– By Mike Konzen, principal and chair
Imagine that you were given the task of inventing an organization that is capable of inventing great things. What sorts of things would your organization invent? What kind of people would you recruit to do the inventing? What would be your recipe for consistent success in this inventing organization, year after year?
Would you look to other creative organizations for inspiration? Disney Imagineering? IDEO?
How about Bell Labs? They were arguably the greatest powerhouse of innovation in the 20th Century. Their researchers are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, semiconductors, the photovoltaic cell, the Unix operating system… even the concept of information technology. They have been awarded seven Nobel Prizes for their work.
Bell Labs is an interesting model for exceptional, sustained success, especially for any organization that highly values innovation and creativity.
In his book, The The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner describes many of the extraordinary leaders of Bell Labs. One of them was Mervin Kelly, who was born and raised right here in Missouri.
Mervin Kelly was passionate about shaping an organization to invent the future. According to Gertner: “To Kelly, inventing the future wasn’t just a matter of inventing things for the future; it was also inventing ways to invent those things.” Kelly committed his life to the invention of a great inventing organization, and all of our lives are better for it.
On March 23, 1950, Kelly outlined his management philosophy in a lecture before the Academy in London, where he described a series of six traits required for an “institute of creative technology” to innovate. I find this list to be particularly inspiring, and have added my own reflections on each:
One: Recruit the best people.
Kelly and Bell Labs was known for recruiting actively from all of the best research universities, effectively creating a pipeline of talent that fueled their innovation machine. This is a compelling challenge for our organization, and one that is crucial for our future growth and success.
Two: Further the education and abilities of its promising employees.
Talented and ambitious staff will aspire to achieve great things, but they need continuous encouragement to grow and develop. Kelly respected this, and invested in many opportunities for his team to seek growth opportunities. Any organization seeking to retain talented staff needs to invest in their development.
Three: House its critical mass close to one another so they can exchange ideas.
Bell Labs invested in facilities, not just to collocate their people, but also to inspire them. Bell’s best innovation occurred when many disciplines could interact and sometimes “accidentally” share insights, so their facilities become a platform for this to happen. An inventing organization’s culture is best served by allowing its members to share the same “creative air.”
Four: Give its employees the tools that they need.
Technical innovation requires investment in equipment and technology. Bell Labs were outfitted with the best technical systems available at the time. But their investment in technology was also very targeted towards specific goals.
Five: Create a stable stream of dollars to fund their work.
This is fundamental for business and for stability. Bell Labs was part of a huge organization which enjoyed a near-monopoly on telecommunications for decades. For smaller businesses such as ours, innovation dollars need to be even more strategically used for maximum effect.
Six: Establish markets for its products.
Innovation and product development are closely intertwined. Generally, Bell Labs did not have to be concerned about marketing their products, but we do. In my opinion, exceptional innovation only achieves full impact when coupled with insightful market strategy and promotion.
Kelly’s list is inspiring, and challenging. Each of his six items is right on target for PGAV Destinations, which thrives on our capacity to innovate and create.
How does your organization foster innovation? What methods have worked for you?