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Importance of Coffee

22.01.2010

Strategic Coffee

I truly enjoy taking my Slovene colleagues on business trips to the US and UK. Inevitably, a local business partner will invite us for a coffee and then proceed to lead us as we walk, talk, and drink our coffee. Walking and drinking coffee is a most ordinary activity in the US, but in much of Continental Europe, this borders on being an acrobatic exercise. The resulting business consequences are quite revealing. For many years I worked in a Slovenian office with two cafes in the building. We would refer to the lower cafe as the “Decision Center” as a partial joke when we walked new clients around the building on a tour. American customers would envy this “luxury” and soon we also began to see this as a luxury. As we expanded, our new buildings were made more efficient by replacing the cafes with machine equipped coffee areas. The theory was that employees should not have to waste company time getting coffee. Now, based on my observations on coffee in the corporate culture, I am prepared to make some bold conclusions on “optimal coffee behavior” in the workplace. Email, phone, and other direct communications are great for solving small problems quickly. Off-site retreats are most appropriate for solving massive problems and similarly, conference rooms are great for finding solutions for large business problems. Medium problems, however, are a major part of our daily work life. It turns out that a coffee cafe is perfect for dealing with these problems. The alternative is to try to solve such problems via email or another meeting, with email typically turning into a tennis match and the meeting turning into pointless conversation. Neither is efficient. Bring back the cafe!

The typical coffee meeting starts with an email or phone call when someone makes the quick realization that the problem is too big for an instant answer. Time to invite your colleague for a coffee and, as appropriate, add anyone else who should be involved. You meet in the cafe, take a seat and begin the normal social pleasantries of “catch up” while the waiter takes your order. When the coffee arrives, this is the trigger to switch to the problem at hand and the discussion starts. While drinking the coffee, there is time to read a few paragraphs of a draft document, ask some questions, investigate a few alternatives, and generally discuss without any rush to make a premature conclusion. Once the coffee is finished the waiter (who understands the concept of the coffee meeting) should be taking the cups away. This is the signal that a decision is needed and, in fact, rare is the time that it is not made quickly at that point. Everyone then stands up and returns to other work matters. Based on my observations and research into the decision making process, I find that each of the following elements is critical for the proper coffee meeting: 1) An invitation and it needs to include everyone directly involved as in a formal meeting (but recognize that these medium sized problems typically do not include many players). 2) The cafe must be nearby and have table service. If you are standing to order or using a machine, the act of collecting and paying for the coffee will interfere with relaxing and establishing the non-business chat that supports the transition to dealing with the problem as a joint effort. 3) The coffee must be Italian style sized — about the size of a glass of wine, not the size of a glass of beer. Espressos seldom give enough time, and a Starbucks grade latte or a diner with free refills promotes lingering and solution avoidance. Listening theory requires that you not try to solve a problem until you have demonstrated that you can communicate effectively to the other person that you fully understand the problem. The minimum time for the coffee forces us to relax and fully listen to and discuss the problem since there is no reason to conclude early while we still have coffee in our cups. From my experience, I usually have two to three coffees a day (even outside of work) and I notice that this is nicely matched to the fact that two or three significant business decisions are made in a good average workday. So, here is my corporate efficiency recommendation for every company throughout the world: Remove the self service and automatic coffee machines and convert a conference room into a cafe with a waiter. Also, purge from the corporate business language, the term “Coffee Break” which merely promotes the idea that coffee is a diversion from work. Yes, it might seem that walking with a coffee or having a coffee at the desk is more efficient for the business, but then be prepared to play email tennis or sit through more pointless meetings. The corporate cafe is the most efficient way to conduct the decision process for those daily medium-sized business problems. And now that I have posted this on the internet, it can be declared a fact.

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