Playing roulette at work

I don’t mean gambling, exactly. But people at many companies are trying to take a chance on others, by setting up programs the increase coincidensity: fostering chance interactions by not leaving the just to chance.

For example, Sylvia Ann Hewlett recently wrote about the US arm of Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharma company:

Like many good ideas, this one was born of frustration — in this case, when David Thompson, scientist turned social media strategist, went looking for someone to have lunch with only to realize that his usual group of colleagues wasn’t available and he didn’t know anyone in the company cafeteria. “The sense of exclusion was palpable and galling,” he recalls. Driving home that evening, he came up with the idea of a web application that would randomly pair people throughout the organization for lunch. He emailed Christopher Tan, a marketer with an interest in mobile technologies and experience building applications, and within 36 hours, they had come up with a prototype. They then sent it out to a select group of colleagues and invited them to participate.

The process is simple. People sign up and say which cafeterias are convenient for them, a date that works, and then the tool comes up with suggested lunch partners, dates and times. As Hewlett points out, all work is personal, and creating new connections is a necessary precondition for serendipity.

In the UK, Nesta, , has tried to do the same thing around shared coffee breaks, and here’s some takeaways:

Institutionalising Serendipity via Productive Coffee Breaks (via Nesta)

After four months of RCTs [Randomized Coffee Trials] at Nesta, we are in the process of conducting an informal survey of the 60+ staff involved in the initiative.  The feedback has been incredibly positive and staff responses thus far have indicated that they like RCTs because:

  • Provides legitimacy to chat to people about things that aren’t directly work related. Although every time there have been direct beneficial impacts on various projects and programmes.
  • Totally random conversations, as well as some very useful work related conversations. Breaks silos at Nesta in a really effective way.
  • Offers the chance to make time to talk to people they should be talking to anyway, and to meet people who they won’t be directly working with but it’s nice to know who they are!
  • It’s a really good way of revealing links within the organisation and encouraging us to collaborate. It’s interesting that being part of the wider ‘RCT’ banners gives permission to spend and honour the time. Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day.
  • They like the prompt to talk to someone new (or someone they already know), and the permission to take 30 minutes just to see what’s going on, without any particular agenda or goal.

At the most basic, programs like this legitimize the idea of seeking new connections as having a business value: not just for the individuals involved, but for the company. Secondly, the new behavior, once started, will seep into everything.

So, once people are exposed to lunch or coffee roulette, they will actively seek out opportunities to connect with others in the business, and find a rationale afterward. This is a critical shift to opportunity-seeking behavior and a relaxation of the hold of risk avoidance. Companies should do whatever is necessary to decrease the sense of risk associated with becoming more connected. Ultimately, becoming connected should be  riskless, and anything short of that is a failure of culture.