Strategic Coffee Machines: Creativity Through Chance Conversations

By Shlomo Maital

coffee machine

   The latest issue of Harvard Business Review (October) has an interesting article by Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay, “Workspaces That Move People”.   In it is an idea you can perhaps use. It’s called Strategic Coffee Machines. Here is the story:

   Jon Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor, a Norwegian telecom company, thinks that the strategic placement of coffee machines helped the company shift from a state-run monopoly to a competitive company with 150 million subscribers.

   How?

     Once, the company had roughly one coffee machine for every six employees. The same people used the same machines every day. Sales people talked to each other. Marketing talked to each other. The coffee was terrible – how can you afford good coffee when you need hundreds of machines?

   The company ripped out the coffee stations and built a few big ones – one for every 120 employees. It also created a big cafeteria for all employees, rather than a series of smaller ones. In the quarter after the coffee-and-cafeteria switch, sales rose by 20 percent, or $200 m.   Pretty good return on investment!

   The basic principle here is simple:   People in companies, or even in cities or in neighborhoods, just don’t talk to one another.   Especially people who don’t normally need to, in the course of their work.   Find ways to get them to rub elbows, and chat, and you can boost creativity.

   I know of a case, told to me by MIT Professor Tom Allen, of a company with four labs, at the four corners of a floor.  Each lab had a small office attached to it for doing paperwork. Simply by moving the offices to the diagonally opposite corners forced people in Lab A to chat with those in Lab B, C and D (they met at the intersections of the floor).

       Can you use the Telenor method? Can you use strategic coffee machines to boost creativity in your organization?

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