Agile and Lean, Communities of practice, Culture, Distributed-working

Networks, Serendipity and the flow of ideas

A venn diagram showing a beaver with a guitar and a duck with a keyboard creating a duckbilled platypus playing a keytar
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I gave a talk at SEACON recently building on top of my previous blog post about assisted serendipity. I wanted to share the ideas in that talk here as it is very relevant to the current times. This long post covers why serendipity is essential and how we can create opportunities for it to happen, both in the workplace and while distributed.

Serendipity: the unexpected and fortuitous outcomes that come from chance encounters

Serendipity is an essential part of working life. It might come from a conversation in a hallway, over coffee or a quick catch up while waiting for a meeting to get started. It can happen when unexpected knowledge is gained from overheard snippets in open offices, reading what is on team walls or watching internal presentations.

These chance encounters can lead to great things, like making new connections, joining up work and concepts, sparking ideas, solving challenging problems or innovations through the collision of perspectives.

Talking to other people increases the opportunity for ideas, knowledge and information to flow.

“The propagation of ideas from person to person is the source of collective intelligence that we call culture”

Alex Pentland, Professor at MIT

In his book Social Physics, Alex Pentland, professor at MIT, shares his research into communication flow in organisations, he says that organisations that encourage face to face conversation are more intelligent, productive and innovative.

The flow of communication in one organisation as mapped by Alex Pentland and team

He tells a story of how simply changing a call centre team’s coffee break from staggered times to the same time increased their ability to handle calls and saved an estimated $15million a year. Spending more unstructured time together, increasing the chances for idea flow and serendipitous moments had excellent outcomes.

Unstructured time can feel counter-intuitive and inefficient, which is maybe why so many organisations don’t focus on it. Instead, they create silos between people and departments? Competing budgets, goals and pitting people against each other for the same promotions, all of which goes towards stopping people talking to each other.

Silos of knowledge, information, expertise, learning, support, work and decision making
A depiction of a social graph I mapped of knowledge flow across a department

Networks over hierarchy

Images by Jamie Arnold

Reducing silos and creating more networked organisations can help create more open communication, lead to greater bonds and trust, which increased the possibility for serendipity. Hierarchy tends to lead to one-way communication down specific lines.

Timpsons is a fascinating organisation, and as I was writing the talk, this lovely tweet popped up from their CEO.

Margaret Heffernan tells us about the importance of bonds and trust between people in the workplace. In her TED talk, Forget the pecking order at work. A talk which also talks of the perils of pitting people against each other.

“Companies don’t have ideas; only people do. And what motivates people are the bonds, loyalty and trust they develop between each other.”

Margaret Heffernan Forget the pecking order at work.

Assisted Serendipity

Forward-thinking organisation create an environment that assists serendipity to happen. Steve Jobs famously designed buildings to get people moving around, which increases the chance of them bumping into 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

Many teams use walls to make their work visible, putting up information, workflows and other artefacts that others can see, which often prompts conversations as people pass by.

A picture of a show and tell.

Or host show and tells to share what they are doing and learning, which allows others to keep up to date and connect it to their work. Even our well-used tool, the post-it note came out of a serendipitous encounter and a eureka moment after someone attended a seminar.

And I love this hack from Etsy developers that helped people learn more about each other by gamifying the staff directory.

Serendipity during this pandemic

For those too young, this meme references the terror dogs from the original Ghostbusters. Some people did not get the reference when I showed the slides.

So what about now? With so many people working away from the office, there are fewer opportunities for serendipity to happen. Video meetings start when the camera is switched on, without the social aspects around the edges, we eat lunch away from colleagues, and we lose the liminal spaces that exist in between the meetings.

Creating opportunities for serendipitous moments during this time is an exercise in increasing humanness in a time when people have felt more isolated from each other.

And importantly, any habits we build now can be taken into the new world, whatever that ends up looking like.

