Retrospective of a virtual lean coffee.
Retrospective of a virtual lean coffee.

Virtual Lean Coffee

Remote Collaboration, Performance Appraisals and Shorter Meetings

Meetings can be boring, yet, they are a very necessary evil. It’s essential for collaboration, team alignment and communication. But what if you don’t have all the people in one room? What if one person takes up all the talk time? How do you engage people remotely?

These were some of the questions we attempted to answer in a recent virtual Meetup arranged by the team behind The Idea Hackathon and this is the meeting minutes (image below).

Image courtesy Samantha Laing and Karen Greaves from Growing Agile.

Performance Appraisals — Should it stay or should it go?

The first topic for discussion was on a subject I’m very passionate about, namely performance appraisals.

The question was posed whether there might be a better way to handle performance appraisals other than the traditional formal sit-down every 6–12 month interval to determine your raise, bonus or both.

We started by looking at the purpose of appraisals, which is to give feedback to employees in order to get better performance from the teams. Collectively, we came up with the following insights:

  1. Performance appraisals should be done on a continuous, informal basis as relaxed conversations, not formal sit-down to discuss measures and metrics.
  2. Monetary reward should not be linked to performance appraisals.
  3. Feedback should be multi-dimensional, coming from different people you interact with, it shouldn’t be a one-sided conversation. It should at least include your peers, ideally, everyone you have interacted with during the project or task.
  4. Focus on strengths, not improvement areas and how you were not meeting expectations.
  5. Don’t rate talented recruits as average, even when they are average among their peers. They’re not. They’re exceptional. Just because they’re part of team awesome, doesn’t make them less awesome. Rather focus on their specific superpower, making them feel like an individual rather than the average sum of brainpower in the organization.
  6. Introduce drastic or paradigm changes as an evolutionary process rather than a big-bang project, starting with the leadership team and cascading downward. In retrospect, the waterfall approach wasn’t all bad.

Team building remotely

The next topic was around building and strengthening teams remotely. We aimed to answer questions such as how do you leverage technology to improve the remote experience? How do you engage people virtually?

The insights we came up with were:

  1. Find a way to not be remote, or try to be less remote. What ways can you find to limit remote sessions, at least team remote sessions?
  2. Define a team agreement with basic rules, including hand signs that can be used in sessions. Have a sign for typical irritations or problems within the team, like one person talking too much, or someone not speaking up enough to be heard.
  3. An alternative to hand-signs can be to use pre-printed cards. Collaboration Supercards allows for suggestions without interrupting, like “you’re on mute” or “enough, let’s move on”. Another implementation would be to create cards with adjectives only, describing how you feel about discussions, people, things etc. Personally, I use pen and paper and hold it up against the camera.
  4. One of my personal favorites, make use of collaborative exercises like gamestorming techniques for more engaging meetings rather than merely discussing topics verbally. Lean coffee is a prime example of how to do this.
  5. Have good technology. Technology should be an enabler, enhancing the experience, so it is important that people use the right technology for the right purpose.

Balancing talk time in meetings

The last topic aimed to answer the following questions “How to deal with people who take up all the bandwidth in a meeting?” and “ How to keep meetings short and interesting?”.

Here are the insights we came up with:

  1. Everything starts with awareness. Make everyone in the meeting aware of the amount of time they spoke during the meeting by showing them a breakdown of the talk-time by each person.
  2. Intentionally keep quiet or give the least possible amount of necessary information to serve as role model for others to (hopefully) follow.
  3. Take the time to get to know each other’s communication styles and try to accommodate it.
  4. Make use of the technique called “Bottom lining”, which is basically starting the conversation with the end result or state, and then only filling in any blanks that brought you to the point.

This brought up the question of how to convince teams to spend time on perceived ‘unproductive’ work like communication styles and lead to the graph showing the return on investment when investing 1 hour per day with the aim to improve 1% productivity.

Break-even point is after only 1 month after which the improvements exponentially grow, resulting in far more than the intended 1% improvement. This should be enough motivation to convince most managers to invest in less productive work for the team.

Full circle

The final topic took us full-circle back to where we started, ending with discussing how generic job descriptions and performance appraisals cause disengaged employees.

We briefly took a trip down memory lane remembering why job descriptions was invented, coming to the realization that during the industrial revolution the measure of quality was how precisely you could reproduce the same article. In the age of knowledge workers, however, quality is measured by the uniqueness and innovation of each product or service offering. Generic job descriptions thus doesn’t make sense and doesn’t support creativity or individuality.


Learning, however, is in the pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. The retrospective is when things fall into the right compartments inside your brain that allows you to act differently going forward.

Taking the time to contemplate my learning from the collaboration as a retrospective writing this post shed another powerful and obvious insight we all missed during the call.

The method of lean coffee itself is a powerful tool to shorten meetings. I would probably not have realized this without the collaboration and the physical act of participating in the virtual lean coffee myself.

Words don’t teach. The learning is in the doing.

So my question to you is what are you doing differently? What are you learning right now? What insights or ideas do you have to add?

Originally published on Medium: