Today, few people would describe AT&T as a particularly innovative (or for that matter, particularly admired) company. But once upon a time, Bell Labs was a bastion of innovation.
In fact, Jon Gertner describes Bell Labs in its heyday as “the most innovative scientific organization in the world.” He points to a number of conscious decisions that fostered an innovative, collaborative environment:
1) Physical co-location – AT&T intentionally put various unrelated teams in the same place, which encouraged cross-disciplinary conversations. This interaction was further enhanced by the building architecture, which encouraged researchers to mingle.
2) Empowerment – Bell Labs gave its researchers the autonomy to pursue their ideas without senior managers breathing down their necks.
3) Time -AT&T realized that sometimes, it’s important to let ideas percolate for a while. They gave time to their scientists, without worrying overmuch about instant results.
Gertner’s article is quite good – you should read the whole thing. The one thing he fails to describe is Bell Labs decision-making processes. I’d like to know how they analyzed their projects and made decisions – did they employ a process akin to, for example, the Six Thinking Hats? How did Bell Labs evaluate their results? And ultimately, what led to their decline?