The Crucial Role of Coffee Machines in Innovation

The Real Purpose of Brainstorms

Often people are convinced that innovation come from brainstorms and from brilliant insights by individuals. However research in the last decades indicates differently.
Brainstorms have gradually developed towards Creative Problem Solving. In my view, it is a professional way of problem solving.  The most crucial and therefore vital phase in brainstorming is the first step focusing on “What is the problem and what are the facts that underpin the problem definition?” The next step is to generate ideas on the defined problem. Nowadays, in the “generating ideas” proces high levels of sophistication can be achieved (for example: TRIZ). But the essence of TRIZ proves that it is not a creative process, but a methodology consisting of logical deductive and inductive process steps. In other words it mostly remains in the domain of the known. It fits perfectly the ideas of the ancient Greeks. There is no term in the ancient greek language corresponding to “to create” or “creator”. The association the ancient Greeks had was a proces of discovery. Discovery implies it is already there, you just have to find it. Brainstorming is an excellent tool for sophisticated problem solving (and there are problems enough in innovation), but not the most logical process step for creating a breakthrough.

An Idea is a Network

Brilliant insights were always considered to come as a lightning stroke.  As a lamp bulb that turns on and suddenly sheds light on a solution or insight, the so called  “Eureka” moment. There is a nice TED-talk “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson. But nowadays psychologists challenge this view on creativity. As an example Johnson in his talk refers to Howard Grubers work on Darwin. Based on the analysis of Charles Darwin journals, Johnson states that all the basic concepts of Darwin’s “Theory of Natural Selection” were already described in his journal a long period before Darwin had his “Eureka” moment. His key statement “An idea is not a single thing popping-up in an illuminating moment, it is a network”.

Johnson concluded that new ideas and insights come from either interaction with people that have different points of view. This is one way of providing an experience that surprises people and intrigues them. In his talk, he discusses the important role of the first coffee house, “The Grand Cafe in Oxford”. In these places scientist from different disciplines and started discussions, which in the end  led to the birth of Enlightment. This basic insight I have often used to advice innovation managers on making their organisation more creative.

The Importance of Coffee Machines


In essence you want to enhance the opportunity that people meet with different backgrounds and discuss in an unplanned, informal way. Location is an issue. In the late Seventies Thomas Allen already revealed the relation between the probability of unplanned, informal interaction and distance. See figure.

Suppose, you as a manager have a gut feel that there is a high probability of finding novel ideas if two groups of people would interact more. The first step would be to share this “strategic intent” to the people in the group and see whether some individuals from both groups are intrigued and show self-propelling behavior to explore this. Then apply Allen’s findings and co-locate the groups without trying to integrate organizationally. If you would integrate the groups, before you know, time and energy is spend on a classical group development process  – the storming, norming, forming and performing thing instead of exploration. An important underlying enabler is to do this via informal interaction. In this way a coffee machine and a nearby table where people can gather and interact are very instrumental for fostering innovation in organizations.