100 Cups of Coffee

This blog was originally published by Tamarack Institute.

Before launching a new initiative, I often advise groups to have “100 Cups of Coffee.” Not to be confused with the popular Futurama Frye video clip, 100 Cups of Coffee is a way to understand the complexity of an issue, build relationships with key people and organizations, and discover opportunities for synergy.

For instance, I was recently asked to design a statewide collective impact initiative to advance early childhood learning. Even though I have over 20 years’ experience launching complex initiatives, I approached the project with a “beginners mind” – resisting set assumptions about what is needed, or what will advance the cause.

Instead, I made a list of people who care about or actively work to strengthen youth and families (educators, health care officials, community leaders, non-profit staff, day care providers, faith leaders, foundations, families who have struggle to find quality childcare, advocates) and started making coffee dates.

“What’s working to support all children having safe and engaging upbringings?” “Where do our best intentions fall short, and why?” “If you had a magic wand, what would you change?” “How close are we to success? If we don’t know, how can we find out?” “What can you bring to this work, and what do you need?” “Who’s not involved in this issue, but should be?”

 These are some of the questions I ask over coffee, and I let the conversation evolve as we talk. I phrase the questions to focus more on strengths than deficits – on what is possible rather than what is beyond our circles of influence.  I keep it informal (no protocols or questionaires) but I take copious notes, and I often draw pictures to illustrate what I’m beginning to understand. In short, we’re sense-making, co-creating an understanding of an issue, system or challenge. (For more on this topic, check out Appreciative Inquiry, David Peter Stroh’s Book Systems Thinking for Social Change, or Juanita Brown’s classic World Cafe.)

You may feel embarrassed to reveal what you don’t know, or worry that you will ask a “dumb” question. Don’t be. Most people love to talk about what they are passionate about, and we are all starved for opportunities to reflect on our work. Thoughtful questions, attentiveness and engagement can be very pleasant, even exciting, for both of you.

Through the power of active listening, curiosity and withholding judgement, you are building a deeper understanding of both the issue you’re concerned with, and the people who make up the system you hope to affect. You are also – importantly – building trust, which is critical to any change effort.

As trust and understanding deepen, opportunities for collaboration and alignment can emerge. Examples include being:

  • invited to present to other organizations’ members, staff and boards of directors
  • offered free meeting space for upcoming trainings
  • encouraged to coordinate workshops and events
  • introduced to new people (who are promptly invited for coffee)

The beginning of any new endeavor can be like a honeymoon – where relationships are new, goodwill is running, and the future is wide open. By engaging many different perspectives through an activity like 100 Cups of Coffee, you can develop a more nuanced understanding of the issue and the underlying system, as well as begin to see where the promising levers of impact lie.

Let me know how it goes. And if you’re ever in town, I’ll gladly share a cuppa joe with you. My treat.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *