on up to three of the topics by placing a dot or other icon next to the topics they want to discuss the most.

7) Sort the Topics list by vote and move the topmost one (with the most votes) from the To Discuss list to the Discussing list.

8) Start a timer for 3 minutes.

9) Call on someone to start the discussion. While calling on the person who made the card is usually a good choice, this carries the risk that they will dominate the entire time (because they are most invested in the card).

Tip: Be aware of good takeaways and add them to the Takeaways column. Anyone in the call can do this!

10) When the timer goes off, hold up your hand or post in the chat while people are still talking to get a vote on whether the discussion is still adding value or not.

11) If you get more thumbs up votes than neutral or negatives, set the timer for another 90 seconds. Repeat from step 10 until there are more negative or neutral votes.

12) When there are more negative or neutral votes than positives, the majority of people in the call are not getting much value from the topic. Call an end to the topic (you may even have to interrupt the person currently speaking) and move the card from Discussing to Discussed.

Repeat from step 7 until you are at the end of the time set aside for your Lean Coffee.