Collaboration Over Coffee

Jun 29, 2016 by Michael Soto Comments (0)

Earlier this year, Sustain 17’s Revolutionary Roundtable brought together a broad range of actors to present their work focused on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  I was an invited panelist to discuss how the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) is using “Randomized Coffee Trials” (RCTs) to build strong organizational networks.  Collaboration often begins with coffee.

Randomized Coffee Trials (RCTs)

RCTs was inspired by my work with Pedro Medina, President of Yo Creo en Colombia, who instilled in me a fascination for serendipity and social capital.  This played a central role when I was working at Nesta, the UK innovation foundation, and was confronted by the original question that motivated RCTs, “How do you stay on top of everything?”  Fundamentally, it was a concern about knowledge management and collaboration – knowing who knows what is the first step in being able to collaborate.  And without that knowledge, people within large organizations tend to reinvent the wheel, unaware what colleagues have already done or are more experienced in doing and can more easily resolve.

We opted to pair employees together, with someone new each week to grab coffee.  This was meant to break the silos within the organization and facilitate the flow of information throughout the organization.  The conversations were not directed in any way, no topic was given and no follow-up required. I titled the initial blog post describing the initiative, Institutionalizing Serendipity with Productive Coffee Breaks, explicitly highlighting the two tensions of the initiative: a) designing a systematic way to discover the unexpected and b) that a coffee break can be productive, and useful through the benefits of such discoveries.

The International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent

We started working with the IFRC as part of a global learning and engagement initiative, where the core component was to create spaces (physical and otherwise) for people to come together and learn from each other.  With the Spark Collaboration, we set up 3 parallel initiatives in English, Spanish and French for IFRC staff and volunteers from across the globe to sign up for a monthly introduction to someone from a different country within the IFRC so that they could set up a time to video chat.

The initiative brought together over 500 participants from 80 countries, and resulted in meetings such as:

A person working in Austria and a person working in Bangladesh. They were both working on disaster risk reduction activity. The person in Austria, as part of their program, had school-based education initiatives and in the region in Bangladesh where the other person was working they were not doing that as they felt some of the elements were too technical for school.  As a result of the connection and the conversation they realized that they would be able to adapt their program to be school-based. (Forging Global Unity with Randomized Coffee Trials (RCTs) at the Red Cross)

And one participant said,

“Thank you for providing the opportunity to share and forge links with other volunteers worldwide. I had my first virtual coffee trial today and it was an awesome experience. Discussing our work and sharing our experiences just added the right flavor to what we do regardless of the distance. We are not alone. We have a voice.” (The Red Cross Red Crescent Experience with Randomized Coffee Trials)

The Power of Coffee at the UNDP

Inspired by Randomized Coffee Trials, UNDP Cyprus developed a community development initiative with Cypriot handicraft women that helped build ties between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Women.  Here the same principles were applied to a new context.  By creating a space for people to come together to have coffee, to make handicrafts, whatever it might be, allowed them to build relationships.  This mirrors the strategies many companies are using focusing on the use of space to build relationships that I have highlighted in Serendipity as Strategy.


The science of networks has been instrumental in advancing the value of these relationship building initiatives – put simply, who we know shapes what we know, and by extension what we collaborate on.  If we are always in conversations with the same group of people, we will inevitably develop a sort of echo chamber, where our reference network uniformly reinforces our ideas but we are not getting enough of other perspectives.  Initiatives like Randomized Coffee Trials encourage us to get out of our comfort zone, and speak to someone we do not usually speak to.  In the process we are often forced to reexamine our assumptions, and communicate plainly without jargon.  The result is not only facilitating information flow but planting the seeds of innovation through the reconfiguration and recombination of ideas.

Michael Soto is the co-founder of Spark Collaboration.  Spark helps organizations connect their stakeholders to share ideas face-to-face. Using Spark, organizations can match stakeholders one-on-one for real-time social interactions. By meeting over coffee, lunch or video, stakeholders can create real social connections that can help them be more connected, innovative and ultimately more productive.