Innovation isn't an accident

The pandemic forced a global, unexpected, non-consensual remote work experiment and the results are still being analyzed. But one thing that has become abundantly clear over the past three years is that many leaders don’t believe that remote workers can innovate.

The dominant theory advanced by these leaders is that in-person work leads to serendipitous moments and those unexpected interactions create unpredictable but positive outcomes for product development.

There are two key flaws in that theory:

  1. Innovation doesn’t require serendipity.

  2. Serendipity in the office is a myth.

Andy Jassy, the current CEO of Amazon and a guy who received his Harvard MBA at the height of the Tamagotchi craze, went on CNBC and said “You just don’t riff the same way [remotely].”1

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple and a guy who received an MBA from Duke in the same year Half-Life was released, told People Magazine that “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity. It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”2

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase and person who earned a Harvard business degree in the same year the Commodore 64 was released, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”3

I know what you’re going to say, and sure, these three retirement-age white dudes are probably not the foremost experts on the cultural capabilities of the internet, and you’d be right about that. But that’s not why they want everyone to come back into their offices. No, they want to put things back the way they were because they don’t know where innovation actually comes from, and they’re scared.

• • •

Innovation does not hinge on serendipity.

Let me say it again: innovation is possible in the complete absence of unexpected events. Innovation can be, and is, planned.

If innovation is not happening, it isn’t because some perfect mixture of accidental conditions failed to materialize, it is because leaders failed to create the environment in which innovation can happen.

Think about it this way: some of the greatest technical and business upsets in history were the result of great product managers, designers, or engineers solving a known problem with a new technology, way of thinking, or combination of the two.

To credit “chaos theory” or “serendipity” with the ability to think outside the box is to do a great disservice to all of our highly valued creative workers.

• • •

Even if serendipity were absolutely essential to innovation (which it isn’t), the notion that these “serendipitous interactions” can only happen in physical offices is equally untrue.

In her newsletter “Remotely Interesting,” which covers people-first strategies for working in a post-office world, Marissa Goldberg writes:

Serendipitous moments are ones that happen by complete chance. But that coffee chat moment in the office occurred due to structure. You worked in the same physical office as your coworker and had the same work schedule. This structure is what brought the two of you together, not chance.

People who run into each other by the coffee machine and have “shower thoughts” are doing that because they want a break from their “real work.” Implicit in the notion of serendipitous encounters in offices is freedom to stop and start “real work” (or “heads-down work,” or “individual work”) at will.

That kind of unstructured interaction can, and does, happen in remote and hybrid settings. Whether it can happen, whether it’s optimized for, and whether it’s implicitly or explicitly encouraged, is for leadership to decide.

Some of the same leaders yearning for the serendipity of the office have simultaneously implemented employee monitoring systems that seem to contradict the notion that taking breaks from work generates new ideas. You can’t have it both ways, no matter what your Harvard or Duke MBA professors taught you.

These same leaders are quoted in high-profile business publications decrying “quiet quitting” and how “nobody wants to work anymore.” Meanwhile, they are riding their employees raw with Taylorism-inspired metrics, measures, and evaluations. It would be a wonder if anyone could have a single inspired thought under those conditions.

• • •

A keystone of creative problem solving and top-tier product design is diversity of perspective.4 Without that diversity, your solutions will be narrowly scoped at best, and discriminatory or dangerous at worst.

Google Plus, the ill-fated social network, initially required users to provide their full real names and select their gender identity from an embarrassingly narrow list of options (“male,” “female,” “other”). Those policy choices absolutely led to avoidable harassment and bullying on the platform.

It’s a safe bet that those decisions wouldn’t have been made by a more diverse team, and by some accounts the initial Google Plus team was essentially all men.

To build a product that works for different kinds of people, it needs to be built by different kinds of people. That means welcoming not only people of different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities, but also people who are introverts and extroverts, who are neurotypical and neurodivergent, who are differently abled or differently motivated.

A hybrid environment allows us to build maximally creative and effective teams. At no point in human history has it been this easy to bring all of these people together.

• • •

If you want more innovation in your team, or in your business, think about what that might look like. Be honest with yourself about how much you want to bet your investors’ cash on “random encounters” rather than deliberately building an environment that encourages different people with different perspectives to create energy and friction with one another.

If you’re concerned that your existing creative staff are not producing the kinds of new ideas you’re hoping for, consider that what they might need is space and time. Great new ideas are not produced by anxious, stressed, “busy” people struggling against the yoke of a bi-annual performance review process weighed down by proxy metrics.

Questions for you

  1. People say they have great ideas in the shower because it’s one of the few places left where there are few distractions. What could you be doing to reduce distractions for your teams?

  2. How are decisions being made in your organization today? How do you know they’re the right decisions for all the different kinds of people they will affect?

  3. What could you do to diversify the perspectives around you?

Lead image by Midjourney AI