#42: 💡 Building the Modern “Idea Factory”
Reassessing Approaches to Innovation: Drawing Insights from Bell Labs
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💡 Building the Modern “Idea Factory”
📚 The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Building the Modern “Idea Factory”
Bell Labs, also known as the "Idea Factory," was one of the most innovative laboratories of the 20th century. It was a place where scientists and engineers were encouraged to collaborate and think outside the box, resulting in groundbreaking innovations such as the transistor and the laser. Today, many companies and research institutes try to replicate this model of innovation, and fail to do so.
Silicon Valley and the ideas of hypergrowth have planted the thought in our minds that we need to generate a lot of good ideas, build them and scale them quickly to unicorn-level returns.
Broadly, focusing on ideas is the beginning of the problem.
Bell Labs' researchers Marvin Kelly and Clinton Davisson of Bell Labs, would repeat the notion that there were plenty of good ideas out there, almost too many. Instead, they were looking for good problems.
Understanding the rhythm of innovation is another key aspect often overlooked. Bell Labs thrived from the 1920s to the 1980s, cultivating nearly a century of relentless R&D. They had the luxury of time, abundant resources, and an unrivaled reputation that attracted and nurtured the best minds, providing them the space to flex their creativity and take risks.
In contrast, today we seem to be racing against time, seeking immediate genius and innovation in an environment that inadvertently stifles both. Bell Labs' progress was marked in decades, not years—a perspective shared by another luminary, Bill Gates, who once said, 'Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.'
Genius is not predictable, and we’re looking for it on condensed time scales in environments that put pressure on inventors and stifle innovation.
What’s going wrong in research institutes today?
1. Siloed Structure
Many research institutes are structured in a way that creates silos between different departments. Departments can be separated by buildings or even be on an entirely different part of a university campus. This physical separation can prevent interdisciplinary collaborations simply due to the distance.
In research institutes, each Principal Investigator’s (PI’s) lab has its own focus, and the students and postdocs in that group usually share a dedicated office and laboratory together. This makes it easy to stay solely within your lab group and not interact with anyone else. It can even lead to competition between lab groups and being discouraged from working with certain PIs.
When researchers work in silos, they are less likely to share their knowledge and expertise, leading to missed opportunities for collaboration and innovation.
2. Funding Model
Bell Labs had one thing that most research institutes lack. Money, and a lot of it.
“The [Bell] System constitutes the largest aggregation of capital that has ever been controlled by a single private company at any time in the history of business. It is larger than the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and United States Steel Corporation put together. Its gross revenues of more than one billion dollars a year are surpassed by the incomes of few governments of the world. The System comprises over 200 vassal corporations. Through some 140 companies it controls between 80 and 90 percent of local telephone service and 98 percent of the long-distance telephone wires of the United States.”
Bell Labs was unique in that the research done there was done with no profit motive.
Nowadays U.S. corporations, in particular, demand a quick turnaround for profits on the money they allocate to research.
But, research institutes should be places purely for research, right?
Yes, but they are rife with problems…
Many research institutes rely on funding from grants, which can limit the types of research that can be conducted. Researchers may be discouraged from exploring new and innovative ideas because they do not fit within the scope of the grant. This stifles creativity and hinders innovation.
Even Venture Capital has its restrictions. Venture capital is tied to KPIs, key performance indicators, which mean that the freedom to explore, experiment and fail can oftentimes be discouraged.
3. Lack of Diversity
Research institutes often lack diversity in the backgrounds and perspectives of their researchers. When the majority of researchers on a team come from similar backgrounds and/or have similar perspectives, they are less likely to challenge each other and think outside the box.
In research institutes the Principal Investigators (PIs) are the top dogs and what they say goes. Strong opinions and loud voices tend to win most debates. As a graduate or undergraduate student, it can be hard or sometimes impossible to challenge them especially when the student’s degree completion is in their PIs hands. Many may not wish to take the risk.
5. No “North Star”
Bell Labs had a shared goal and vision. Their “North Star” was propelling communication forward. In research institutes, each PI is an expert in their domain and their lab researches that domain. The labs act like mini-companies within the research institute, sometimes even with their own branding and logos.
Aligning all the PIs at an institute under one “North Star” goal is unheard of.
But is it impossible?
How can we reshape research organizations to spark creativity?
1. Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Break down the silos.
