Lean Coffee | Taking the First Step Towards Servant Leadership

How To Take The First Step Towards Servant Leadership

We’ve been introducing the Lean Coffee approach to running team meetings for many years. In every case the reaction has been positive with quotes like

“This has been the best team meeting we’ve ever had” 

“I’ve never learned so much before in a team meeting”

“Wow, this managed to get ideas from everyone not just the loud people in our team”

The more that we have coached leaders and managers it has occurred to us that this technique to running a meeting is really the cornerstone and a great example of servant leadership.When considering servant leadership we often refer to this principle of the Agile Manifesto:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”

Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of the term servant-leadership defined this as:
The servant-leaders objective is to enhance and increase teamwork and personal involvement. They create a participative environment, empowering ’employees’ by sharing power and decision-making.
A servant-leader:

  •         Focuses on building a foundation of trust
  •         Stimulates empowerment and transparency
  •         Encourages collaborative engagements
  •         Is an un-blocker and empathic person able to truly listen
  •         Shows ethical and caring behavior, putting others needs first
  •         Is humble, knowledgeable, positive, social and situationally aware

The Lean Coffee format of holding a meeting has many of these attributes at it’s core. Here’s how it works:


Lean Coffee is a structured, but agenda-less meeting. Participants gather, build an agenda, and begin talking. Conversations are directed and productive because the agenda for the meeting was democratically generated. 

The format for a Lean Coffee is very simple. This is intentional. It is meant to be the least structure necessary for a coherent and productive meeting. No more, no less.

  1. Setup a Personal Kanban board. The simplest format for this board is just 3 columns (Ready, Doing and Done). Some teams also add a 4th column named Action to hold details of any outcomes, actions or decisions generated in the meeting. 
  2.  What to Discuss? Meeting attendees all get a pad of post-it notes and a pen. At the start of the meeting they are asked to write topics and ideas that they want to discuss, one per post-it note. These topic notes are then added to the Ready column of the board. Topics can literally be anything the attendees want to discuss or follow a theme. The aim of this approach is to encourage as many unique ideas as possible. 
  3. Vote and Talk. Each participant gets two votes. You can vote twice for the same thing or for two different topics. Simply put a dot on the sticky you are interested in. Then tally the dots. This produces a priority list of topics. Then you are ready to have a conversation on each topic in turn. You can either leave each topic to run it’s course or set a time limit per topic. 

Typical Questions about Lean Coffee

“Should we ‘carry over’ topics that we didn’t discuss in our last meeting into the next one?”

There is no right or wrong answer. If you want the administrative burden of holding notes in storage until the next meeting, go right ahead. Alternatively, allow each meeting to generate their own topics. If a topic is important enough to one attendee they will probably carry it over themselves into the next meeting.

“How do we run a lean coffee meeting for a distributed/remote team?”

You can use an online whiteboard such as https://www.webwhiteboard.com 

You may find it easier to use a tool built specifically for Lean Coffee. Here are a two that we know of and have used:

Retrium – This is a site containing a set of facilitation techniques designed for agile retrospectives. One of the templates they have is Lean Coffee. Seems aimed at companies/enterprises. Free to try, then requires a paid subscription. www.retrium.com

Lean Coffee Table – This is a simple website built just for distributed Lean Coffee. Free to use. Best for meetups/casual use. www.leancoffeetable.com


We’ve facilitated and participated in Lean Coffee format events from Retrospectives, Meetup events and even Conferences (typically these are promoted as Un-Conferences).

In every single case these events have been the most engaging, entertaining and collaborative that we and other attendees have experienced. If you fancy feeling engaged, entertained and energised from participating in a collaborative meeting, we encourage you to give Lean Coffee a try. It’s almost as addictive as the black nectar itself.

About the author: Darryl Sherborne

Darryl is our MD and Agile/DevOps consulting lead. He has over 17 years experience in the agile transformation and continuous improvement field. Specialisms include: Agile coaching, team formation and coaching DevOps implementation