Monday, February 27, 2012

A new innovation paradigm

History, Mark Twain said, doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme.  Spinoza wrote that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  Where innovation is concerned, it seems we have to constantly rediscover what's worked in the past, and return to those models, rather than build on what worked and expand on it.

I'm writing this post today in response to True Innovation, the New York Times article about the innovation engine that was Bell Labs.  The author, Jon Gertner, expounds in the article and in his new book about the innovation that sprung forth from Bell Labs in its heyday.  And quite the innovator it was. Beyond the transistor, much of the basis for the internet and a range of other technologies, the first research into the "big bang" was conducted by Bell Lab employees.  As a powerful R&D engine, Bell Labs was in a league by itself.  But it wasn't in a model by itself.

The original innovation lab was also built in New Jersey, also built by a visionary innovator, but his name was Edison.  In Menlo Park, Edison constructed what was probably one of the first innovation labs, and the one that many R&D centric innovation programs are intentionally or unintentionally modeled on.  Edison's insights, which were novel at the time, were:
  1. House a number of technicians and engineers in one lab
  2. Purposefully explore a number of new technologies in different fields simultaneously
  3. Create plenty of opportunities for cross-pollination across different fields of research
  4. Create an intentional innovation engine, with quantifiable goals for the number of minor and major innovations produced each month
My colleague Dean Hering produced a short video about the first innovation lab, which identifies the muckers (people who worked on the different technologies) and also notes that Edison had a system to capture and process the inventions.  Note as well that after Edison failed to gain much interest in his first invention, an automatic voting system for Congress, that he vowed never to create an invention unless there was a demonstrated market for it.

The point of examining Edison's Menlo Park lab is to say that Bell Labs, while exceptionally innovative, was simply following in the footsteps of Edison's Menlo Park lab, and that other organizations, like Xerox PARC, have since walked in the same footsteps.  Attention should be paid to the antecedents of Bell Labs, and to other firms that have pursued the same concepts.

A new paradigm, building on the old

However, we must build on and expand the Bell Labs model for success in the future.  The markets have changed, customer demands and expectations have changed and therefore how an innovation engine must operate has changed.  Many of the factors that Gertner notes were successful for Bell Labs - interaction across disciplines, long, patient management cycles, as examples - are still relevant, but any innovation engine must embrace the modern realities of innovation as well.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between Bell Labs model and the existing demand for innovation is based on interaction.  The photo says it all - one long hallway filled with Bell engineers.  Today, innovation demand interaction with people inside, and outside, the organization.  Very few firms can afford to hire the number of R&D specialists necessary to drive enough innovation to counter everything that's going on in the rest of the world.  If P&G felt the need to pursue "open" innovation, then every firm must consider how it will participate in open innovation.  Our innovation teams must be open to interaction with external partners for idea exchange, to find and exchange research and new technologies, and open to the method and manner of new product commercialization.

Another significant difference is the range of innovation options available.  Bell Labs and other R&D centric organizations focus innovation on new technical products.  But innovation can be demonstrated through new customer experiences, new services, new business models and more.  The expectation of innovation is much broader, so the delivery of new products, services and business models must become far broader.  Innovation isn't just about new physical products or even new technologies.  Innovation is expected and demanded in all facets of life.  Old business models in industries like publishing are dying and new models must rise to take their place.

Yes, we need to look back at successful models such as Bell Labs, or perhaps even to the predecessor which was Edison's Menlo Park.  But we can't simply replicate these models.  We have to take what's best from these models and add to them the factors that will drive success in today's markets.  Speed, openness and the breadth of innovations delivered are just a few of the ways in which the Bell Labs and Menlo Park models need to change to adapt to needs in this century.

PS:  I have not read Gertner's Book The Idea Factory, so it is possible he explores what modern innovators must add to the innovation models of Menlo Park and Bell Labs.  This post was written in response to the NYT article included in the link above.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:39 AM


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