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Overegging the Serendipity

Do people need be in the same building to be creative?

There are two words I’ve seen too much of lately: ‘serendipity’ and ‘water-cooler’. That may be three words. But in any case, they’re becoming tiresome and over-used. And, indeed, misleading.

It seems these words are constantly on the lips and the tip-of-the-pen of people arguing that employees should be in the office all the time. And the office has to be remodelled to facilitate serendipitous meetings and those awesome water-cooler moments we have several times a day when we ‘co-create’ market-shattering innovations.

And it’s always the same examples – Pixar, Apple, Yahoo; Yahoo, Pixar, Apple. It may immediately strike you that one of those three sits uncomfortably in a triumvirate of world-beating creativity. Yahoo is, of course, mentioned because of CEO Melissa Meyer’s stated reasons for rolling back ‘telecommuting’ in an infamous leaked memo.

The variable value of chance meetings

Apparently at Pixar the leadership team fought traditionalist opposition to create a central atrium where people have to run into each other in order to access any facilities. And this is the secret of their success, that talented and creative people are always running into each other and coming up with great ideas.

Well, hundreds of large organisations have similar areas, such as a ‘street’ where there are cafés, shops, hairdressers, cash machines and so forth plus meeting rooms and recreation areas. So the first point is that it’s hardly a new idea. And most of these organisations don’t see such areas as the only or the best way to break down barriers and encourage creativity.

The second point – let’s get real.

Here’s a typical day at Pixar, Apple or Yahoo. Carl tips up in the atrium or at the water cooler and chances to bump into Carmen.

‘Hi, I’m Carl. You look like someone I could co-create with.’

‘That’s cool. I’m Carmen. But maybe we should start with some co-visioning.’

‘Sure, I really sense some synergy here.’

‘What’s your specialism, Carl?’

‘I’m a Render Pipeline Developer.’

‘Cool. What exactly is that?’

‘I work with Technical Directors in Production to solve technical challenges related to the render farm and debug high-priority issues. And I develop and maintain scripts to monitor the efficiency and health of applications on the render farm.’

‘Cool. I like farms.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m in Audit. I shut down projects that spend too much.’

‘Wow … I bet that brings you into contact with a lot of creative people ...’

‘Yep. Most of them …’

Silence, and a little foot-shuffling.

‘Could I take you out to dinner some time? Maybe a movie?’

(Edging away) ‘I’ve just come to fetch my boss’ coffee, actually. Better get it back quick or she’ll be climbing the walls … Nice to meet you!’

‘You too, Carmen. Very serendipitous!’ ...

It can be useful to meet new people. But I wonder how many of those chance meetings will actually lead to any creative opportunities or business efficiencies that couldn’t come around in any other way?

And how many of the people in an HQ are actually in roles where serendipitous encounters will make an ounce of difference to company performance?

Could it be control freakery in disguise?

Apple is preparing to scoop 12,000 people into its new prestige headquarters. It’s vital for creativity and excellence to have them all in the one place like this, apparently.  It shouldn’t be misrepresented, as it has been by some journalists, as a vanity project mandated by a cash-rich leadership with a reputation for paranoia and control freakery.

But how many of the people there are doing jobs, or doing many tasks within their job, that can’t be done more effectively elsewhere?  And are all the creative people and others worth employing in Apple and other centralising companies only to be found living in the catchment area? Or be forced to up sticks and move there?

The bottom line question is, how much money does an organisation want to waste on inefficient working practices and excess real estate to conjure up those rare moments of water-cooler inspiration?

In reality, of course, these organisations don’t really practice what they preach. They do work with specialist teams of experts and contractors from all over the world, who link up as virtual teams. A lot of the most creative work goes on between people who rarely meet face to face, and often who don’t work for the same company, or any company at all. Maybe even the majority of the functions at HQ are back office and managerial functions that could be more cost-effectively located elsewhere.

‘But then – they’d be out of sight. So how could we manage them … ?’

Well, management by results is always an option.

If the truth be told, that traditional 'management-by-presence' mindset is at the root of all the special pleading about water-coolers.

The world has moved on. The nature of collaboration has moved on. Most innovative companies don’t make a fetish of forcing everyone to work in the same place all the time. As Bill Gates said, with a chuckle, when asked about Melissa Meyer’s memorandum, ‘Well, I think the general trend in the industry is in the opposite direction.’

Of course, there can great value in face-to-face meetings when looking to spark new ideas, whether those meetings are planned or ad hoc. But in the 21st century that does not mean housing all the people, all the time, in the same place.

It’s time to stop overegging the serendipity. And time to create the platform and most of all the culture for meaningful interaction between people wherever they are.


Watercooler meeting - Serendipity

January 2014

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"The bottom line question is,
how much money does an organisation
want to waste on inefficient
working practices and excess real estate
to conjure up those rare moments of
water-cooler inspiration?"










"If the truth be told, a traditional
'management-by-presence' mindset is
at the root of all the special pleading
about water-coolers."




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