“Kajol is the killer!” screamed the graffiti on the wall next to the water cooler in my hostel at REC Trichy. This was truly pouring cold water on the climax of the Hindi movie “Gupt: the hidden truth”, which had raging reviews from fellow students due to an unexpected plot twist.

I have, ever since, been intrigued by the social role water coolers play as both a place to connect and communicate. As I moved into my work life, I noticed how the water cooler (or the coffee machine) served as a bit of a lightning rod, attracting bright minds to discuss topics of shared interest.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has killed serendipity – at least for me, since we shut our offices in March of last year. The serendipity of hearing anecdotes about India’s startup ecosystem from a fellow team member that might not crop up in scheduled meetings, but may help connect some dots or trigger a new idea; the serendipity of finding a potential rock star hire for one of my portfolio companies from a chance meeting a colleague had the previous day; or the serendipitous insight on the future of consumer technology one gains from a debate on a Black Mirror episode on Netflix. There’s been many light bulb moments sparked by the relaxed and social settings of our water cooler!

This is not a random occurrence. Ever since the days of the ancient Greek Agoras – public spaces where great inventors and philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle met to discuss philosophy and science — great ideas seem to be born in places of confluence. Such meeting places become melting pots of ideas resulting in serendipitous connects that lead to game changing discoveries. The humble office water cooler is the modern employee’s agora. What does this tell us? Organizations can drive serendipity by making clever design choices in their structure, culture and rituals.

Serendipity through (office) design

When Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s HQ in 2000, he came up with the idea of a large atrium which would get people out of their offices and mingle. He believed that “if a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity”.

Creating spaces for people to meet informally is a great way to encourage innovation (serendipity). Water coolers, coffee machines, chocolate ‘bars’ and lunch rooms are great spaces to invest in – the RoI can be non-linear! If you are a start-up deciding on your office space, one easy way to do this is to locate yourself in a large coworking space – such spaces naturally lend themselves to creating new connections. It’s highly possible you will find a new customer, a senior employee or even a cofounder there!

Serendipity through culture

An organization that hopes to encourage serendipity needs a few key cultural ingredients. Here are three strategies senior leaders should focus on:

  • Create psychological safety – Employees should feel safe to voice and share ideas and opinions without repercussions. They shouldn’t be ridiculed for asking basic or fundamental questions – the culture should encourage learning and sharing; Pixar did this well through their BrainTrust meetings where every project was discussed threadbare without judgements on the person.
  • Encourage new initiatives – Allow employees to propose new initiatives and take the lead on it. Each of these have the ability to increase the serendipity sphere of the organization if done well. At Sequoia we have a number of programs born out of an individual’s initiative – Spark, Surge, Guild, Pitstop etc and these have collectively increased our and our portfolio’s Serendipity spheres!
  • Encourage “me” time – Organizations like Google and 3M are popular for allowing employees to use 20% of their time on projects they are passionate about. Allowing personal passion to thrive allows for the organization to gain from the light bulb moments from the work of their employees.

In a world of OKRs and high throughput management, a conscious attempt should be made to not kill serendipity through over-indexing on efficiency and outcomes.

Serendipity through rituals

Organizations can also instil rituals that increase serendipity. Some companies have created random pairings of employees (across functions) for coffee catchups to help improve bonding and increase serendipity. Specialized tools like Donut or Microsoft team’s Icebreaker bot can help leaders institutionalize this effort. Some companies also run internal hackathons to help unearth some interesting new ideas to increase their chance of finding breakthrough ideas. We recently met a startup that started running annual hackathons, and awards $20,000 to winning teams. This has given them a pipeline of two new products to build already!

Serendipity through diversity

Another important lever for serendipity is diversity. Serendipity thrives when there is diversity in thinking and perspectives based on individual experiences. It is impossible to drive serendipity in an organization full of clones. It is every leader’s responsibility to ensure they have enough women on their teams; that they have a mix of people from different backgrounds with different degrees; and, if possible, even enough national diversity to benefit from the perspective, networks, knowledge and experiences of a wide range of individuals.

As we saw in this series, getting lucky is a skill we can build whether you are an individual or an organization (or even a city or a country!). By maximizing the vectors of showing up, knocking on doors and doing so long enough we can grow our own serendipity spheres. Now go make the most of this and remember that the harder you work on these, the luckier you will get!

What do you or your organization do to increase serendipity and innovation? Do write in at ravi.gv@sequoiacap.com if you have ideas that the world should know!

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity”.

Steve Jobs