Creating a Culture of Innovation

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As part of our Great Conversations: Innovation series I want to share some insights gleaned from reading The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner, the definitive history of Bell Labs, America’s greatest incubator of innovation.

Bell Labs was the birthplace of some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including the integrated circuit, the communications satellite and the cellular phone. Significantly, these innovations found application in many areas beyond telecommunications.

What really characterizes Bell Labs is their leadership’s commitment to innovation and a collaborative research style. They created and nurtured an environment in which chemists, physicists, electronic engineers and others worked in close proximity, each bringing their own perspective to finding solutions to project challenges. Bell provided huge resources and support to its research teams, encouraging them to forge ahead despite setbacks, and recognizing that some of their innovations might not have immediate application in telecommunications.

Clearly small businesses do not have similar resources to support innovation on such a grand scale.

So what can small businesses learn from the Bell Labs story and how can it be applied in smaller organizations?

It’s important to first recognize that innovation is not limited to technologic advances as in the case of Bell Labs. In fact, current research reveals that small businesses are becoming increasingly innovative in several non-technical areas such as

  • Discovering innovative solutions for existing problems
  • Adapting to changes in the marketplace in innovative ways
  • Finding innovative ways to increase operational efficiencies
  • Looking at innovations in terms of new products and services

See our last blog: Great Conversations: Innovation

Despite their relative size however, small businesses can become successful innovators on a smaller scale by adopting important aspects of Bell Lab’s culture in which:

Ownership and management:

  • Foster, encourage and support innovative thinking at all levels of the organization
  • Encourage a collaborative approach to finding innovative solutions through blended teams (for a small business, a team might consist of individuals from sales, accounting, marketing, IT and/or other functional areas)
  • Provide the necessary resources for successful implementation

To successfully create and sustain a culture of innovation requires buy-in from staff in all functional areas of the organization. No easy task considering the challenges of overcoming peoples’ natural resistance to change or mitigating the reluctance of some to express their ideas openly and effectively organizing and leading fractious employees, just to name a few. Yet these are challenges that organizations both large and small face when aspiring to become innovative. The interpersonal approach that Bell’s leaders used successfully can scale to any size organization precisely because it’s at the “one-on-one” human level and unrelated to the size of the enterprise.

Other organizations that have succeeded in this regard recognize that this is a process in which management and other innovation advocates engage each employee, striving to get as many “on-board “as possible. It’s a process that requires commitment, patience, dialog, mentoring and time… because successful change can only happen at the speed of buy-in.

The Idea Factory is a must read for entrepreneurs, managers, employees and other thought leaders. It is engaging, informative, inspiring and full of great behind the scenes anecdotes about the truly brilliant and colorful characters that were leading Bell Lab’s Idea Factory.

Bell Labs’ success in creating and sustaining its culture of innovation wouldn’t have been possible without superb leadership at all levels of the organization, and in that regard “Turn the Ship Around” is a great add-on to the Idea Factory story.



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