Paper-Jam Pearls and the Communal Coffee-Pot

Workspaces can foster the casual interactions which encourage collaboration if they provide for three factors: Proximity, Privacy and Permission.

July-August’s Harvard Business Review is devoted to collaboration and includes an article by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, entitled Who Moved My Cube, which explores these factors.  There are sufficient examples of unintended consequences to suggest that – while it is all too easy to stymie collaboration – actually encouraging it is next to impossible.  Luckily, the authors provide their Proximity / Privacy / Permission framework with examples of how it can work in both the physical and online realms.

The physical environment is important of course – and in ways which may not be intuitively obvious such as the need to create alcoves and the like to allow for privacy.  However, a bigger factor is human psychology: enabling preference, signalling permission and creating reasons for casual interaction.

A fantastic finding – which we all will recognise – is the value of photocopiers in promoting interaction.  Queues, paper-jams and arcane knowledge of the black (or coloured) arts of toner cartridge replacement all encourage casual interaction and potential collaboration: the zen of Xerox. 

Similarly, beware the coffee machine.  The head of a lab at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, recognising the importance of the coffee break sought to improve interaction by replacing the communal coffee pot with an upmarket single-serve machine.  However, by removing the dynamic of clustering around a fresh pot of coffee, his investment had the opposite effect.

There is some sort of message here about the danger inherent in a flawless, faultless life.  Without the grit of a paper-jam or an empty coffee pot, we can’t expect to encourage the pearls of innovation.

The full article is in the print issue and available to subscribers.  A summary is available here.


About Andrew Munro

An independent business consultant, interim manager and writer, Andrew operates through his company, Burning Pine Ltd (
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