DRMacIver's Notebook

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 Conversation

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.


Things that didn’t quite work

In Future

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.