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The Myth of Water Cooler Innovation: Time to Reinvent Work

The Myth of Water Cooler Innovation: Time to Reinvent Work

May 12, 2023 by Daniel W. Rasmus, Serious Insights


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The Myth of Water Cooler Innovation: Time to Reinvent Work

A September 2021 New York Times article, When Chance Encounters at the Water Cooler Are Most Useful, documents the myth of the water cooler conversation as a driver of innovation. What is true about water cooler conversations is that they help establish new relationships or reinforce existing ones. These relationships may, as the article describes, lead to breakthroughs like the 1997 photocopier encounter between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, whose work led to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Myth of Water Cooler Innovation and Reinventing Work. A chance encounter at a copy machine
Photo by Felicity Tai on Pexels.com.

The innovation and the hard work of getting to those vaccines included many other people and were years in realization. But that is the kind of work traditional collaboration handles—sharing files, holding meetings, keeping track of tasks, presenting findings, and myriad other small things that require coordination and collaboration.

Most collaboration technology, even the seeming looseness of Slack, betrays the unstructured wandering that people experience in buildings. But even that wandering requires chance. I conducted a study during my time at Hughes Aircraft, and we found that people rarely wandered from their floor, let alone their building—a meaningful if less scientific finding than Thomas Allen’s finding in his 1977 book Managing the Flow of Technology. A 2017 MIT campus study follows up on Allen’s book (see Proximity boosts collaboration on MIT campus).

The wandering people did nurture deeper relationships among those on the floor, but they didn’t extend past that, save for those who worked on larger projects that took them off the floor and thrust them into other buildings.

Kariko and Weissman chanced upon one another because they worked in the same general area. Had they worked in different facilities, they may not have found themselves at the same photocopier for that particular encounter.

The anecdotes and the studies suggest the need to engineer proximity, as they did with the design of MIT campuses—what the design bias can’t capture are the near or total misses from people not in the right place at the right time. As I suggest in The Serendipity Economy, using technology and space will create more encounters, but it will not create all possible encounters.

As I suggest in The Serendipity Economy, using technology and space will create more encounters, but it will not create all possible encounters.

Jamie Dimon’s hyperbole that “Remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine” overstates the number of occurrences and points at a flaw in virtual work management. No one systematically tracks water cooler or photocopier creativity or innovation. Anecdotes offer evidence but not statistically significant proof.  And the web is filled with anecdotes on creativity driven by web-based communities. Dimon should be leading the way toward reinventing work, not returning to old paradigms that had their own issues regarding engagement, satisfaction, pollution, and safety.

In my research on The Serendipity Economy, I document the value, and an approach, on how to measure serendipity, but technology companies continue to overcorrect for productivity, giving serendipity and chance encounters short shrift in their “productivity” suites.

people near table
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com.

Most organizations, however, prove poor at implementing communities of practice. They do not understand the difference between communities and teams. And even if they do, they often move quickly to the measurement of value from communities that lead them away from their core purpose of knowledge transfer and employee engagement. Many organizations also follow the lead of collaboration vendors, deemphasizing the non-productive elements of the tech, like instant messaging. 

Productivity-oriented collaboration technology focuses on wrangling work and workers. It places them in workspaces and team environments that intentionally focus attention on the task at hand, even if other areas remain visible. And in most organizations, the number of virtual spaces quickly exceeds the ability of employees to know where to go beyond the few spaces that matter to them and how their performance is measured.

The dearth of chance encounters is not completely a failure of technology; it is also a failure of virtual work management. People do what they know how to do. There are many thousands of trained project managers. Virtual work management remains a nascent discipline. 

And from that nascent work, I offer five ideas on how to reinvigorate communities and encourage chance encounters within for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

Five Ideas on How to Reinvigorate Community and Create Change Encounters

Learn patience. As I discuss in The Serendipity Economy, there is no way to predict serendipity; just increase its frequency. In the real world, walking around a floor increases the serendipity potential, the opportunities for chance encounters. The value of serendipity can only be measured after an encounter, and it may take years for the realization of value. Organizations focused on productivity lack the patience that serendipity requires. They will need to relearn that skill if they want virtual serendipity to blossom.

Create opportunities. The photocopier and the water cooler were not designed to create chance encounters. They were designed to make copies and provide people with hydration. Their scarcity as a resource created the need for a queue to form occasionally when more than one person wanted to use the resource. That queue that milling around the resource created the happenstance meetings that fueled the myth of the power of random encounters. They became icons not because of their function but because, unlike the distribution of computers and phones, the organization decided to concentrate that capability in only a few locations.

In the virtual world, we need to create purposeful queues or at least purposeful places—places people will gather for some other reason than simply gathering. Skeuomorphic virtual offices, like Kosy OfficeTeemyco, and Kumospace, create a virtual meeting place that attempts to mimic a real-world work experience, complete with offices, meeting spaces and lounge areas. What these systems don’t do is create an area that encourages chance encounters without the chance encountering being the point.

