Reigning In Randomness

Employing randomness as a tool flips traditional management thinking on its head.

Michael Soto
April 8, 2014

Reflecting over the year that has just come to an end, I can’t help but focus on serendipity and, what I have at times called, ‘the value of what one doesn’t know’.  A year ago, I published To happy coincidences and unexpected synergies, summarizing the breadth of conversations that were sparked by the initiative I co-designed with Jon Kingsbury, Randomised Coffee Trials (RCT).  The post formed part of the Institutionalising Serendipity blog series and connected previously geographically and thematically disparate work boldly aspiring to plan for the unforeseeable.

In the months that followed, I was honored to see how RCT spread across the globe.  A Spanish version of my blog post was posted on the Yo Creo en Colombia website and I was interviewed for Simply Communicate’s article A New Twist to Social Networking.  Beyond the multitude of cases of direct replication that I have caught wind of, I have been inspired by the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) adaptation of RCT as a community development initiative, described in Cyprus: The Power of Coffee, Crafts and Women.

RCT came into being as a response to a problem we hadn’t even recognized fully until the solution manifested itself.  As Charles Leadbeater pithily stated in a 2009 video launching Nesta’s Age Unlimited program, “The most important thing about innovation is what question you ask, if you frame the problem in the wrong way you develop the wrong answer.” After the explosion in interest in Randomised Coffee Trials I have been left circling around what the ultimate question is that we actually answered.  In what follows, I attempt to make some sense of the links between the array of people, ideas and initiatives that RCT has surfaced.

As organizations grow in complexity and specialize, the formation of teams permits greater scale in impact but in tandem come significant challenges of cross-team collaboration.  RCT began with the simple hypothesis that randomly and iteratively connecting staff from across the organization to meet informally over coffee could foment a corporate culture where people would be more inclined to share, collaborate and innovate.  The critical role that culture plays in effective management is being increasingly recognized in diverse circles as anthropologist Ted Fischer highlights in Culture as Strategy and the Relevance of Anthropology.

Employing randomness as a tool flips traditional management thinking on its head. There is an implicit fear common in many traditional management practices that aim to control rather than empower. The belief in the self-interested rational actor leads to the false conclusion that others will only collaborate if obligated, if given the right “incentives”, often doublespeak for financial compensation.  However, it is becoming more and more common in business circles to take a different tack, following currents of ‘creating shared value,’ peer-to-peer models, giving and more fundamentally, simply a growing faith in the power of positive thinking as self-fulfilling prophesy.

Remembering the challenges of 2013, it seems worthwhile to recall that regardless of the catastrophes that the wise sage came across in Voltaire’s eighteenth century novel Candide, he kept repeating the mantra “This is the best of all possible worlds.”  And while it is easy to laugh at the absurdity of such an affirmation, it is easier still to overlook the wisdom inherent in his chant. “Thinking positive” is not about naïve optimism, but rather about constructively framing the task at hand – regardless of whether we are speaking from an individual, corporate, nonprofit or state perspective.  Often times the jester is the wisest one in the entire kingdom.

The implications of what has here been written are easier said then done. Groups bring both great opportunity and, at times, great frustration. How can we possibly avoid the hubris of acting based on what we think we know while being inevitably blind to what we don’t know? The philosophical discussion could go on forever; nonetheless, a pragmatic step forward can come from employing randomness as a tool in planning for the unimaginable. This double-edged sword certainly brings with it its own hazards.  The first step is to internalize the fact that the flip side of criticism is a wealth of possibility and opportunity and as I find myself echoing when explaining the details of what we have done, ‘It is just coffee, but at the same time it is much more.’