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5 Ways to Play Lean Coffee

Unpacking the mechanics of play

Coffee is coffee, right? Ummmmm… nope. Not quite.

https://friendseat.com/blog/coffee-recipe-infographic/

There’s espresso, cappuccino, latte, flat white, tall white, short black. The list goes on.

In the beginning though, there was just coffee.

Coffee was different from tea and that made it delightful! But once the novelty wore off coffee became just coffee.

Until espresso was developed, which literally translates to ‘fast coffee’, named after the method of brewing coffee in less time. Espresso took the world by storm and everyone was delighted. Again. Until they became used to it that is.

And then cappuccino arrived, which was when things started to really go wild.

People experimented with different versions of basically the same thing, namely coffee and milk. The subtle nuances of the ratios between these two ingredients introduced pretty much an unlimited number of distinctly different types of coffee. Knowing your differences in coffee was the difference between a coffee connoisseur and a wannabe.

Lean coffee is a different type of coffee, but making it fun comes when you start playing with the different nuances of game mechanics to solve different problems.

Because a game without a goal is simply play. And it’s what you want to achieve that tells you which game mechanic to apply.

So if Lean Coffee has become a bit un-fun and boring, here are 5 different ways to play it, each solving a different problem.

1. Vanilla Lean Coffee

You first need to walk before you can run. If you’re new to Lean Coffee, first play it as it was intended by the inventors to get a feel of it and fully understand it.

Here is a good guide for how to play the vanilla version of Lean Coffee by Philip Rogers which also includes a handy link to the origins of the game and some tools to play it online (for those who like to try virtual lean coffee).

The main problem Lean Coffee attempts to solve is people not coming prepared to meetings, resulting in a lot of wasted time. This symptom however hides a deeper root cause of disengaged employees. Ultimately, people don’t want to prepare for meetings because they’re not really interested. They’re not interested because what is being discussed they feel has no relevance to them. Whether it’s true or not is not really relevant, as perception creates reality, so an alternative way to get people more engaged in meetings were the goal when Lean Coffee was invented.

The solution that Lean Coffee offers is to give the people attending the meeting an opportunity to put topics on the table they actually feel is necessary to discuss. It includes everyone in the team by giving each person an equal opportunity to contribute to the agenda and control the flow of the meeting by saying whether or not what is being discussed is valuable or not.

So go ahead. Play.

2. Speed Date Lean Coffee

Now that you can do it slow, let’s increase the speed. Introducing the Speed Date version of Lean Coffee.

Game mechanics use constraints to control different elements within the game. One of these constraints is time limits. Adding a time limit increases the urgency, which increases the energy of a group. Reducing the time limit reduces the urgency and relaxes the participants more, allowing for deeper discussion.

With a vanilla Lean Coffee, a good time-box to start with is 7–8 minutes. Shortening this time limit will increase the speed of each topic. The main consequences as a result are

1) People will need to be more concise and succinct when they speak .

2) The energy of the group increases as a result of the speed.

3) More topics can be covered in a short time.

The downside is that if there is a too tight time limit, it may exclude, rather than include, some people struggling to get airtime.

When to use the Speed Date version?

When one person or people in the group speaks to much or have long-winded discussions, the Speed Date version can be handy. By shortening the time available for discussion, it forces them to speak less. Even if they still end up taking up all the airtime, it will be less than before and a good tool to ‘teach’ them to speak less.

It’s also great when the energy in the room is low, or if there are a lot of topics to discuss. Don’t use it when discussing important topics, as it will give the false sense of security that something was talked about when in actual fact it was merely touched upon and needs discussion. Also don’t use in a ‘busy’ environment where the culture is rushing from one thing to the next. It will merely reinforce an already bad habit.

3. Token Ring Lean Coffee

In the early days of networks, a token ring network was an attempt to control the resources between different computers on a network to ensure fair distribution and use. A logical token was passed to all the hosts in the network and only when a host was in possession of a token, could data be transferred. Once confirmation of successful data transmission was received, the token was released to the next host.

When a group includes shy people or one person taking up all the airtime, consider introducing a speaking token to control the speaking time of each person. Use anything, from a stuffed toy to an empty box to serve as speaking token. A person can only speak when they have the token in their hands. Once they’re finished, they have to pass the token to the next person.

To further reduce one person taking up all the speaking time, calculate the average time each person should speak, by dividing the total allocated time by the number of people in the group. Use hand signals to indicate when someone is taking up more resources than what is considered ‘fair’ use. They can always add to the topic when everyone has had a chance and there is still time left.

4. Silent Lean Coffee

We used to believe that problems were best solved in collaborative brainstorming sessions. It turns out we were wrong. The best ideas when it comes to innovation or problem solving comes from individuals, rather than groups. Working together, in fact, reduces the quality of ideas.

When you are trying to resolve a problem or come up with an innovative solution, try a silent version of Lean Coffee where each topic is introduced by the person, and then a mini-version of Lean Coffee is played for each topic.

Each person spends the 8 minutes (or the time box you decided on) silently writing (or drawing) their thoughts on the topic rather than discussing it, similar to the process of compiling the list of topics at the start of the Lean Coffee.

Use the next 3 minutes to present these ideas, either silently or briefly in words and decide which items to discuss further. Start a shorter 5 minute timebox to elaborate on the ideas and come up with a solution.

Rinse. Repeat.

5. 6 Hats Lean Coffee

Another great tool to problem solve or improve decision making when there is conflicting opinions is by using the 6 Thinking Hats version of Lean Coffee.

Each person in the group is assigned a distinct “thinking” hat, and they can only contribute to the discussion based on their allocated thinking role. For example, a white hat can only state known facts, a yellow hat can only point out benefits etc.

If there are more or less than 6 members playing, personalize the hats according to the problem under discussion. Make sure however that the roles forces the individual to think outside his or her usual comfort zone of thinking to be of true benefit.


So there you have it. Same-same but different.

By slightly modifying the game mechanics depending on your goal, you can create an unlimited number of different versions of Lean Coffee to keep it interesting and useful.

Bonus Game: Random Topics Lean Coffee

What is a good game without an element of surprise? A more fun version of Lean Coffee can be used by writing each topic on a piece of paper rather than a sticky note and putting it into a box.

As opposed to putting all the topics on the table and collaboratively voting to prioritize, no-one knows which topic is going to be picked for discussion, introducing one of the most valuable of game mechanics (and thinking method) — namely introducing a random input.

This version of Lean Coffee is good when the meeting is more exploratory than specifically attempting to solve a specific, focused item. It is also good when you notice people start to be bored following the same predictable pattern.

Whatever version you choose to play, be aware that as soon as the novelty wears off, something that was considered fun stops being fun. To keep it interesting, keep changing it.

Please share how you play Lean Coffee in the comments below.