I recently read John Gertner’s book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It had some great insights into the role that a stimulating environment can play in the creative process and how management can cultivate such an atmosphere. Some of the products invented at Bell (such as the transistor, laser, solar cell, etc.) were conceived of many years prior to their invention and introduction into the public sphere, emphasizing Bell’s long-term oriented goals. The book also describes the management’s role in protecting Bell’s scientists from having to worry about funding constraints and government intrusions.
On a more sinister side, it also described the large concessions that AT&T (which owned Bell Labs) had to make to the US government to maintain its monopoly status. It is clear that there were massive efforts on AT&T’s part to ensure that it could stifle its competitors.
The book also goes on to discuss the model of modern-day businesses and how they are different from the Bell Labs model. Where Bell was a monolith, much of today’s Silicon Valley businesses ascribe to a “fail quickly and often” philosophy which is in stark contrast to the Bell method. This part of the book is particularly interesting as it discusses some similarities between Google, among other companies, and Bell Labs.
There is obviously no right answer here as to how things should be run, but the book does contain little gems of insight that are definitely worth storing in a mental vault. It is worth a read.