A Randomised Coffee Trial or RCT for short is a rather fancy name for an incredibly simple but powerful idea.
RCTs are used to connect people in an organization at random and give them time to meet to have a coffee and talk about whatever they wish.
They are a simple, low-cost way of enabling people to talk with others who they might not otherwise meet. They allow people to learn from each other, build relationships, break down organizational silos and build community.
The original idea was inspired by Pedro Medina and developed by Michael Soto and Jon Kingsbury of Nesta UK in 2013. Nesta is an innovation charity with a mission to help people and organizations bring great ideas to life.
Since then they have been adopted by a large number of organizations, although some were running similar meetings long before Nesta.
Organizations running Randomised Coffee Trials include:
- Cabinet Office (UK)
- Scottish Government (UK)
- Royal Society of Arts (UK)
- KHDA (UAE)
- Mars (UK)
- 4Ps Marketing (UK)
- Surrey County Council (UK)
- National Audit Office (UK)
- MWH Global (UK)
- BAE Systems (US)
- SABMiller (UK)
- Bank of England (UK)
- Linklaters (UK)
- NatCen Social Research (UK)
- The British Library (UK)
- UK Trade and Investment (UK)
- Aberdeenshire Council (UK)
- National Health Service (UK)
- Fluor (Global)
- Huawei (Global)
You can run a Randomised Coffee Trial in a wide variety of ways, but I describe the essence below.
Anyone interested in taking part sends an email to an administrator or central address and asks to be registered with the service. They could also do this by signing up on the corporate intranet.
Each week or month, a specially designed piece of software matches people at random and informs them of the connection by email.
Some organizations use a spreadsheet to do the matching or a simpler technique like drawing names from a hat.
There are also specialist services that take all of the administration off your hands. Spark Collaboration is one such service created by one of the co-inventors of the RCT – Michael Soto.
It is then up to the pair who have been matched to get in touch with each other and organize a chat over coffee.
It is as simple as that.
Nesta says this about the benefits of Randomised Coffee Trials:
- Provides legitimacy to chat to people about things that aren’t directly work related. Although every time there have been direct beneficial impacts on various projects and programs.
- Totally random conversations, as well as some very useful work, related conversations. Breaks silos at Nesta in an effective way.
- Offers the chance to make time to talk to people they should be talking to anyway, and to meet people who they won’t be directly working with but it’s nice to know who they are!
- It’s a really good way of revealing links within the organization and encouraging us to collaborate. It’s interesting that being part of the wider ‘RCT’ banners gives permission to spend and honor the time. Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day.
- They like the prompt to talk to someone new (or someone they already know), and the permission to take 30 minutes just to see what’s going on, without any particular agenda or goal.
When setting up a Randomised Coffee Trial, like any other endeavor, it makes sense to start with the purpose and design the RCT to meet that objective.
In a standard RCT, two people are matched at random once a week or once a month and given permission to have a face-to-face conversation over coffee on any topic that they wish or simply an open conversation where they get to know each other.
The purpose of a standard RCT is for the participants to get to know each other and the overall aim is to break down some of the silos in the organization and help build community and a sharing, more caring culture.
Also, people discover unexpected synergies between their work and develop an increased level of comfort for subsequently approaching each other regarding potential collaboration.
Nothing is usually captured.
But you can vary this standard process depending on your organization and your objectives.
- You can change the frequency. The participants can even choose their frequency or opt out of some sessions.
- You can vary the timing. The sessions can be during or outside working hours.
- You can make the session a breakfast, lunch or even a dinner meeting or a drink. It does not have to be coffee.
- The session could be a walk or a visit to an art gallery or museum.
- In a geographically dispersed organization – the meeting need not be face-to-face, it could be a virtual one say over Skype, or it could be a telephone call or a Google hangout.
- The duration could be for longer than 30 minutes. E.g an hour.
- More than two people could be matched say 3 or 4.
- Each session could be associated with a theme or question and the participants required to talk about that issue.
- There could be a pool of questions. One question could be assigned to the pair at random. Or they could be given a menu of topics/questions to choose from.
- Each participant could be required to write something after the match. It could be a short paragraph describing the value they got out of the conversation or an actionable insight.
- The match need not be random. It could be across a divide e.g. Manager v new starter, older v younger, gender, country, religion, polYoitical leaning, race, etc.
- You do not have to call it a Randomised Coffee Trial. It could be called a “Coffee Club” or “Coffee Connect” or something that makes sense in your context.
But be careful, the power of a Randomised Coffee Trial is its simplicity and the fact that it allows people to meet in a way that suits them and to talk about whatever they wish.
Randomised Coffee Trials at Conferences
RCTs are perfect for running at conferences. Conference participants can be randomly matched and can connect and chat on the phone or Skype before the conference, or they can meet and talk during the conference, say at a coffee break or lunch. It’s a great way of connecting people who may never normally get to meet and talk.
Hundreds of organizations across public, private and voluntary sectors have introduced RCTs with great results. Try them yourself.
- Randomised Coffee Trials at the Red Cross Red Crescent
- Randomised Coffee Trials in the UK National Health Service
- Gurteen Knowledge: Randomised Coffee Trials
- Blog Post: Here’s How Michael And I Got RCTs Going At Nesta
- Blog Post: Institutionalising Serendipity Via Productive Coffee Breaks
- Blog Post: To Happy Coincidences And Unexpected Synergies
- Website: Spark Collaboration
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