History is rife with examples of breakthroughs and innovative leaps. However, if we look to the past 150 years, we begin to notice a clustering of breakthroughs around a handful of organizations that set themselves apart from the rest of the world. While many individuals and companies have contributed significant efforts to the development of innovative technology, specific labs like Menlo Park, Bell Labs, PARC, and Google X have become veritable innovation factories. Most for more than a decade and in some cases, for an entire generation, the culture and structure of these labs provided the perfect storm of people, processes, placement and problems to nurture technological genius.
So what is this perfect storm? Far from being chosen ones with crystal balls, these organizations had targeted, calculated strategies and approaches to generating consistent breakthroughs. By analyzing four of the most successful labs in the history of human kind, we hope to uncover their approaches and shine a light on what creates the culture of innovation.
Menlo Park would serve as the location for Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking research lab. It was opened in 1876, operated for roughly a decade and at its peak, occupied more than 2 square city blocks. Edison’s “Invention Factory” applied for about 400 patents and gave the world the phonograph, a practical incandescent light, the carbon microphone, the electric generator and the electric power distribution system.
Edison’s team was populated by brilliant individuals from all over the world who were largely engineers and master tradesmen – clockmakers, machinists, glassblowers, etc. His lab became a small industrial city, housing nearly all conceivable materials and the equipment necessary to turn these into new inventions. While Edison was a controlling visionary with his work, he pushed his employees to work long hours and to constantly tinker, build, test and refine. Many of his patents were filed as improvements (albeit drastic) to existing inventions as the strength of Menlo Park came not necessarily in its ability to generate unforeseen concepts, but in making breakthroughs that optimized and improved existing inventions to make them inexpensive and robust enough for the consumer market. Edison had created the first industrial laboratory that, instead of leaving research to the academics and application to the factories, brought the conceptualization, development and production of new technology under one roof.
Bell Labs, Alexander Graham Bell’s namesake research lab, was the creative brain trust of AT&T and Western Electric. Formally formed in 1925, this powerhouse of technology would spend more than 5 decades as the world leader in communication technology. A staggering 7 Nobel Prizes were awarded for work completed within the Labs, including the invention of the transistor, discovering cosmic background radiation, creating the CCD and, though never awarded a Nobel Prize, Claude Shannon produced the foundational approach to information theory in 1949, laying the pathway for computers.
While not headed by a singular, controlling demi-God such as Edison, Bell Labs housed its share of techno-heroes to be idolized: Jewett, Shockley, Shannon, and Fletcher. Similar to Menlo Park, Bell Labs brought together multidisciplinary teams that worked to control the full cycle of concept development: theorization to production. However, Bell differed in 2 major ways. In addition to hiring tradesmen and engineers, Bell was staffed by a number of theoretical academics – physicists, chemists, etc. – who were largely held unaccountable for their output and given the autonomy to research by their own interests, sometimes without a clue of what potentially lay at the end of the tunnel. Realities of business existed and the Labs were not without focused projects and deadlines, however, the senior management believed in the scientific pursuit of knowledge and that financial benefit would ultimately emerge. Yet perhaps the most important element of Bell Labs’ success was its endless challenges. Due to the sheer enormity of the AT&T network and the problems and realities of scale, incoming employees were surrounded by problems to solve and stimulus on how they could improve the world.
Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was founded in 1970 as the research wing of Xerox.
Though still existing today as an independent subsidiary, PARC’s heyday was in its first 15 years of operation under the guidance of Bob Taylor. Anticipating trends a decade ahead of their time, PARC would make some of the most important advances to computing including Ethernet, the modern personal computer, GUIs, email, laser printing and object-oriented computing.
Once again, a multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and exploratory culture at PARC reigned supreme. However, PARC’s collaboration reached beyond their own walls and found the team engaging very closely with academia – being situated in a Stanford Research Park – through joint projects, seminars and informal conversations. However, this collaborative spirit at times harmed the lab, such as when a burgeoning Apple Computers was able to tour and steal many of PARC’s best ideas. The culture and environment of PARC likely also had something to do with its success. Beanbag chairs, games and a generally relaxed attitude to working gave employees the comfort and freedom they needed to think creatively. Only by situating PARC thousands of miles from Xerox headquarters in New York was Taylor’s team able to get away with this novel approach to business. However, the distance may have ultimately been PARC’s undoing, as it also served to make it very difficult for Xerox management to see the value of PARC’s inventions and provide support.
Google X is the internet giant’s top-secret research facility that has only come to be known in recent years. Situated in a pair of non-descript, two-story brick buildings only a half-mile from the Googleplex, the group, headed by founder Sergey Brin, has the goal of tackling the most wicked problems in the world in hopes of generating out-of-this world breakthroughs such as Google Glass, driverless cars, diabetic smart contact lenses, and space elevators.
While little is still known about X, the group has the very ostentatious goal of disrupting complacency in the technological world by doing mind blowing research – “moonshots” – intended to improve the state of affairs by leaps and bounds. By pushing employees to engage with radical challenges that deliver near certainty of failure, individuals are forced to restart their thinking about problems instead of simply building on the status quo. Moreover, by knowing that you are working on the most insane, cutting-edge projects in the world, a certain prestige and motivation guides your efforts. X is kept secret not simply for IP concerns, but also to give those within the team the understanding that what they are doing is truly remarkable and must be insulated from the real world.
These four labs by no means hold the patent on breakthrough work, however, they have passed the torch as some of the most innovative organizations of the past century. Looking across these labs, we unquestionably notice differences in how they operate. However, common themes begin to emerge that seem to shine a light on the culture of breakthroughs:
- Committed, visionary leaders
- Passionate, ideologically driven individuals
- Multidisciplinary, collaborative teams
- Autonomy & isolation in operation
- Lack of focus on business realities
- Willingness to fail, but at least try
- Surrounded by impossible challenges
Many of these points are core tenants of Design Thinking, however, it is still important to remind ourselves of their value and to look back to see their power in action. These approaches to innovation are what produced the most important pieces of technology of the past 150 years and yet only a handful of organizations have been able to replicate such environments. While designing the next innovation factory may be a daunting task, at bare minimum, organizations and teams attempting to center themselves around the ideals of innovation should look closely at their predecessors and pay close heed to the common themes identified above.