We have some of the best conversations when they are unstructured and happen by chance. That moment when you bump into someone when you are out and about, and they happen to mention something that really helps you. Or you sit down to lunch with a work colleague, and it sparks a great new idea.
These serendipitous moments are where relationships are built, and magic can happen. Something organisations and communities can really benefit from embracing. Recently I have been looking for ways to help create opportunities for serendipitous moments. This is called assisted serendipity.
What is assisted serendipity?
This is a term I have borrowed from a blog post by John Goulah from Etsy.
First, it’s worth saying why it’s important that people talk to each other. For this, I tend to look to Alex Pentland. His books on Social Physics, talk about our organisations in the context of social systems, and the power of connections between people across divisional or discipline boundaries. It is easier for people to share ideas and work together if they know each other.
If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”Steve Jobs
Assisted serendipity is about changing our organisations in some way to make it easier for connections to form, either through creating the space for unstructured conversations between peers or allowing new connections to form between people that wouldn’t otherwise meet. It might be through physical space design, for example, Steve Jobs talking about the Pixar building, through reinforcing messages, like Tony Hsieh from Zappos talking about collisionable hours or through creating community activities like meet-ups.
Aside from communities of practice, one of my favourite easy to set up assisted serendipity hack is random coffee. Where two people are paired randomly to have a coffee and a chat. I took part in random coffee when I was at GDS and always found the conversations really interesting and massively useful.
Hootsuite wrote about the power of random coffee on their culture here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanholmes/2017/12/11/how-2000-random-coffees-changed-my-companys-culture/
And the University of Michigan talk about how their random coffee programme has created new innovations across divisions here http://innovateblue.umich.edu/research/innovate-brew/
I use (remote) random coffee with my Agile in the Ether community slack channel as a way of deepening relationships and connections over a distributed community. For that I use the donut slack app to set up fortnightly pairings. To keep the community feeling, we follow up in the slack channel with remote coffee selfies and a thank you to each other.
Remote working and serendipity
At the time of posting, the WHO has declared a pandemic leading to many people self-isolating, and governments advising or mandating staying at home. Suddenly people are finding themselves working from home, which has ignited an interest in how to deal with remote working. Not being in the office means that those serendipitous moments rarely happen. We might interact with other people, but it’s mostly over meetings with set agendas or outcomes, which makes it more important to create those serendipitous moments.
So what about you? I’m really interested to hear if others have experimented with assisted serendipity and what results you saw in the comments below.