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Coworking, Serendipity, And Why Size Doesn’t (Always) Matter

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Coworking breaks down the emotional barriers (and sometimes the physical ones too) that the traditional business world put up to keep us each in our place. Isolated. After working in this vacuum for a few years, its no wonder some of the best and brightest are striking out on their own, trading a little financial security for a lot of professional freedom. Coworking provides solopreneurs with exactly what they’re looking for: a place where collaboration and community are highly valued, where social capital is more important than currency, and where titles and profit margins take a back seat to the unique talents that each of us bring to the table.

According to author Sebastian Olma, this paradox of wonderfulness is an emerging business trend, and it has a name: Serendipity. In his new bookThe Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, Olma defines serendipity as “value creation based on unexpected encounters.” Companies like Google and LinkedIn are starting to realize that in order to access outside the box thinking, they need to let their thinkers roam outside the office. Olma claims that (with the help his book, of course) companies can alter their culture to become “serendipity machines”, places where these valuable encounters have no choice but to take place.

In essence, he’s teaching companies how to become more like coworking spaces.

When you join a coworking space, you plug in to an instant community. No business cards, no elevator pitches. You simply take your seat, and the interactions begin. The person at the next desk asks your name and what you do. Some members invite you out to lunch and you exchange tales about crappy clients. The community manager posts a social media message about someone looking for design help, exactly the kind you love, by the way, and in two days, you’ve landed a new gig.

These aren’t imaginary scenarios of serendipity, they happen every day in coworking communities. They are “accidents” that almost always lead to abundance, emotionally, professionally, and often, financially.

According to Olma, however, fixed coworking spaces are flawed. The example used throughout the book is, a Dutch company that helps people find temporary work, meeting, or event spaces usually located inside the walls of an established company. This model, with its constantly shifting players, is what the author considers to be the “ideal” serendipity machine. In fact, he thinks the level of serendipity a coworking space can achieve is limited by the number of members.

“The membership model creates a natural barrier, turning a potentially open network into an internal and therefore somewhat closed community,” sais Olma. “Through the membership model, coworking spaces even run the risk of creating relatively exclusive community islands that, instead of exploiting their shared serendipity, weaken each other through unnecessary network competition.”

This would seem to suggest that unless you’re part of a massive coworking community like Indy Hall or CoCo, there’s probably not going to be enough serendipity to go around. We call bullshit on this statement. Olma’s feeling about coworking spaces assumes that members operate in a “No Girls Allowed” clubhouse mentality. He assumes that as members of a coworking space, we only associate with other coworkers, and as such, are only willing to refer work to someone who is also a member.

Raise your hand if the only people you know are also members of your coworking space. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Olma, coworkers are a diverse lot. We have lots of friends, neighbors and connections, many of whom may work for traditional firms or companies. We may have contacts in other cities, states, or countries. We may even (gasp) have had traditional jobs in the past, and maintain relationships with our former coworkers. Our collaborative mindset compels us to seek out the right person for the job, and that means also drawing on our vast network of non-coworking acquaintances.

Coworking doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t isolate ourselves from the rest of the community. Rather, we are merely one organism in this ecosystem, constantly working for the good of us all. That’s why coworking is the fast track to serendipity. So if you don’t have a big company, or want want to give this trend a try before starting your transformation into a “Serendipity Machine”, let your employees cowork for a day or two a week. We’ve got all the serendipity you need.

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2 thoughts on “Coworking, Serendipity, And Why Size Doesn’t (Always) Matter

  1. I get where the author is coming from, but I agree that she makes a jump too far about the limitations of coworking.

    There are limitations to any model. Of course there will be less chances for serendipitous interactions at a single coworking space than if someone bounces around from one place to another. But a coworking space isn’t always the same day after day, or even in the morning, evening or night time, on different days of the week, and it doesn’t take into account traveling business people buying a membership for a short period or people that members bring in for a meeting who decide to stick around for a bit.

    Since the space I found for the coworking location I’m working on opening this summer is so huge, I’m opening this up even more by having a a coworking version of a coffee cart in the lobby area that you see at a lot of office buildings. It’s not a full on coffee shop, but we’ll be open much later than most places around town that aren’t greasy cholesterol factories, and it’ll make the net of potential random people to meet even bigger.

  2. Current research on how innovation happens points to the theory of “adjacent possible”. You can only invent what is adjacent to the things you already know so the more people/things you know, the more possibilities there are. Lots of research finding that more innovative people are people with more connections. Stanford did a research study with three different problem solvers – the first was a very high IQ individual. The second was a group whose average IQ was slightly lower but they were all from the same background (white, middle class, male). The third was a lower average IQ than group two but from a very diverse background (cultural, gender, economic, etc.) Group 3 consistently solved problems better and faster. So, one strategy for innovation is to make sure your members have lots of interaction with people that are different than they are – great reason for diversifying members, collaboration opportunities, and planned locations for serendipitous interaction. Google measures everything and has found that a 4 minute wait for coffee is just about the right amount of time to foster this serendipity – so that annoying wait for coffee, probably helping you to be more innovative!

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