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Bell Labs, Dan Pink and Enabling Innovation Through Autonomy

Posted February 28, 2012 8:43 AM by Mark Cutler

The Sunday, February 26, 2012, New York Times had a great opinion piece about Bell Labs and how it was the 20th Century's hub of innovation with inventions such as the transistor, the laser, the silicon solar cell, and the first communications satellites. I think Dan Pink, a keynote speaker at our Mission-Driven Management Summit, would agree with a lot of the author's points. The article by Jon Gertner, titled "True Innovation," describes how Mervin Kelly, a physicist who rose to chairman of the board at Bell Labs, was most responsible for its culture of creativity.

This was interesting to me because many clients we work with to help build Balanced Scorecards and manage their strategies establish some kind of strategic objective for their organization to "foster innovation," yet they often do not know how to do this, never mind measure it. Gertner says that to foster innovation, Kelly consciously established "a 'critical mass' of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas." He also required "physical proximity," believing that "phone calls alone wouldn't do."

Kelly went so far as to literally build this into the architecture of a Bell Labs research building in New Jersey. "Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall's length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible."

The part I think that Dan Pink will like has to do with the degree of freedom Kelly thought was crucial for his researchers. Gertner states that "Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work. When he set up the team of researchers to work on what became the transistor, for instance, more than two years passed before the invention occurred."

The success of the culture of creativity at Bell Labs is certainly an example that favors Pink's argument for Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose in motivating people in the work place. To hear more about Pink's theories, join us next week at the Mission-Driven Management Summit at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Filed Under Motivation