Forcing chance encounters creates staged, even awkward encounters. People come to a water cooler or photocopy machine because they want to, or need to, not to meet people. Here are a few ideas that create scarce moments that may encourage people to connect:

  • A senior leader presentation or announcement with limited invitees. Start late and end early. Encourage those in attendance to just hang out.
  • A special event where people share their work or their passions. Colleagues share their personal artwork in a particular virtual place and set a time for people to see it. Those wandering through the virtual gallery have an opportunity to talk about the art.
  • Adopt diversity in its broadest sense (racial, political, economic, geographic, gender, parental, physical, etc.) when it comes to building communities.
  • Build teams, perhaps even functions, that cross functional and discipline boundaries (another aspect of diversity), even if it doesn’t make sense according to organizational structures. Empower these groups with shared measurements that encourage working together to solve large customer or organizational problems.
  • Develop mentoring and coaching programs that connect people across discipline boundaries. Consider using network analysis to make recommended assignments that go out of the way to stretch the relationship boundaries between mentors and mentees.
  • Develop open ideation challenges that bring people together based on shared suggestions. Ensure that “open” really means open. For all of the take of random ideation and innovation, there is little discussion about engaging people who don’t feel like they are listened to when they do have ideas.
  • Teach agile thinking to move people beyond their self-imposed mental boundaries.

Limited access to a capability space creates scarcity in the real world. In the virtual world, consider time as the distributed, scarcity-inducing feature. 

Experiment. Experimentation goes hand-in-hand with patience. If there was a good answer to solve the problem of nurturing work relationships, then I would offer it here. There isn’t. Realizing value will require technology and practice. People will need to find their way, and the proof of value will take time. Because of that, multiple systems may prove useful—and in some cases, experiments may be cut off too soon to provide value, even if value was potentially forthcoming.

Create and nurture community. Teams are designed to get things done. In the world of collaborative business communities, these are called Communities of Task. Communities of Practice bring people together with similar skills to continuously learn and to help build organizational capacity. 

While the purpose of a Community of Practice meeting may be a meeting, the purpose of the meeting is not to drive innovation but act as a source of knowledge—another scarce resource, like water, that you have to come to. Communities of Practice only work if you engage in them. Communities of Practice can become a place where people come to talk about one thing but have permission to talk about anything and, therefore, may discover a chance encounter of value.

Communities of Practice can become a place where people come to talk about one thing but have permission to talk about anything and, therefore, may discover a chance encounter of value.

Adopt commitment-based work. I have been harping on this for years. Rather than managing people, managers should manage commitments. Let people sign up for work measured by a certain time and level of quality and then get out of their way. When work is overly managed, and people are monitored for activity rather than value creation, organizations encourage the wrong behavior. People get things done, but they may not be things of value.

If the goal is to create new value, let people sign-up for that and let them find paths toward those goals with others who have taken on the same commitments. I find people who share a commitment rarely let tools or distribution get in the way of them doing what they love.

The myth of the water cooler 

The myth of the water cooler is just that, a myth. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some chance encounters around limited, shared resources may have sparked an idea or two, but most innovation takes place with people conducting research and sharing their ideas in more structured ways—communicating their findings to others, using knowledge and shared passion as the binder for nascent ideas. 

Co-location can be meaningful for those who are co-located, as the MIT study detailed. But studies of co-location also, by omission, point to the real-world fact that all people with worthy ideas who could contribute value cannot physically co-locate. Opportunities are missed simply because someone was assigned an office 800 meters from someone they might have found synergy with if located closer together.

photo of people having video conference
Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com.

Current collaboration tools excel at the functions of helping people who know they should be working together work together better; they do little to connect people outside of known work boundaries.

But as was reported during the failed return to work at Yahoo in 2013, returning to work in an office is not the answer either. Yahoo saw returning to the office create other distractions and opportunities for bad behavior and ultimately resulted in the same lack of innovation often blamed on distributed work.

The answer is to rethink work, both physical and virtual. We are stuck in a rut with “butts in seats” managers pining for the day when they could lord over their staff and virtual managers who have been offering few tools to make the new work paradigm more than a poor version of yelling down the hall.

Virtual work eliminates the physical constraints of the office. The people working a thousand miles apart could just as easily collaborate and innovate as those working 400 meters apart, but they can only do that if we consider our assumptions about work.

We must seek not just to make virtual, distributed work a palatable substitute for workers, managers, and executives but invest in creating new work experiences that leverage the unique aspects of a global work community that can contribute just as easily from a bus in Mumbai as from an office in Manhattan.

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Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist and industry analyst who has helped clients put their future in context. Rasmus uses scenarios to analyze trends in society, technology, economics, the environment, and politics in order to discover implications used to develop and refine products, services and experiences. He leverages this work and methodology for content development, workshops and for professional development.