Institutionalising Serendipity via Productive Coffee Breaks

Inspired by Pedro Medina's discussion of serendipity*, Nesta's Randomised Coffee Trials (RCT) initiative responds to Pedro's dual challenge of appreciating the benefits of serendipity and the need to 'build new fishing systems**.

Nesta staff that have opted-in are sent a weekly randomised match with another Nesta staff member and the two are invited to grab a coffee together.  There are no requirements or obligations regarding the topics discussed, some RCTs are spent entirely on work-related matters, others are entirely personal in nature.

It is just a coffee, but at the same time it is much more.  RCTs give staff from across the organisation an ‘excuse’, an opportunity to meet, catch up and build connections with the people around them.  This has resulted in staff from different departments learning about unexpected synergies between their work, as well as created an increased level of comfort for subsequently approaching others regarding potential collaborations.

After four months of RCTs 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.

RCTs create an institutionalized space for serendipity.  The randomised coffee breaks allow people to break with their daily routine, make new connections and strengthen existing ones.  We are currently having discussions with other organisations interested in setting up their own RCT. 

If you would like to learn more about this initiative, please contact Michael Soto ([email protected])

*see for instance, his Campus Party Colombia talk "Como embarrarla y ser feliz"
**expanding on the saying, Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you've fed him for a lifetime


Michael Soto

Michael Soto

Michael Soto

Guest blogger

Michael was part of the Innovation Skills team from September 2012 to January 2013, where he helped develop a learning platform for practitioners interested in innovation. He then unde…

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