Years ago, I was in charge of a quality assurance committee for the Software Engineering group for a modest IT organization -- we had perhaps 130 people in the group. (Strictly speaking, I suppose we were a "Software Engineering Process Group
", and if you looked around hard enough, you could find people who actually used that phrase.)
I remember in one meeting, a friend of mine, Paul, objected to what we were doing. He said that without an agenda, given out in advance, he would not show up.
At the time I was a little hurt. I mean, c'mon man, I have an idea of where we are driving to, but an Agenda isn't my style.
Ten years later, I understand where Paul was coming from. Without some sort of Agenda, it becomes very hard for the group to actually get anything done. Everyone has a different perspective, and there is a tendency to talk around issues, instead of driving to decisions.
But what if talking around issues is fine?
What if it is exactly what you want to do?
Friends often meet at a pub, or a dinner table, to get together. I'm sure you are familiar with this - it is a part of friendship. Sometimes we solve problems; sometimes we share horror stories over a beer. When people do this more than once, it means they have decided the event is worth their time -- arguably the single most precious resource we have on this earth.
If you wanted to do that with tech people, what might that look like?
Well, you could just get your friends together and have a beer at the pub on Friday night, and that's fine -- but if these folks aren't your friends ... what then? Everybody has a different expectation, everyone wants to talk about different things.
The Lean Coffee Format
defines itself this way:
"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."
Ok. Now What the heck does that mean?
This week in Berlin, and two weeks ago in Sweden, I was at a conference, and Lisa Crispin ran a lean-coffee style meeting in the morning. This is what it looked like.
Each morning, before the conference, people that actually wanted to attend - who were more motivated to meet than to sleep - came to a coffee shop to talk.
The meeting starts with the facilitator handing out markers and sticky notes; people write whatever they would like to talk about on the sticky-notes.
Lisa Crispin, top-right. Continuing clockwise, we have Dani Almog, and Bart Knaack.
Once we've written down all the topics, we do a dotting exercise, where every person dots say, three cards, the ones that person is most interested in.
After that, we create three stacks - TODO, Work In Progress (WIP), and Done. Then we sort the cards by the number of dots, moving the highest-voted dot to the top of the "work in process (WIP") stack, and the rest to TODO.
The facilitator uses a timepiece to give a specific amount of time to each card -- we finally settled on eight minutes. After eight minutes, the group could vote - up, down, or neutral - to continue the discussion or talk about the next thing.
What does this do?
It means what we talk about is Emergent, based on what people want to talk about right now, and decided in a democratic way, and based on real-time feedback.
In today's lean coffee, the highest voted card was "Rest, Exercise, and Healthy Eating for Serious Nerds." We also voted on cards on "Crucial Conversations", "Struggling between independent test teams and embedded whole teams", and "True Collaboration" - (each of those could be a blog post if you are interested.)
are based on something like this, where the sessions have perhaps an hour for each card.
But, for now, if you are looking to improve something in your teams but don't know what - or to meet with software folks in your area but aren't quite sure about what -- why not let the whole team decide?
You might be surprised what they come up with.