Put everyone in the same room.
Mix things up by encouraging researchers from different departments to work together and share their knowledge and expertise.
This can start by inviting other research groups to your group meetings, or even just visiting a department building a group has never been in before. The same can be done between companies, startups and research institutes, in the form of meetups, conferences, or weekend hackathons.
Forming bridges between siloed organizations will lead to innovation, because when you take experts from different fields and bring them together, everyone is looking for the connective thread to their own expertise.
2. Flexible Funding Model
The current research funding model is too competitive and restrictive. Not enough funding is available, leaving PIs to spend most of their time applying for grants rather than using their knowledge for research and discovery.
When innovators are constantly worried about funding their research lab, they are not working at their highest ability. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, all your needs have to be met for you to be at your most creative. Creating a financially stable environment for innovators to feel emotionally supported in an empowering setting can lead to breakthroughs.
Funding from governments, nonprofits and philanthropy could be offered to explore the unknown and to reward taking risk on moonshot ideas. This would allow researchers to explore new and innovative ideas that may not fit within the scope of traditional grants.
Additional funding changes could be stipends offered that are not tied to outcomes. Funding doesn't have to solely be multi-year grants. For example, a 6 month innovation stipend could be provided to cover living expenses, materials and equipment, and let people free to explore during that time, and if the research is solving a big problem and looking promising then more funding is unlocked.
A funding structure I find interesting is the Entrepreneur First (EF) model. EF provides a stipend to cover living expenses for 12 weeks, puts 50-100 smart people of very different backgrounds physically into the same room, and tells them to find big problems that need solving and ideate. The results have created a portfolio of 500+ companies valued at over $10 Billion. The results speak for themselves.
3. Support Intellectual Growth
The companies participating in hypergrowth hiring and then big firing are doing it all wrong.
When companies fire staff to cut costs, it displays a terrible example of creating a supportive environment. The staff lucky enough to survive the layoffs are overworked, overwhelmed and have no time for creative thinking. While the staff cut loose are hurt, angry with their employer, soured on the experience, and unlikely to return.
Bell Labs experienced financial struggle during the Great Recession but their solution was creative. They cut employee’s hours rather than fire them, and guess what their engineers did with the spare time? They went to college for courses or to get another degree. When Bell Labs could afford them full-time again, instead of losing a talented employee, they got one back with more skills and talent.
4. Check your Ego at the Door
Drop the competition and decide to work together. It takes a village to create breakthroughs and groundbreaking innovation. This requires a culture of humility and collaboration, where every idea is valued, and every member of the team feels welcome and encouraged to contribute.
5. Establish a Common Goal
Have a uniting goal or a 'North Star' that drives all the individual efforts towards a larger, shared vision. This doesn't mean narrowing down the fields of research, but rather establishing a broad, ambitious objective that can inspire and guide the diverse activities of the institute. This shared vision encourages collaborative efforts and helps in aligning the works of different labs and departments towards a singular impactful goal.
For instance, a research institute could set a goal to solve a major global issue such as climate change or disease eradication. This type of 'North Star' can incorporate various fields of research like biotechnology, environmental science, data analysis, and can promote interdisciplinary collaborations. We saw during the COVID19 pandemic, that it’s not impossible for research institutes and companies to align under one goal, in fact we way that alignment can dramatically accelerate discovery and development.
To foster creativity and innovation, research institutes need to reassess their structural and cultural paradigms. Utilizing the five examples listed above, institutes can go a long way in recreating the kind of innovative environment that Bell Labs was known for. Innovation is not a linear process. It requires time, freedom, and the right environment to thrive, and these changes can help research institutes create such an environment.
📚 Book of the Week
This should come as no surprise that the BOTW is…
5 / 5 Stars
From 1920 to the 1980’s Bell Labs was the biggest and arguably the best laboratory for new ideas in the world. Author Jon Gertner tells the story of the key innovators that spent their careers at Bell and created some of the 20th century's most important inventions.
⚡️ Check This Out
Queen Cleopatra on Netflix.
The story of Cleopatra is fascinating…the reenactments in the documentary, not so much.
We all knew Cleopatra was a badass. But did you know she was bilingual, had children from both Caesar and Mark Antony, and killed her siblings? Me neither. The bad acting is worth the struggle to up your Cleopatra knowledge.