Learning as a Collective in Lean Coffees

Collective Learning

My dream as a coach and leader was to create a platform for teams to get introduced to new topics at the same time, learn & reflect on it together. Lean coffees are a good way to do this. When I think of lean coffees — free flowing conversations, inspiring stories and human connections come to mind. It is an energy I wanted teams to experience in my organization.

We started experimenting with various lean coffee styles 1.5 years ago. Learning individually is one thing but learning as a collective is a whole another challenge. Our initial iterations of lean coffees were good but not great since we did not have a reaching impact. We offered a few flavors — a community of practice (COP) and a lean coffee for teams. The attendance was spotty & we were creating pockets of knowledge within the organization. The learning was not sticking.

We had recently uncovered some learning gaps in the organization via team maturity assessments and wanted to use lean coffees to help bridge those gaps. How were we going to create a platform for learning together as a product engineering organization? This is where our most recent flavor of lean coffees was born — “bi-weekly lean coffee learnings”. We think we had landed on an ideal cadence, style, and way of learning together.

But were we going to make time for learning? We had to see it play out.

Finding the Right Cadence

Making time for learning however continued to be a struggle.

  • How do we make learning a priority & a habit?
  • How do leaders and agile coaches in an organization sense & respond and yet continue to challenge the organization (with care) for growth?
  • How do teams make time for it in the midst of the initiatives they are working on?

Recently we conducted a reflections event (a retrospective) for lean coffees, and we received a lot of feedback. While most of the feedback re: lean coffees were positive, some of it made us stop and think.

  • Everyone had enjoyed learning as a collective. We also heard that teams had enjoyed learning from each other’s experiments and stories.
  • Some questioned if we were going too fast. Is a bi-weekly cadence the right cadence for us? Were we giving teams, time to practice the concepts shared in the lean coffees?

Even though I was a huge proponent of building a culture of learning & keeping the momentum, did we need to slow down our pace? What was the system telling us?

The truth is we all learn differently, and our needs vary. Some people learn by others setting context, giving examples & sharing best practices. Others learn by doing. We also cannot force people to learn. As leaders who care about holding generative spaces, we try our best to meet everyone’s needs but we must agree, we will never make everyone happy.

Our Experiments with Lean Coffees

We put together an overall plan for how we want to learn together and shared our intent of collective learning using bi-weekly lean coffees.

The topics we started exploring together were the learning gaps we had recently uncovered in a set of team maturity assessments we conducted as an organization. A few examples were — limiting work in progress (WIP), eliminating waste, writing user centric stories, right sizing etc.

  1. Structure of lean coffees: We created a light structure for our lean coffees with an introduction to a topic (20 mins), breakout sessions (30 mins) and reflect on collective learnings (10 mins).
  2. Reflect with individual teams & as a collective: We reflected in 2 ways — a) with individual teams once a monthly to check-in & see what questions they needed clarified and supported them, b) as a collective in a lean coffee where we took a break from topics and just reflected on what we have learned so far.
  3. Introduce peer learning: As we went along, we introduced some peer storytelling lean coffees to see how the topics introduced were resonating with teams! This was the most exciting since teams loved sharing their learnings.

We got feedback and team members I had spoken to loved learning incrementally but could fit it in.

If there is interest in learning & improving how we work, then how do we make time for it? Is the problem elsewhere? I suspected it was.

Fitting in Learning

Our organization believes in setting teams up for success by conducting product kickoffs in a meaningful way. While teams appreciate the kickoffs and alignment to purpose, every team kicks off work and aligns on a different cadence in the organization. We try hard to size our initiatives in 3–4-month chunks, however the evil of multi-tasking takes over and when teams work on more than 1 initiative at a time, or have cross team dependencies, initiatives take longer to get done and it messes with our overall rhythm as an organization.

As a result, when we carve out a learning path, we cannot keep in mind where a team is at in their Product development lifecycle, and if it is the best time for them to learn. When it’s a good time to learn for 1 team, it is disruptive for another.

  1. Space between initiatives — When a team is in between initiatives it usually is the best time to do a meta reflection and include some learning to improve the next initiative delivery.
  2. Thick of development — When a team is in the thick of initiative delivery, it’s hard for them to stop to reflect at a meta level since they are in a rhythm and racing to the finish.
  3. Team setup/forming — When a team is new, they need to be setup and cannot be bothered about learning advanced techniques to become more effective

So how we solve this as leaders and coaches and yet continue to prioritize learning and learn as a collective?

We realize that there are no easy answers or shortcuts. We must just make learning a priority and build it into our plan. Do we reward our employees for learning? What about learning by giving back and paying it forward?

What we reward tells us a little bit about the culture in our organization. I am going to sit with this one.

What we Learned

Will it ever be the perfect time? Unfortunately, no.

As coaches and leaders in an organization we need to build awareness that learning is important not only for individual growth but also for the collective growth of the organization.

  1. Create a system for learning — If we don’t create a system or structure for learning and build it into our plan, it will never become a habit. If we want to make time for learning, we must make time for it. Our system was the bi-weekly lean coffee learnings along with team/collective reflections periodically to stay in touch with if the learning was sticking.
  2. Sense and respond — We must sense & respond based on the overall need of the organization, identify the learning gaps & create focus, keep in mind styles of learning, make learning interesting, create opportunities to reflect & share stories about how are learning.
  3. Collective learning will eventually grow — This was the most important realization of all! We were working so hard to figure out a rhythm, time it based on what teams are going through and worried about learning equally in all parts of the organization. We could not force teams to learn & they learned as they there was a need to get better or if they were inspired. We had to believe that the “collective learning” will eventually grow, a little at a time!

Our Path forward

We have currently settled on a bi-weekly cadence for our lean coffees. Even though we know the overall learning gaps we want to address as leaders, we continue to listen to what teams want to learn about, incorporate those topics into lean coffees and keep adjusting our learning path.

What is important is we continue to learn together and build the safety to reflect together. Lean coffees are a great way to do that. We have now made it part of our culture & how we learn.

We are coming up on 2 years since we started this learning journey & we will be learning for years to come!

What are you doing to help your organization learn as a collective? What stops your teams from making time to learn? If you have not tried lean coffees, I would suggest experimenting with them to see if they resonate with your organization.

My hope is for everyone to tap into the simplicity and brilliance of lean coffees. It’s addictive & so much fun!



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Lakshmi Ramaseshan

Lakshmi Ramaseshan


I am passionate about growing people, building “psychological safety” within teams and organizations.