“Coffee & Improvisation. A Strong Blend.” door Martine Polen


I’m sure you have experienced this. You receive an invitation from a colleague you don’t know very well, for a meeting of two hours, usually in some grey meeting room, without a clear agenda. Fresh and fruity professionals like yourselves have been questioning the usefulness of this hobby for some time now and decide not to accept the invitation. Some of you even have stopped sending these invites out. Right you are.

A challenge I regularly experience as an external project manager in changing organisations, is how to gain quick access to the right people (stakeholders, decisionmakers, influencers).

In this article, I will put the spotlight on two ways of working that I find very useful for this purpose. They are probably not new to you but make an interesting blend when you mix them together.

So, how do you access the right people, especially in a large and complex organisation, where everyone is busy?  And once you get in, what’s next?

I can already tell you that it starts with coffee.

 Let’s meet for coffee.

To gain quick access to the right people, you take three simple steps:

  1. Find and connect with a super connector

Don’t lose time searching for an updated version of an organisational chart or a “who is who” list. Many HR Managers – including myself – were up to 5 years ago probably still straining to find an accessible way to unlock this information to management and employees. Today, it’s all about business, clients, projects and the underlying relationships. And they are continuously moving.

Step 1: find a good connector who can introduce you to the most important stakeholders, decision makers and influencers, and show you the way in the informal organisation.

  1. Become an expert in sending coffee-invitations

We are all busy. Limit the time you are asking for, e.g. to 15-30 minutes and meet over a cup of coffee (or tea). Some will make time for you and coffee, others need a good reason to make time, yet others will never take time to meet strangers, even with a strong convincing argument.

Here are some practical tips:

  • Send a meeting request directly to your colleague’s agenda (many companies have an open agenda policy these days)
  • Use a short subject (e.g. “Meet for coffee and a short request”)
  • Mention the reason for your request, how you are connected and what you can bring to your colleague.
  • Push the “send” button.
  • Follow-up with a short phone call if you don’t get a response within a reasonable time frame

This way of networking is not new. You may have come across it as a suggested method when e.g. job hunting, finding an investor, … Some of you will have tried it and are good at it, some – especially if you have a more introvert preference like me – may find it challenging to approach people this way, even with a trusted connector.

From personal experience I can share that about 85% to 90% of my invitations were accepted. Some were postponed to a later date, mostly in the next days or weeks, and some were denied, usually mentioning a short explanation in the reply. Some even invited a colleague along who they think is also a useful connection. Great!

Maybe I was fortunate to work in organisations with an open and accessible culture, maybe our egos are flattered when people approach us for who we are or what we know, maybe some of us find it difficult to simply say no. Maybe we are just curious about the person or the question, maybe we just want to be listened to. Or maybe we just like coffee.

Step 2: Be direct and respectful, bring added value. It’s about them, not about you.

  1. Be brief and build a trust basis

At this point it’s much more than just about coffee. This is where you connect for a longer-term relationship. Be sure to meet in a fun and open location away from your daily working space (e.g. a coffee bar, a lounge, … ). Ask specific questions, take your time to find out how you can be of use to your coffee partners, tell them your short story and let them know what you can offer them, so that they know when to come to you (and your project team).

Step 3: Get to know them, ask specific questions, respect the time and don’t forget to pay for their coffee 😊.

Once you have connected with the necessary stakeholders, decision makers and influencers, you will continue moving through the organisation in the same way, while also consciously connecting people you meet along the way and thus building your own informal network. A strong connector is a valuable source in any organisation.

Adopt an improvising stance

Those of you already familiar with improvisation will have recognized some of the narratives in the above-mentioned coffee-method. As Dan O’Connor describes them engagingly in his TeD Talk, it’s all about:

  • Making your partner look good
  • Telling a story
  • Saying “yes, and”
  • Making mistakes, as they are gifts

As the demand increases on people and organisations to work more agile, many organisations, leaders and employees are now starting to adopt a more agile way of working. As a result, some managers and employees may find themselves at their learning edge. Shifting from the “known” management style into this “unknown” can be scary and unsettling, both for leaders and employees.

In my view, the agile way of working requires a more improvising stance from all of us. For example, I personally have been experimenting to adopt a more “just do it, fail beautifully and learn from it” behaviour by consciously moving into action instead of first pondering over the best way to approach an issue. I have succeeded, and I have failed, and I’m learning as I go along.

As executive coach and facilitator, I could already use improvisation techniques in several existing teams. I have noticed that this improvising stance is present in most of us, and that it may be corelated to the generation we represent. For example, millennials seem to be more at ease with the improvising stance than the generations before (Peter A.Margaritas: The Potential of Millenials). If you are part of the generation X like me, this behaviour (which is close to our childhood play) may have gathered some dust over the years and may need a significant shove. The good news is that the for world we live in and for the organisations thriving in it, this seems to be a good time to go impro and connect.

Go impro and connect

As you progress through the organisation networks, you will have access to the potential and competencies that are present, some of which may not even be very visible to management and HR. You will be able to connect much faster with the right people and the skills needed to make your project successful for yourself and for the organisation.

Looking forward to connecting and improvising with you. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I like my coffee strong and preferably of great quality, in a groovy place, with a splash of humour, thanks!


Martine Polen is an organisational challenger and executive coach. Driven by relationships and group dynamics, passionate about leaders and followers, fascinated by people in motion.

martinepolen@hotmail.com — 0032 476 25 70 13


Gepubliceerd door

Marc Plancke

Van jongs af aan ben ik sterk geïnteresseerd in hoe mensen zich gedragen, hoe ze elkaar beïnvloeden en hoe Jan daar beter in slaagt dan Mieke (of vice versa). Na het behalen van een licentie in de Psychologische en Pedagogische Wetenschappen ben ik eerst beginnen werken als psychotherapeut in een Dienst Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg. Daarna heb ik me gedurende een 15-tal jaar in verschillende sales functies uitgeleefd, zowel nationaal als internationaal. In 2004 heb ik me omgevormd tot HR freelancer met focus op rekrutering, development en employer branding. Eind 2012 heb ik Cantaloupe Interim Management opgericht, een bureau gespecialiseerd in het detacheren van HR Interim Managers en Freelancers.