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Apr 26

Welcome to the Idea Factory


In: Strategy Insights

The book I read for my book report was The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It was very interesting. The character I liked best was… OK, just kidding. But this post is a book report of sorts. I just got done reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation and it’s awesome for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost is that I (and I suspect many others) have only the vaguest idea of how modern technology works. I press a button…NPR! I click an icon…INTERNET! So reading about the process of going from old timey phones to what amounts to a computer that fits in your pocket (and also makes calls) is ridiculously interesting. (For the full effect, I recommend pairing this book with Steve Job’s biography and then pairing that book with The Pixar Touch).

Second, Bell Labs largely invented the future, which is what we today call daily life. To do so they gathered up all the best minds of a generation, put them together and told them to do great things. And they did. The thing is, pretty much every company is trying to do what Bell Labs did. So why was Bell Labs this amazing hotbed of innovation and other companies not so much. Sure, AT&T’s monopoly had something to do with it, but more than anything innovation wasn’t just a buzzword at Bell Labs, it completely defined every aspect of their culture.

chart Image credit: Bill Marsh/New York Times

Before we get started, here’s a short history lesson for everyone (like myself) who had never even heard of Bell Labs before:

Bell Labs was formed as a research and development arm of AT&T and its sole mission was to make telecommunications cheaper, better, or both. Essentially it was designed to make AT&T money through innovation. This eventually led to things like the radar, the transistor, the laser, satellite communications and fiber optic communications. Bell Labs is also where the information age was born. As in, the age we are currently we’re living in. Information Theory, which is (and this is a gross oversimplification) essentially communication via binary data, was developed by at Bell Labs by Claude Shannon, a man Einstein(!) called a genius. So yeah, Bell Labs was, and is, kind of a big deal.

smart people Image credit: Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs, via Associated Press

The Idea Factory not only gives you a glimpse into the history of Bell Labs (and, in turn, the modern era), but also explores how Bell Labs became so successful in breeding innovation. As it turns out, innovation is about more than just being smart, or lucky, or just willing products and ideas into existence. There is a method to the brilliance. Here it is:

1. Find and hire brilliant people

In an industry so focused on technology and mechanics, it was always about the people. Bell Labs hired the smartest people they could find. Not smart people, they hired THE smartest people. And to do that they relied on an old school kind of social network: relationships with people they knew and trusted. Bell Labs received a constant supply of brilliant minds from the top technical schools in the country. Professors there had relationships with the top brass at Bell Labs and would steer their best students there.

2. Put them in a room together

Bell Labs had a layout that would probably be considered inefficient by today’s architectural standards. People were forced to walk down long, long hallways to get just about anywhere. For circulation, it was a pain. For innovation, it was a boon. People from different disciplines were constantly running into each other. Out of these chance meetings sprung countless ideas and discussions that led to new technologies. It wasn’t a mistake when Steve Jobs did something similar at Pixar.

3. Get them to share their ideas

Bell Lab’s culture was founded on openness. It was a practically verboten for office doors to be closed. Scientists held seminars and lectures to share the cool stuff they were working on because they were excited about learning and sharing their progress. Regardless of your standing in the company—whether you had changed the course of history by inventing the transistor or were so new you were still trying to figure out where the bathrooms were—you were expected to help out any colleague that came to you with a question.

4. Give them the freedom to do what they do best

Mostly, Bell Labs just trusted the brilliant people it hired to be brilliant. It didn’t matter if it took years of research or development or both for a breakthrough to happen. It didn’t matter if someone was napping in their office in the middle of the day or riding a unicycle up and down the halls while juggling (Claude Shannon). The top brass at Bell Labs knew they’d hired smart, motivated people so they gave them the freedom to pursue their interests and be themselves.

If you’re too lazy to read the whole book, check out this article in the NYT, which sums everything up nicely in three pages.


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