I’ve just finished “The Idea Factory” and although it was long, I really enjoyed it.
It deals with a question that kept me (and many others) busy in the past few years: What causes innovation? and it’s doing it by telling the history of the most productive scientific laboratory on the planet (between 1920 to 1980): Bell Labs.
How did this organization become such a success story?
Bell labs produced seven Nobel Prizes and contributed important innovations: the transistor, transatlantic cable, the laser, UNIX, C++, photovoltaic cells, error-corrected communication, charged-coupled devices, digital communications and the mobile phones.
It’s cool to learn how they thought of these ideas and then brought them to life. I especially like the part of looking at the problem and trying to identify all the missing parts in terms of technology and addressing them first. It’s a unique approach, as in most cases, engineers are doing the opposite – they look at what they know and try to build it first.
One of the critical success factors was to realize the value that basic scientists, mainly physicists, and chemists, could bring to the table along with engineers. During World War II Bell Labs gained a reputation for taking on challenging military projects like radar. The war made the benefits of supporting basic science clear. One of the stars was Claude Shannon, an eccentric genius who invented information theory which essentially underlies the entire modern digital world.
What made Bell Lab so productive?
When Kelly moved the lab to Murray Hill, he designed its physical space in ways that would have deep repercussions for productive thought and invention. He interspersed the basic and applied scientists together without any separation. That way even the purest of mathematicians was forced to interact with and learn from the most hands-on engineer. If you thinking about today’s ‘open space’ layout in offices – you got the right picture in mind.
This led to an exceptional cross-fertilization of ideas, an early precursor of what we call multidisciplinary research (e.g. as today we have physicists in hedge funds and artist in software development). The Bell Labs offices were divided by soundproof steel partitions that could be moved to expand and rearrange working spaces. This gave them the freedom to change the space per project.
The labs were all lined along a very long, seven-hundred-foot corridor where everybody worked with their doors open. This physical layout ensured that when a scientist or engineer walked to the cafeteria, he or she would “pick up ideas”.
Other rules that helped to roll the magic wheel:
- You were not supposed to turn away a subordinate if he came to ask you for advice. This led to the greenest of recruits learning at the feet of masters like Bardeen or Shannon.
- You were free to pursue any idea or research project that you wanted, free to ask anyone for advice, free to be led where the evidence pointed. Yes, It’s similar to the 20% rule in Google. This extraordinary freedom was made possible by the immense profits generated by the monopolistic AT&T, but the heart of the matter is that Bell’s founders recognized the importance of focusing on long-term goals rather than short-term profits. They did this by gathering bright minds under one roof and giving them the freedom and time to pursue their ideas. This policy led not only to fundamental discoveries but to practical inventions greatly benefiting humanity.
The best way to generate ideas still is to hire the best minds, put them all in one place and give them the freedom, time and money to explore, think and innovate.
You will be surprised how much long-term benefit you get from that policy. As Jewel said, “hard wood grows slowly”.