Coffee and Collaboration – More in common that you’d think

By self-declared coffee snobs Cai Kjaer and Alister Webb 

Cai making coffee #1 with little success

Cai: I got a really nice espresso machine for my last birthday. I love coffee. The machine came with a 50page instruction manual, so combined with my enthusiasm I thought; “What can possibly go wrong?”. As I eagerly read the whole manual (you can forget the stuff about real men not reading manuals!) from front to back, I realised I was learning how the machine worked, but not how to make coffee. 

Much like when we get new collaboration tools in the digital workplace – we get lots of instructions on how to use all the features but not so much about how we might collaborate better.   

Fortunately, my friends had also chipped in to give me a half-day barista course as part of my birthday present. The course was fantastic. It took me through the process of how to make the perfect cup of coffee.  

As it turns out, it is a lot harder to make a latté than you’d think. So many variables. How you grind the coffee beans. How tight you pack the coffee. The water pressure. Getting the milk froth right is a nightmare in itself! I had the tools, I’d been guided through the process. Yet I was still a long, long way from the perfect coffee.  Truth be told: I was awful.

I watched one YouTube video after another, finding every excuse to make more coffees so I could put the tips into practice. Whenever I went to a café, I’d watch the barista closely and see what I could learn.   

Slowly I made progress, and today, after hundreds and hundreds of coffees, I’ve reached a stage where I only occasionally stuff up. The results vary between ‘okay’ and ‘pretty good’. Sometimes I even pull out an absolutely winner. While my latté art still leaves substantial room for improvement, I can live with this level of success…at least for now.   

Alister making coffee #4145 with great success

Alister: Like Cai, I’m an unashamed coffee snob! I’ve had my espresso machine for many years and produced thousands of coffees (literally, the machine keeps numbers). Making a coffee on an espresso machine, with all the physical activity that it involves, is my greet-the-day therapy.

I’ve been down that very same road as Cai, starting with a manual that tells you how great the machine is but doesn’t tell you how to make a coffee. A prolonged period of trial and error. YouTube videos, striking up conversations with baristasalways looking for the key to the perfect coffee. With so many variables in play, producing a coffee that meets our high coffee-snob standard takes a lot of repetitive, highly focused work! 

As Cai told me his story, we both came to the same conclusion. Coffee and collaboration have more in common than starting with ‘c’. 

Cai: What we realised was that that successful collaboration relies on the same four elements that have improved my coffee-making skills: 

  • Investing in the right tools 
  • Investing in learning how to do it 
  • Measure constantly 
  • Practice relentlessly and constantly improve through doing 

I think most would agree that the first one isn’t really the problem. We have the tools. It’s the other points we now need to start looking at more intensely to really make coffee, sorry, collaboration, work better. 

Alister appears to have mastered latté art

Alister: I can certainly relate to all of these, and have a special interest in the second point. There have been very few ‘barista courses’ available for collaboration, ways to learn how to build and grow real, sustainable culture change. It’s why my Innosis co-founder Andrew Pope and I produced our Designing Collaboration book and related materials: to guide people (senior leaders, middle managers, team members) towards the behaviours that sustain collaboration. Very different to a technical manual!  

Cai: Likewise, the third point. Our collaboration analytics platform SWOOP gives us a dashboard read-out of collaboration fundamentals, just like the gauges on the machine. For instance, we know that if you have too few replies on your enterprise social network, then there isn’t enough conversation happening, and people aren’t sharing knowledge and solving problems. It’s about monitoring indicators so organisations have confidence adjusting the levers and constantly improving. I wouldn’t trust a barista to get the milk right without them feeling the milk temperature while heating the milk. Why would you trust a community manager who doesn’t know what’s going on in the community?  

Cai’s early attempt at latté art

Alister: And finally – practise, practise, practise! No one ever produced a great coffee just by reading a manual. Or going to a one-off barista course…  

Cai: Don’t I know it!  

Alister: …watching videos and chatting with a few baristas. Not. Gonna. Happen. Good practices need to be repeated and refined until they become part of your everyday workflow.  

Cai: While Alister and I had to reflect on this, we did eventually, after much debate, arrive at the conclusion that getting collaboration right is more important than getting the coffee right. We have the tools for collaboration, and what we now need are all the steps to make ‘the perfect coffee’.   

Alister: Exactly. Not trying to stretch the point, but next time you go to your local café, watch the barista as they expertly make the coffee and produce great latte art. Think about the expert advice, the constant checking of fundamentals, and the practise, practise and more practise that got them there.   

About:

Cai Kjaer is the CEO of SWOOP Analytics. SWOOP helps organisations become better at collaborating by providing deep insights into collaborative behaviours through analysing interactions on popular collaboration platforms Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Yammer and Workplace by Facebook. He drinks Lavazza coffee at home (may upgrade to Campos in the near future) and has been embarrassing Italians by drinking latté after breakfast.  

Alister Webb is a co-founder of Innosis and author of the book Designing Collaboration: An Essential Handbook for Today’s Digital Workplace, which now includes a series of role-based Playbooks as an action-oriented way of building a workforce of collaborative people. His latest self-imposed challenge is to create elegant latte art using soy milk – harder than you think! 

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