The "Fallacy of Stochastic Invention"

If you haven’t seen this video that WebMD parent company “Internet Brands” sent to their employees telling them that they need to return to the office, you really have to check it out. It’s cringe-inducing, tone deaf, and callous in the way that American business has desperately worked to normalize for decades.

“We work better together,” Internet Brands CEO Bob Brisco states in the video, adding, “We aren’t asking or negotiating at this point.” The video leaked to the public and the reaction was… Predictable.

“Well,” you might say, “CEOs gonna CEO.” That’s true, the withering empathy of the C-suite, unchecked by labor or anti-trust protections dissolved by Ronald Reagan, has allowed the American CEO to evolve into a different species, one which looks upon its employees as “inconvenient gut flora1.”

But all that aside, the entire stated basis of this message is fallacious, and I’ll tell you why.

• • •

Many American CEOs—and especially those who are older than, say, 50—suffer from an extreme case of sadistic nostalgia. Their condition causes them to believe that things were better before, and that returning to the old ways inflicts necessary pain. They probably believe this because they rose to the top of the corporate ladder during a time when the fastest way to get a contract signed was to send a fax, and they believe all these people who want to work where and when they want to are “quiet quitters,” and deserve to suffer the consequences of being set right.

Being not without some modest sense of diplomacy, or perhaps under pressure from their corporate communications departments, none of these guys (they’re all guys) will just say “I want you back here because presiding over a visibly bustling workplace is literally my childhood dream and COVID-19 took that away from me.” Instead, they need some sort of euphemism. An excuse that sounds reasonable enough to convince the worker bees to come back to the hive.

What reason could there be to require people to return to their offices that doesn’t center the superficial greed of money and power and ego?

“We work better together!”

That’s bullshit, of course. The claim that people produce more innovation when they are physically collocated is contradicted by hundreds of years of invention. The idea that serendipitous conversations around the metaphorical water cooler create unexpected invention and progress toward the company’s goals is what I call the “Fallacy of Stochastic Invention.”

• • •

The Fallacy of Stochastic Invention is the belief that evolutions of current ideas, the creation of new ideas, and full-on whole-cloth inventions spring forth from these random interactions between bored, overworked people trying to escape the grip of their unforgiving calendars to get a cup of coffee.

In over 20 years working in offices I can say confidently that the entire notion of creative serendipity in a shared workplace is a myth. People get up from their desks because they want to take a break from all this shit, and nobody wants to get cornered in the kitchenette to brainstorm widget improvements.

History supports this critique. Most of the greatest inventions in history were conceived by one person, or several people separately and simultaneously2. In many cases the discovery was the result of concerted research and development efforts (penicillin, the internet) or one person’s random observation (Velcro, the microwave).

None of those inventions were conceptually triggered, nor materially furthered, by some serendipitous workplace interaction. Serendipity has definitely played a role in invention throughout time, but it’s never been necessary for an energetic creator to be physically around colleagues for those moments to strike.

The modern CEO’s assertion that real-time, in-person interactions are key to innovating and to collaborating effectively are contradicted by hundreds of years of inventions. Until around 1900, few people had telephones, so every invention before that time in which people worked together across any distance instantly disproves the hypothesis.

In point of fact, many of the greatest inventions of all time were developed through the use of a long-distance communication technology called “writing letters.”

• • •

The kind of serendipity that leads to Isaac-Newton-style “a-ha” moments exists independent of where and how people work. Sometimes it happens during a conversation with a coworker and sometimes it happens in the shower and sometimes it happens while making dinner.

Creativity is the mutation of ideas; the product of misfiring neurons, accidental connections, and “oblique strategies”3. The most sure-fire way to smother creativity is to be thoroughly prescriptive about every detail of where, when, and how people should interact and produce their work.

Producing work in a rigorously controlled way produces rigorously predictable results. When you are manufacturing a million widgets, it’s important that they are all made the same. When you are creating something new, you must be open to “mishap” and “waste,” because that’s where all the innovation is.

You can’t force the conditions that spark innovation or invention!

When people aren’t delivering what they were hired to deliver, when they fail to live up to the standards that were clearly set for them, that is the time to talk about whether their ways of working are effective and appropriate. Until then, and to the greatest extent possible, defend creativity.

• • •

The technology at our disposal today is pure science fiction when seen from our past. Our capacity to share our ideas instantly, with anyone, over any distance, in media-rich formats is enabling the exact sorts of unpredictable connections that lead to groundbreaking innovations.

We’re no less productive, no less creative, and no less vigorous in our invention than the people who came before us, who—may I remind you—didn’t even have Slack!

Your job as a leader is to defend the space in which creativity blooms and to discover what is actually not working and engage the organization in resolving it. The kind of idea mutation that will propel your work is created by teams of diverse people with differing lifestyles and preferences, and part of your role is to walk the tightrope between what needs to get done and honoring the autonomy of people to accomplish it.

There has never been a time when our modern standard of flexibility and observability has been so easy, or so cheap. How will you use it to give your employees more freedom, rather than less?

Questions for you

  1. How do you create space for creativity in your teams?

  2. What kinds of unexpected results do you celebrate?

  3. What signals do you use to recognize team effectiveness?

  1. Tiktok’s enshittification, Cory Doctorow ↩︎

  2. Multiple discovery, Wikipedia ↩︎

  3. Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt ↩︎

Lead image by Midjourney AI