The way that the community has adapted to lockdown and social distancing has been remarkable. Learning opportunities lost through the cancellation of meetups and conferences have been replaced by a wide selection of webinars.

However, there is something that has been sadly lost during this transition – post-talk discussions. I’ve always believed that the speakers interpretation of their own talk isn’t the only correct one. The talk offers inspiration and there are multiple ways that the information can be applied. These friendly discussions provide alternative points of view that can be just as inspiring.

Arranging a lean coffee session to accompany an online talk seemed like a great way to kick-start extra discussions.

Arranging My First Lean Coffee Session

For my first lean coffee session, I chose Simon Prior’s talk for the QA Babble meetup on Modern Test Leadership as the main topic. This talk took place on Wednesday 27th May 2020 at lunchtime, so I scheduled the session for 8am the next day. The aim was to have a friendly discussion over coffee and breakfast (for those in the UK) before we started our work day.

I informed the organizers of QA Babble of the event, explaining why I wanted to arrange it. They were very enthusiastic and even suggested running future lean coffee session should this one go well. We decided to use this session as a trial, so I did most of the organizing and we didn’t market the event too widely. It remained an unofficial QA Babble event, advertised only via my blog and social media.

Lean coffee sessions tend to work better with a small number of people so to I limited the number of spaces to just 12. In addition, I made it so people had to message me directly rather than just access a link or click ‘attending’ on a meeting page. Providing this extra step helped control the number of people in the discussion, and reduced the likelihood of no-shows. In total 10 people attended the lean coffee, and 2 people were unable to make the session (both sent their apologies).

The Discussion

The meeting was took place using zoom, and topics were submitted and organised using MetroRetro.

We started by writing post-it notes and adding them to the topics board. We then had a round of voting, during which everyone could vote on the 3 topics they’d like to discuss.

A selection of the topics that were submitted for discussion
Topics that were discussed during the lean coffee session

We selected 4 topics with the most votes to discuss during the session. Each topic was given a time-box of approximately 5 minutes. I didn’t interrupt the conversation when the time was up, instead allowing the person already speaking to finish their point. The group then decided if we wanted to continue the discussion or move on to the next topic.

In total, we had time to discuss 4 topics.

Topic 1 – Burn Out

One thing that Simon mentioned during his talk, and mentioned again during Lean Coffee, was his role as a Mental Health First Aider. The course taught him to recognize the signs that someone might be suffering mentally. Signs can include a colleague regularly working late or sending emails when they are supposed to be at home or sleeping.

An interesting tip, that was particularly relevant for current social distancing measures, was to encourage the use of web cams. Someone suddenly choosing not to use a webcam during meetings could be a sign that they are withdrawing.

A question was asked about what to do when you notice these warning signs in someone who is not a member of the team. The same general advise would apply even if they were on your team:

  • Reach out, maybe invite them to join you for coffee
  • Ask questions like “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • Don’t be forceful
  • Show enough concern so they know they can come to you for help

Topic 2 – Feedback with good and bad emotion

How much emotion should be used when giving feedback? Should we be using positive or negative emotions? Many would say that we need to be both assertive and neutral, is this true?

Feedback must be fact-based, that is undisputed. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be emotionless. A leader can use emotion to reassure their colleague that support is available.

Feedback can contain a mixture of fact and emotion by using this format:

  • This is what happened, and this is what needs to be done [Fact]
  • But we will support you and help you achieve this [Emotion]

It was noted that even positive feedback needs to be delivered in a professional manner. However, advise on how to give positive feedback is rarely given.

A question was asked about dealing with good employees who behave in a negative way. General response was that being a good worker should never excuse bad behavior. Maintaining a good team dynamic is still important, and if someone’s behavior is having negative impact on the rest of the team, then it must be dealt with. We must tell someone if their behavior becomes unacceptable. In a lot of cases, they might not be aware of this and need to be given the chance to improve.

The following book was recommended during this part of the discussion:

Topic 3 – Leadership when not a manager

This was a topic that I suggested. I was interested in the idea that management involves leadership, but you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. If a colleague suggests an idea that they are passionate about, then they should be given the opportunity to lead it.

Great managers respect and encourage leaders within a team, by allowing all members to suggest or raise issues. Doing so empowers the team and provides them with a voice. Anyone can grow into the leadership role and should be given the opportunity to do so.

A companies structure and culture will affect someones ability to grow into a leadership role. It is easier for an employee to make suggestions when there is a flat structure with few management levels. Segregated teams can also stifle creativity by discouraging suggestions from people outside the group.

Topic 4 – Protecting the team as a leader

A manager needs to protect the team by ensuring that they do not have to work in an environment that is detrimental to their mental well being or their ability to do their job. For example, if the teams workload becomes too high, then the manager needs to intervene.

We had a discussion about the issues that arise when a manager is not allowed to communicate certain information with the team. This can cause such information to be spread using unofficial channels, such as the rumor mill. Finding information out in such a way can lead to confusion and anger.

For the manager, this can be extremely frustrating as it leads to the spread of misinformation. They can’t confirm or deny the information if they are not allowed to do so. In this situation, all a manager can do is be honest with the team when they are not allowed to provide certain information. It can be beneficial for managers to speak to other managers on the same level about this. Other managers will have a mutual understanding of the situation and can offer a sympathetic ear.


I thoroughly enjoyed the informative discussions that took place. Suggested topics were both directly and indirectly related to the original talk, providing enhanced learning opportunities.

I received some lovely messages from other attendees, which has encouraged me to host more lean coffee sessions. The post-talk discussion is something I’ve really missed from meetups and conferences. I look forward to continuing them in the future.

Baptism By Fire – Becoming a Modern Test Leader with Simon Prior


Further Reading

Mental Health England
Information about mental health first aiders and some resources to help with mental health while remote working.

Community is dead, long live the community
A blog post I wrote about the benefits of the testing community and how its transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UKSTAR Lean Coffee Session
Notes from a lean coffee session I attended at the UKSTAR 2019 conference. This was a general discussion and didn’t have a main topic to focus on.

QA Babble Meetup
A link to the meetup page where you can find out about future events hosted by the QA Babble meetup.

Compassionate Leadership by Manley Hopkinson
Link to Amazon to buy this book, recommended during the discussion