Random coffee

Published on 2 May 2014

“Poetry and hums aren’t things which you get. They’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you”. (Milne, 1928)

My favourite word is ‘serendipity’. And I’m not alone: serendipity was voted Britain’s favourite word in 2000. It has a lovely history, too. It was apparently coined by Horace Walpole and comes from a Persian fairy tale about the ancient princes of Sri Lanka, then known as Serendip. The “Three Princes of Serendip” “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of” (Walpole, 1754 cited in Merton and Barber, 2006, p. 2).

I could write about serendipity all day long. But, you may be thinking, why would something so esoteric interest a government organisation?

Well, serendipity is a staple ingredient in the creation of value through innovation. Knowledge and creativity are not resources in themselves but potentials generated by social relations. And they tend to be particularly valuable if they’re generated by unexpected encounters, surprising conversations, the collision of unrelated ideas.

But beyond a certain organisational size, our serendipitous encounters may be rare, especially in settings where we tend to stick to the same groups. Connecting with people who have different schedules, skill sets and interests is challenging, even if we recognise that we'd benefit from exchanging ideas with people who think differently.

So when we heard about NESTA’s Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs) (Soto, 2013) we thought we’d give them a go. It works like this. At regular intervals, staff who have volunteered to take part are randomly matched up with another participant. The two then arrange to meet for a chat. There are no requirements or obligations regarding what they talk about. Some RCTs may be spent entirely on work-related matters, others might have a more personal element to them.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. What seems to have been most appreciated is that, although it is just a coffee, it's actually a bit more than that. Random coffee gives us ‘permission’ and an opportunity to meet and build connections with colleagues who are not involved in our day to day work.

Random coffee is a practical way to create links where none exist and to facilitate exposure to different ideas and perspectives. People from across the organisation have learnt about unexpected synergies between their work. They also support wellbeing: providing an opportunity to step outside of our work, take a break and pause while we learn more about our colleagues.

There’s been a lot of interest in our Randomised Coffee Trials from other parts of the public sector in Scotland (and beyond). So, perhaps we can take random coffee beyond the walls of our organisation. Would you sign up for Scottish public sector random coffee?


  • Merton, R.K. & Barber, E. (2006). The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Milne, A. (1928). The House at Pooh Corner. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
  • Soto, M. (2013). Institutionalising serendipity via productive coffee breaks. NESTA blog. [Accessed: 1 March 2014 from http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/institutionalising-serendipity-productive-coffee-breaks]