Ask web developers about the tools they use, and it’s likely they’ll start talking about hardware, software and web applications. That’s understandable, but it’s not the whole picture.

I believe things like software pale in comparison with the most powerful tool available: coffee.

I'm not talking about caffeine. What I'm talking about is the power of informal work time. It’s wrapped up in what I call Coffee Theory, which in short form is this:

Large organisations only survive because people drink coffee.

It’s all about people

When I think back over the projects I’ve worked on, technology was often the least of our problems. Before we even started coding, there were people to convince, requirements to gather and budgets to get approved.

Sure, bugs can be nasty and frustrating – but they can be fixed. You’re smart, you can Debug Stuff. But you can’t debug people; and if you hit a big enough problem with people you might not even get to the coding stage.

People can baulk at an idea, people can play politics and ultimately people can bring your entire project to a halt. One thing is for sure – you can’t solve people problems by hacking code.

The good news is a lot of people problems are communication problems, and coffee can help you fix those.

Communication Problems

Businesses generate a huge amount of data, but they struggle getting the right information to the right people.

The problem starts with simple overload – there’s just too much email and documentation for any one person to read. Attempts to filter information have mixed success, since the gatekeepers may not always know what’s relevant to everyone else.

If the organisation is big enough there can be entire teams who do similar work, but have no effective lines of communication. Maybe they only ever deal with each other when something has already gone wrong – and they’re still annoyed about what happened last time…

At best, you’re probably missing great opportunities for collaboration, knowledge sharing and just simply meeting new people.

At worst, you can have teams working at cross purposes, duplicating effort and having arguments that are mostly historical. Good things like “what’s the best solution” get lost in the noise. The organisation has ended up with internal disconnection.

So how does coffee help?

The morning coffee break does not respect hierarchy, structure or politics. When you go for coffee, you can and will meet everyone from the developer who sits in the next cubicle, right up to the CEO.

In the corporate environment, people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other can still meet over coffee. Organisational disconnects are repaired by the humans in the system, since they are social beings who get together and chat about Stuff™.

Without coffee, without informality, organisations would grind to a halt. Think about it: if you waited to be told everything through official channels, do you think you’d ever get anything done? Or have you just learned who to ask when you need information?

Smart managers recognise this and encourage their staff to socialise a little at work. They know that some of the best ideas happen between the discussions about sport, politics and the weather.

People are often more attentive and open to discussion during the coffee run – you can actually get their undivided attention, away from the interruptions of the office. It can be a very smart and efficient way to brainstorm a problem.

So coffee is the reason that large organisations survive. If individuals are smart about it, coffee can also be a way for them to thrive and have fun within these bureaucratic behemoths.

Extend your social network

One of the best things I’ve ever learned about work life is that “networking” is just a fancy word for being sociable. So if you’re worried about taking some time out of your day for the coffee run, remember that keeping in touch with co-workers is an important part of work life.

Walk to the coffee shop and get to know the people you work with; then get to know the people they work with. Keep doing this and you’ll have contacts all over the organisation, which turns a cold call into a friendly chat. When you need information you’ll have friendly faces to go to – and they’ll come to you when they need your expertise.

Even if you’re not a hard-edged, career-driven type, being friendly with people makes work life infinitely more enjoyable. It’s not cynical, it’s human!

Don’t get carried away…

With all networking activities there’s a danger of acting outside your character because You Are Networking And This Is Serious Business. I think the best way to avoid this is to just relax and be yourself.

Be friendly, be genuine and let the passion for your work speak for itself. Pay attention to the things other people are passionate about – even if you don’t share their focus, understanding it will help you work together.

Use coffee as a way to get to know people, but don’t bulldoze conversations into an agenda. You should find opportunities to pitch your ideas to the right people, but let those moments arrive naturally.

You should also be a little diplomatic – be open, discuss whatever comes up, but be just a little careful. Remember, if you’re about to tell a senior manager how unbelievably bad a system is… they might have been the one who selected the system in the first place. So be nice.

The coffee shop is not a boardroom!

Beyond the random gathering of the coffee run, you can use coffee as a way to break down barriers with specific people.

If you’ve had a string of meetings with someone and still find yourselves at an impasse, try meeting in a coffee shop instead of the office. The change of pace can help find a new approach, or prompt people to explain underlying issues they didn’t think to discuss in meetings.

People relax in coffee shops – they do not relax in boardrooms. Take people out of strict working environments, and you may find “impossible” problems can be sorted out in half an hour over a coffee.

Coffee is informal, it's friendly and it's personal. It shows that you're interested in the person as well as the business card. It may not work on everyone, but you might be surprised who it does work on.

“But I don’t like coffee…”

Great, or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels. When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.

– Will, Good Will Hunting.

Coffee theory does not strictly require coffee. Coffee is just a very common social ritual which is accepted in most offices. In your office it could be tea, ice cream or indeed eating a bunch of caramels.

The actual thing doesn’t matter. Realistically you should just watch out for informal moments which offer an opportunity to step outside the normal, staid office dynamic.

What about beer?

Sure, beer is another social lubricant. But unlike coffee, it does not sharpen your ability to pitch your ideas. Alcohol is also commonly consumed at the end of the week. So although on Friday night someone was totally convinced you're on to something, by the time Monday rolls around they’ve probably forgotten the conversation entirely.

Besides that, not everyone drinks beer. But most people do enjoy some form of break during the work day. They also tend to do it every day, so you don’t have to wait another week for the pub night to roll around.

So beer has its place; but realistically while you’re likely to achieve general social bonding between workmates—and yes that’s a good thing—you’re far less likely to get any real work done.

To the coffee shop!

Regardless of your role, at some point the human factor is going to be the biggest hurdle you have between you and your goals.

The challenge may be selling an idea; resolving a dispute; getting people to work together; or finding new ways to do old tasks.

Whatever it is, sometimes the office will not hold the answer. Meetings, email and phone calls can’t fix everything. Sometimes you need to get people out of the workplace and into a different mindset – and going for a coffee is an ideal way to make that happen.

So that’s Coffee Theory in a nutshell. It’s about bridging the gaps left in corporate communications, so you can get people together and get things done. It’s about embracing the human side of work life; and accepting that informal work time can be the most productive time of the day.

It’s worked for me so far, I hope it works for you too.

Now, who’s up for a coffee?