Why the best meetings happen at the coffee dock

Main illustration: Adam Kumerish

As a product manager, you usually have 20 things coming at you at once, and you’re constantly in a state of juggling.

You have to be deliberate about what you prioritize, and you have to be comfortable letting some things you should be doing simply not get done.

This state of controlled chaos means there isn’t time to write everything down, capture everything in an email, and set up meetings to resolve all debates. It’s a struggle just to stay on top of your Slack DMs, nevermind get caught up on your email (inbox zero is usually a fairytale concept).

I think that’s why product managers need to be opportunistic, and opportunity often strikes in unexpected places – in the places where work isn’t supposed to happen: the canteen, the coffee dock, even the stairwell.

Let’s start at the stairwell. Last week, I spotted Fergal, whose email I had been meaning to reply to for several days.

Me: “Oh, hey Fergal, regarding your email, what I wanted to say was {yadda yadda yadda}.”

Fergal: “Yeah, makes sense, but don’t forget that {wacka wacka wacka}.”

Me: “Good point. So let’s agree to next just {yadda yada yadda}.”

Fergal: “Cool. Sounds good.”

This informal meeting helped us make progress on an important decision that was otherwise being blocked, all in under five minutes. (It might have made us late for the next meeting, but that’s a blog post for another day ? )

These spontaneous conversations might seem flippant but they’re often where the real magic happens. When Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s office back in 1999, he put the office’s only bathrooms in the center of the building. Forcing everyone to use the same bathrooms allowed Pixar’s employees to have all sorts of unplanned collaborations, even if that took place when they were washing their hands.

Don’t get me wrong, some conversations are actually better when done asynchronously, giving people time to put actual thought and consideration into what they’re saying. Sometimes a quick face-to-face is totally inadequate.

But a lot of the time, an impromptu face-to-face is dramatically easier and faster. And the fact that you’re not going to hang around the stairwell for more than a couple minutes forces a bit of urgency to the conversation. You’re unlikely to resolve a thorny issue, but you can figure out what the next step is and unblock yourselves with remarkably efficiency.

In an informal survey conducted entirely in my head just now, I discovered that 29% of my coffee dock chats end up actually being productive.

So when you’re passing someone and thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah, I need to reply to their email,” just roll with it and reply right there, in person. Be opportunistic like this and I guarantee you’ll make more progress in your day-to-day work, and probably drink a few more coffees at the same time.