If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail – Heraclitus
It is fairly well known that Google attempts to engineer serendipitous interactions by deliberately keeping queues long in it’s staff canteens. Many other businesses have adopted similar tactics and many workplaces are now being designed like some sort of human version of the Large Hadron Collider. It’s long been hypothesised that two people serendipitously bumping into each other in a corridor (or circulation space as workplace boffins prefer it) results in the big bang of innovation. If we dial the serendipity up to 11 by designing the space so that enough humans are fired at each other we can increase the frequency they bump into each other and therefore increase the likelihood that our business will become a hotbed of innovation and creativity. The mythic “water cooler moment”.
Workplace folk can give you loads of data to show where these collisions happen most frequently. What we don’t have is any way of knowing what happens when they occur. We don’t know that they result in more innovation. We don’t even know what type of interaction takes place. But hypothesising on the latter may enlighten us on the former. Evidence-based practice is all the rage at the moment so let us take the evidence of the experience of being a wide awake human being as we collide with people about the office.
Exhibit A: David and Phil have both been wrestling with an issue that, if solved, could make the business millions. They have both simultaneously experienced a mini flash of inspiration from differing perspectives as they leave their desks. They cross paths in the corridor. Phil sees David about to speak stops him, explains he’s late for a meeting and rushes off. The next day David goes on two weeks leave. Whilst on holiday in Delaware, he meets and falls in love with a pretty farm girl, quits his job and stays in the USA.
Exhibit B: Fiona and Julie are waiting in the long queue in the staff canteen. Fiona knows a piece of information that could transform the way the business works, potentially saving it millions. But she doesn’t know it’s valuable. Julie will immediately see the value if Fiona tells her. Fiona likes gin. So does Julie. They end up talking about gin. 6 months later they quit to open a micro distillery and go on to make a fortune.
Exhibit C: Six of the brightest minds in the business are serendipitously trapped together in a room as they take turns trying to get the projector to work. They never do and eventually disperse frustrated with a piece of recalcitrant equipment having discussed nothing else. The following week half of them are made redundant in an efficiency drive.
We are drawn to serendipity because we’re all romantics at heart. Even the pointy-headed wonks in workplace strategy. We are brought up with serendipitous love stories in books and in movies. We like the idea of some sort of mystical thread weaving through our lives. We also like a dose of good old-fashioned luck. What we aren’t fond of is people listening in on what we say. Or our mothers conspiring with their friends to set us up with their son/daughter. We talk bollocks in the lunch queue because it’s respite from work. We use that route because it takes us past the hunky guy in Accounts Payable (yes, there are gorgeous folk working in Accounts Payable).
If engineered serendipity really resulted in more innovation, the most innovative companies would be ones where the printers were always running out of toner. But we can’t guarantee that a bunch of people hanging around waiting for printer toner are not going to spend their time talking about the football results. Like most attempts at innovation some great stuff comes out of failure. Engineering serendipity might not make innovation happen. It might make friends instead. I think we’d all be happy with that ROI.
PS – If we really want to take advantage of serendipity between people we need them to notice it happening. Get people working on their sagacity. Serendipitously, it’s not that common. Perhaps that’s why innovation isn’t either.