Sunday, 12 April 2015

How Do You Take Your Coffee?

Analogies are fantastic. They allow you to portray difficult concepts against a set of real world comparators thus enabling someone to better understand and interrogate ideas. In theories of management, analogies occupy a key station in this lexicon. Let’s take coffee…
In most organisations, ‘Management’ and coffee go hand-in-hand; most meetings start with coffee, are punctuated by coffee, and end with coffee. Often, the most important conversations are those held at the coffee machine. But thinking about coffee in the round provides us with a means of interrogating management styles.
There are a number of different styles of coffee, and - although fanciful - we can parallel them with approaches to management.
Ristretto - a very short, dark, and intense hit, possibly with a bitter after-taste. In management terms, perhaps we can see ristretto as a rapid, no-holds barred, hard-driving, decision-making style, often adopted in extreme circumstances. From a management perspective, advantages of the ristretto approach is that it is ultra-dynamic and things get done in the shortest time possible - but running the risk of doing so in the least elegant or ideal way. Disadvantages? A lack of compromise, perhaps; no prisoners are taken; and perhaps, like the ristretto itself, you can only take so many before you are ‘eyeballs out’, completely hyper, out of control, and unable to relax.
Espresso - also short, dark and intense, but not to the extreme of a ristretto. Espresso management would promote dynamic decision-making also, moving with pace, but in a slightly more refined manner than the extreme and condensed ristretto. The approach still gets things done quickly, with execution the priority above all else; but perhaps there is a little more flexibility and longevity in the approach, although again, after too many espressos, sleep can prove elusive.
Americano - essentially a ‘watered down’ espresso, and with the option of a little milk. On the scale of hard driving, the americano manager will allow the troops a little extra time compared to its condensed parent, and the addition of milk suggests a management style that offers the option of flexibility; more the carrot-and-stick approach than being constantly driven by hard imperative. If quantity is the killer with the ristretto and espresso (in terms of how many hits you can take before it harms you), with the americano it is likely to be volume that is a problem - from a resolution viewpoint, there is only so much you can actually take-on within a given timeframe.
Macchiato - an espresso in a dress. The short, intense hit is still there; results can be dynamic and reasonably rapid; but there is a considerable amount of froth disguising the style. So the macchiato management style can take some time in building up that froth before the ‘wham!’ of delivery. Perhaps slightly less genuine than an americano, the macchiato manager might be in danger of being seen to be just a little duplicitous or inconsistent by the troops.
Latte - here the espresso is bathed in warm and creamy milk. Essentially things still get done, but inevitably they will take a little longer to get over the line. The experience will be softer, less intense; no bitter after-taste; no shock from the coffee hit. In management terms, this would be the most collaborative and engaging style of them all perhaps. But it’s still coffee; there’s still an espresso there at the heart of it, and the manager must ensure that he or she doesn’t lose sight of it if they are to ensure that things still get done.
Cappuccino - the most complex and indulgent of all; espresso, milk, froth, and a sprinkling of chocolate! One of those management styles you probably either love or hate; a mix of hard, soft, bitter and sweet. When it comes off, a cappuccino can be wonderful - but a bad cappuccino is just unpleasant. You need to be an innovative, self-confident and somewhat machiavellian manager to be able to pull off this style effectively. Things will still get delivered, but you might polarise or alienate people along the way.
And finally, cafe au lait - all milk, no substance. A management style like the coffee: at its worst, weak, wishy-washy, bland. Some people would say that this wasn’t coffee at all…
All very fanciful, of course. But the analogy does offer a lens through which to view management styles, to depict or grade how these styles compare to each other, and - crucially - to understand how we prefer to work ourselves.
And the parallel gives us more than that. If you think about coffee, we probably each of us have our favourite from the short list above. In the same way, we each of us have our preferred way of managing - and being managed. If your natural style is perhaps espresso, but your line manager is much more a latte kind of manager, then it is quite likely that you will get frustrated with them because they won’t move fast enough for you. And they are likely to find you reactionary, threatening and perhaps not a little unpleasant or difficult to handle.
Whole organisations can have a ‘coffee culture’ too. Why is this important? Well, it is highly likely that someone who loves their cafe au lait approach will struggle in anything stronger and more intense than a latte organisation. A mismatch of styles, a clash of approach, will be bad for company, manager and employee in various measures.
There are many management definition tools - such as Belbin or Myers-Briggs - that can help to illustrate styles and predict how divergent ones will interact with each other. In all cases, recognition is the first step; tactics to handle disparities follow after that. The simple parallel offered here allows us to start on that analysis journey with a really easy question: “How do you take your coffee?”.


About the author / copyright

Ian Gouge is widely experienced in business-driven Information Technology, culminating in significant achievements majoring on organisational and process change, and with a proven track record in turning around / re-engineering IT functions. He possesses in-depth experience of change, transformation, IT delivery, customer and supplier engagement, and broad International exposure. Also the author of management books on the topics of IT Strategy and Project Management, the impact on IT of e-Business, and the IT Organisation.

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