Bell Labs management was extremely light

Bell Labs management gave researchers autonomy, both to work on what they thought was best and with whom they wanted. While on paper this is what most management claims to do, in practice that’s rarely the case. So it’s worth digging into what light management at Bell Labs tactically entailed and perhaps how they were able to walk the walk instead of talk the talk.

Bell Labs had explicit policies that prevented managers from controlling who could collaborate with whom. My hunch is that the policies were more a codification of culture than anything else and someone citing the policy and telling their boss ‘you can’t stop me!’ was rare. However, it’s telling that unrestricted collaboration was part of the culture worth encoding. This managerial getting out of the way was one of the ways that Bell Labs enabled free radicals.

A believer in granting a degree of autonomy to researchers, he had not asked about, and had not been kept appraised of Bardeen and Brattain’s work. What’s more, there was a tendency at Bell Labs to confine important developments to middle management for a purgatorial period.
Bell Labs management did not put pressure on researchers to produce demos and there was an explicit time delay built in as the demos moved up the management chain. This approach — basically the inverse of the Media Lab’s “demo or die” — is worth calling out because expectations around demos have a strong effect on organizations that isn’t discussed enough. In some ways demos are valuable because they put pressure on people to get their work into a form that’s legible to people outside of their thought bubble. On the other hand they can often lead to creating “movie set products” where they are basically shiny shells that can do the demo and nothing else. Bell Labs’ management seems to have walked that line well. In order for the purgatorial period to work, moreover, the middle managers need to have in turn not felt pressure to surface demos in order to advance their careers.

John Pierce gave four reasons why Bell Labs worked and A technically competent management all the way to the top is the first item on that list. I suspect that the technical competence helped the management stay light because it enabled trust between the managers and researchers. Research requires more trust than other disciplines. This trust meant that there was less dependence on metrics and milestones. The trust, and its resulting light management and efficiency is why People who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing.

Interestingly, the management style at Bell Labs actually seems similar to JCR Licklider’s management at ARPA - find awesome people, get on the same page about the precise problems they’ll go after, and then let them rip. DARPA does multiple levels of top-down problem generation and bottom-up solution generation.

At the same time, we shouldn’t hero-worship Bell Management. Pierce may also have just been a bad manager and light management just kept him from doing damage….
The brunt of his management work [at Bell Labs] had consisted of dropping in, unannounced, on colleagues in their labs to ask how work was progressing.

They still committed classic management false negative (preventing someone from doing something useful.) Types of management error. Gordon Teal still had to do the classic “work overnight on the side project” move to show that he actually could create high-purity chunks of germanium.

And of course, one has to hold the simultaneous views that while Bell Labs’ management was light, Bell Labs did not give researchers complete freedom. All the work at Bell Labs needed to tie back to the system. My current mental model for integrating these seemingly contradictory is similar to a coconut - high-resistance exterior and low resistance interior. Bell labs asked people to do useful things but left them room to say huh that’s funny.


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