Lean Coffee at PyCon UK
Lean Coffee at PyCon UK
As part of the PyCon UK sprints I ran a variant lean coffee. It worked really well - we had a bit of an initial slow start, peaked at more people than the group could really handle, and gradually tapered down to a group of four by the end of the day. This was split over three sessions, during which we discussed 23 different cards.
The variant we ran was based on a previous proposal of mine to randomize lean coffee. Several people had reported that they ran lean coffees this was after my post, and thought that it worked much better, but I'd never actually got around to trying it, and I thought this was a good opportunity.
In my entirely unbiased opinion, I can confirm that it works much better. People seemed to really enjoy the format, and many of them reported that they would take it away and try to run it at work. For the third session I was basically wiped out (scribing, moderating, and discussing at the same time was something I could do, but it was very high energy), so I passed on the duties - one person took up moderating, another took up scribing, and there were no problems with doing so, so the system seems to be easy enough to transmit to other people, which is a win.
The point of the system is to provide a structured conversation about a large range of topics in a very short space of time. We select a card (more on that below). This has a discussion prompt (often a question) and the name of the person who proposed it. At this point anyone may veto discussing the card. People shouldn't veto cards just because they're uninterested, the veto system exists for topics that would make you unhappy or uncomfortable to have discussed. This never actually came up in practice. I don't know if that is because people didn't feel empowered to veto or because it was never necessary - I think it is the latter, but I don't feel like people would have necessarily been willing to veto if they needed to.
The proposer gets a (short!) opportunity to elaborate on the theme, then the group votes on whether they want to discuss it. If a strict majority raise their hands, a 5 minute clock is started, and the group discusses it until the time runs out. At that point, the group votes whether they want to continue it. If a strict majority does, a new 5 minute timer is started, and the discussion continues. The subject may not be extended a second time.
Selecting the Cards
At the beginning everyone writes down as many cards as they like and these are put in a central pile. These are shuffled, and cards are selected by drawing from the top of the pile. Anyone can insert a new card at any time they like, at which point the deck is reshuffled.
We adopted a system that I like in principle and think worked reasonably well but maybe ended up a bit too complicated - in order to ensure everyone got a good opportunity to seed the conversation, we deprioritised cards from people who had recently had their topic discussed.
The way this worked was that when a card had been discussed we put it face up on the table. If a card came up from someone whose name was already on the table, we put it aside. Once we had been through the whole deck, we stacked the cards that were face up so that they were no longer visible, shuffled the cards that had been put aside, and started the process again.
- I found it very easy to get cards confused, so I started marking cards that we had completed with a cross or a tick on the back so that we didn't mix them up.
- One person ended up dominating the conversation a bit (he acknowledged this and welcomed the feedback). We adopted a convention that I would just start waving at him when I thought he'd been talking too long. I actually think we should have adopted this as a universal convention right at the beginning, with everyone feeling empowered to do it - there were almost certainly one or two times when someone should have been waving at me. Honestly I want to adopt this convention for all conversations, lean coffee or not, because I definitely have some friends who it would be useful for (in a constructive way! I think all of the people I have in mind would love this convention).
- I tended to interrupt people mid-sentence when the time came up, but I should probably have started waving at them and then cut them off if they didn't wrap up within a sentence or two.
- A nice thing about this format was that it was really easy for people to drop in and out. This created the question of what we should do when a card whose author has left comes up. We initially said we should just discard them, but then decided to vote on them anyway, but we never actually voted in favour of discussion, so I think we were probably right the first time.
- I did note-taking in a Google doc for most of it, passing over to one of the other attendees for the third session until he left, at which point I took over again. It was much easier taking notes when I wasn't also moderating, and I would rather omit the note taking activity altogether than try to combine it with moderation duties in future (Note: Be careful when asking for volunteers to be note-taker. This is one of those things that instantly gets gendered, and a woman will probably end up doing it by default if you ask for volunteers, so it's best to either assign the role or do it by lot or something. That being said our volunteer note-taker in the third round was a man. On the third tentacle, PyCon UK attendees are lovely and are probably less prone to this failure mode).
- We wrote down everyone's email addresses on a card and I'm going to email the notes around to give people an opportunity to sanitize (I already carefully omitted a few things that I didn't think should be public) and then I'll publish the notes publicly.
- We didn't clarify the meaning of the voting system until quite late, but an important distinction is that you should raise your hand if you want to discuss the topic, not just if you're happy to discuss the topic.
Things that didn't quite work
- I wasn't a fan of the show of hands system. I would like simultaneous, and maybe anonymous, voting - there was a lot of social pressure to conform I think, with people looking at other people before deciding what to vote. I would also like it to be easier to count, as it turns out that I am bad at counting majority voting in a group that is constantly changing and includes me.
- I thought people were too nice early on - we had a lot of unanimous votes in favour of discussion. Some of these were legitimately high quality topics, but I feel like the unanimity was implausible for some of them. I'm going to think about mechanisms for offsetting this, but I think simultaneous voting might be enough.
- There is definitely a size limit on how large the group can get before this gets a bit unwieldy. Four people was viable but maybe a bit too small. Once we were past ten it was definitely too large. The sweet spot is probably somewhere in the five to eight range.
- I'd like a way to encourage some of the more quiet members of the group to speak as well as to encourage the louder members not to - there were some people in the group (mostly women) who I was pretty sure had interesting things to say but didn't feel able to (possibly due to being unable to get a word in edgewise). They may also just have been enjoying listening, I don't know - I know some people explicitly came just to listen in. Unfortunately they had to leave midway through, so I wasn't able to ask them. I'll do so when I email them.
- We had a veto system - anyone was allowed to veto a card if they didn't want it discussed. This was introduced halfway through when
A lot of people came away from this going "This was great, I need to run some of these". Including me! Despite the fact that several people have used my variations on lean coffee before, this is actually the first time I have. I'd already been thinking I'd like to run one of these at Imperial, and now I'm even more sure I would like to do that.
We also talked about maybe running some of these earlier in PyCon UK next year. They were a great generator of high insight conversations, and I think provided some really nice social connections with people that it would have been great to form more than six hours before we had to say "Well, see you in a year I guess!".
In general, a lot of the things we talked about involved things that might be nice for the conference next year (not criticisms! Almost all of the form "PyCon UK is great, but here's an idea that might make it even greater). I'm probably going to (finally) get involved in the organisation of PyCon UK next year and once people have decompressed a bit and are ready to receive feedback, I'm going to write a summary of what those were and circulate it.