Four approaches to assist serendipity while distributed

There are lots of ways that people are trying to assist serendipity as they get to grips with the distributed working culture; here are a few that I have tried and want to share. I’d love to hear what others are doing.

Random coffee, working in the open, virtual fika, communities of practice

1. Random Coffee

Random coffee is where two people are paired up randomly to have coffee with each other. No agenda, just a coffee. A great example of which is at Michigan university under a scheme called Innovate Brew. With the strapline:

“Simply have a coffee or drink together with another colleague, and see what ideas percolate!”

The webpage for an initiative called Innovate brew with the quote "Giving people permission to talk to strangers"
https://innovateblue.umich.edu/research/innovate-brew/

People really enjoy meeting others from outside their bubble. There is a great video on their website showing the value they get from it. What I love is that it gives people permission to talk to people that they don’t normally interact with

I set up random coffee in the distributed Agile in the Ether community (a meet-up that I run). We use the donut app in Slack to pair people up every fortnight. It is an excellent way of strengthening the network, and people enjoy the chance to chat. We share photos and comments on the channel to build a bit of FOMO.

Screenshots of pairs of people waving over video chat
Random coffee selfies from Agile in the Ether

2. Virtual Fika

The Swedish practice of fika is more than a coffee break; it is making time to slow down and take a break with friends or alone.

Remote-working champion Lisette Sutherland tells us how to create this online by

  1. Scheduling a time
  2. Using video
  3. Getting creative/play games
  4. Bringing coffee (and cake!)

More at: collaborationsuperpowers.com/194-how-to-host-a-virtual-coffee-fika

3. Working in the open

Working in the open while remote means making an extra effort to make sure that you are sharing information where people are looking. As well as catering for both synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Here are a few ways to do that.

Show and tells

Showing work in progress through short presentations is an excellent way for people to learn about what teams are doing. It allows others to get involved at the right time, ideas to spread and to gather feedback.

When you are doing this remotely, it’s essential to make sure that you keep things short, engaging and have a mechanism for gathering feedback and questions.

For more on show and tells, read this blog post from Mark Dalgarno: https://medium.com/@markdalgarno/the-show-and-tell-what-its-for-and-how-to-do-it-right-32c2c7b3708b

Two min video updates

We are all oversaturated with screen time, find ways to share short updates that people can digest in their break from other work. two min videos are a great way to do this. Although it is harder to make something shorter!

Weeknotes

Weeknotes are a commitment to regular communication. They come in many formats, the one I like best is a short form email that covers what a team has been up to, what they are going to do next and anything else they want to share. They should be short enough to read quickly and at the right level of detail for people to have an awareness of what is going on, but not too overwhelming. Invite people to follow up if they want to know more.

For more on weeknotes, see this post from Giles Turnbull https://gilest.org/2020/tips-for-writing-good-weeknotes/

P2, the internal blog

Internal blogging is another asynchronous way to share anything. The people at the fully distributed organisation Automattic (the WordPress people) have an internal blog build on WordPress called P2, which they recently released for anyone to use. They value asynchronous communication and share everything on P2. They have a saying that if it’s not on P2, then it didn’t happen.

A screenshot of the P2 platform, with the title P2ing is the new working

Find out more at: wordpress.com/p2

Communities of practice

I could talk about communities of practice for hours, and I do. I even wrote a book about them. They are communities of people who share a practice, joined up over organisations. They have lots of benefits, including broadening networks, learning, sharing knowledge and ideas, scaling practices and greater collaboration. They help to break down slios across an organisation and help people join up, which increases the opportunities for serendipity.

Community activities can and should happen while distributed to keep people connected, through online synchronous meet-ups and asynchronous messaging and forums. All the approaches above can also be used across communities.

-o0o-

Serendipity is an important part of our working day; being distributed means, there is less chance for it to happen. Make sure you are creating opportunities for serendipitous moments to happen to bring some magic back into our lives.

Let me know what you are doing to assist serendipity in the comments.

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