Bell labs asked people to do useful things but left them room to say huh that’s funny

Bell Labs did not give researchers complete freedom, however they also didn’t stop people from exploring if they discovered something that made them say “huh that’s funny.” The ability to say ‘huh that’s funny’ is important for discovering new phenomena. I suspect this mix of direction-setting led to results that wouldn’t happen either through pure bottom-up idea generation or focused top-down management.When is push or pull appropriate for innovation orgs?.

The discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background is of course, the exemplar of this operational mode. Penzias and Wilson were originally tasked to do something useful (experiments for satellite communications) but had the bandwidth to run to (back)ground the reason for the persistent noise they picked up. It’s easy to imagine that on one hand, they might not even have been pointing the telescope at empty space if they weren’t working on the larger satellite system. (As trained astronomers I assume they would be looking at something more interesting.) On the other hand, if they were under extreme pressure to get the project done or publish a paper about satellite communications they could easily have written off the noise as problematic equipment.

This balance between pressure and Slack - concept resembles how DARPA does multiple levels of top-down problem generation and bottom-up solution generation, both between directors and PMs and then between PMs and performers. The similarity suggests that that it might be an effective framework for approaching Pasteur’s Quadrant (Quadrant Model of Scientific Research) in a way that can enable Bohr’s quadrant type discoveries.

There are a couple tactical upshots for innovation organizations in general. One is the fact that light management (Bell Labs management was extremely light) is actually structural. Another is that a major role for people higher in the hierarchy is to make problems as legible and precise as possible. Legible problems both shove people out of a comfort zone but give them the room to discover the unexpected. Legibility enables action


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