For more than half the twentieth century, Bell Labs was arguably the most innovative research institution in the country. Its scientists developed and refined radar during World War II. They developed the transistor and the first silicon solar cells. They perfected the laser and made fiber-optic communication feasible; they pioneered satellite communication and cellular telephony. They invented the charge-coupled device (CCD) that forms the basis of digital photography, and they gave the world Unix and the C programming language. And one day, almost incidentally, two of them were among the first to prove the viability of nuclear reactors.
The question winds through The Idea Factory: what is innovation? What does it look like? How does it happen, and how can we make it happen more often? Today it’s become a vacuous buzzword – stumbling companies just need to “remember how to innovate,” as though they’d simply misplaced the instructions for the innovation machine – but the men who ran Bell Labs genuinely believed they had a valuable formula for innovation. Kelly explained it to anyone who asked: failure was necessary. The odds of creating a new and popular technology were always stacked against the innovator; only where the environment allowed failure could truly groundbreaking ideas be pursued.
John Pierce tried to define more concrete precepts, and established four. First, management had to be technically competent; at Bell Labs, all managers were former researchers. Second, no researchers should have to raise funds. They should be free of that pressure. Third, research should and would be supported for years – if you want your company to last, take the long view. And finally, a project could be terminated without damning the researcher. There should be no fear of failure.
In 1972, at the age of 16, I had the incredible good fortune to land a job as a systems programmer at the Computer-based Education Research Lab at the University of Illinois. CERL was the lab where the PLATO System was built. Don Bitzer, the director of the lab, set the overall vision and direction, but his management style was to open the door to any smart, creative people who were intrigued by what was going on there, and pretty much turn them loose to see what they could make. Even as a teenager, I had tremendous freedom to work on almost anything that interested me. There was no schedule, no meetings, no managers assigning tasks and tracking due dates. And the result was a system that was 20 years ahead of its time.