Comparing and contrasting Bell labs, DARPA, and Venture Research

Venture Research, Bell Labs, and DARPA are all successful innovation organizational paradigms that feel almost like a set of non-orthogonal basis vectors. Venture Research, Bell Labs, and DARPA form non-orthogonal basis vectors over the space of innovation organizations

High level, Venture Research is squarely aimed at Einstein would have been stuck in a patent office - failures of paradigm-shifting science while Bell Labs was targeted at We have no flying cars - failures of paradigm-shifting engineering.

The organizations differed in how they recruited people. Specifically how much each cares about skills, idea crispness, and self-motivation. These different requirements in turn manifest in actual recruiting tactics. Venture research requires all three - idea crispness, self-motivation, and skills. Venture research puts the least weight on skills, with the assumption that the idea’s precision indicates skill or the ability to find people to have it. The coupling between idea precision and skill to execute on it feels intuitively true, but this is an intuition I’m a bit skeptical of. Perhaps it depends on the scope of the project.

Venture research recruited people by strategically making groups of potential applicants aware of its existence, but then waits for applicants to apply. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) does the same thing. The justification (that makes sense) is that the ideas are going to be so out there and the researcher must be so obsessed with them that applying is part of the test. Additionally, they had the hypothesis that the ideas could come from relatively unknown researchers and solicitations would inherently be biased towards more well-known researchers.

Bell Labs hired people before they had a role or expertise - “hey you’re smart and know about electrons, you should come work here.” That is, high focus on general skill but not specific skill and people could have zero idea crispness. In-house organizations have the luxury of ramping up to self-motivation.

DARPA falls somewhere in between. PMs need to be extremely self-motivated day one, but their direction can be internal or external depending on where the idea inception comes from. Ideas can be incepted from many places. The first part of a PMs tenure is focused on sharpening ideas so you don’t need crisp ideas day one. Skills is the tricky one here because while DARPA PMs aren’t the ones actually executing (unlike Venture Research or a Lab) they do need to both be able to quickly create a precise plan and earn the respect of performers (and call bullshit on them.) Since People who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing, that suggests that they do need skill beyond basic knowledge. DARPA is very much a “you don’t call us, we call you” system.

Idea Inception Where do ideas come from?
DARPA has a spectrum of idea inception. In the “idealized” version of DARPA the inception of the vision at least comes from the PM. In reality, the idea can either come from above (the Director/DoD say “we need this”) or below, via the PM talking to experts in a general area and being suggested a specific program idea. In reality the inception is probably an informal iterated mix of the the three (Director has a hunch, hires a PM who has a notion similar to the hunch, they talk about it, the PM holds a workshop where she throws the notion around with some experts and in her head it becomes an idea.)

Venture research requires that the idea be incepted completely by the performer. The venture research team didn’t even solicit proposals from people they thought might be good, which could have ‘corrupted’ the idea inception by implicitly saying “hey we think the things you’ve done in the past might be worthwhile to build off of.”

Bell Labs seems to have had a mix of idea inception. Sometimes it was someone at the top saying “look at this.” Sometimes it was someone like Shannon being very interested in something. The size of the organization supported that mix. It was also hierarchical, in that the “box” inception would be external (“figure out how to make pure germanium”) but within that box there was a lot of inceptive leeway.

Both the different approaches to idea inception and recruiting abstract to what I would call “push vs. pull” approaches. Where to fall on the push-pull spectrum is an important thing for new innovation organizations to think about. When is push or pull appropriate for innovation orgs.

The organizations differed in where the locus of control and risk is located. DARPA Program managers pull control and risk away from both researchers and directors. There’s a spectrum for DARPA on the level of directional control PMs have. Sometimes DARPA will hire program managers because they are smart and are working in an area that’s vaguely interesting to the DoD’s interests. On the other hand, sometimes DARPA will hire program managers to work on a specific program like Have Blue. Notably, the first stealth fighter was built in conjunction with Lockheed Skunkworks who both institutionally resembled Bell Labs and were the instigators for the design - so arguably they took on both more risk and more control. ^1

Venture research puts all of the control and risk in the hands of the researchers, once they have the go-ahead.

Bell Labs put a lot of control in the hands of individuals and research teams. It also seems to have pushed the decision making process as far down as possible - see the anecdote about not showing (or needing to show) demos to higher management until they were sure they had a thing. Bell Labs management was extremely light. However, the management would suggest high level things that people should work on (“Why don’t you take a look at this mobile phones memo”) and would cut off projects (see Pierce’s rules about killing projects without damning the researcher.) That latter point about not damning the researcher brings up a question about risk - who does bear the risk? There’s also the fact that researchers seem to have a lot of control within the constraint of Bell Labs’ mandate to do work that will eventually improve the AT&T system. This “control box” can also be seen at DARPA where PMs have a certain amount of money to play with and need to work on things that the DoD will find relevant.

The organizations have different feedback loops
Feedback loops matter even if there is no control explicitly being exerted.

At DARPA, the PM’s feedback loop with the Director is based on clear tranches. The PMs have a tight feedback loop with the performers - in some cases, the teams touch base every week and can fire them at a moment’s notice. Of course, that also means that the PMs have a ton of context and can provide supplemental funding and other help at a moment’s notice as well. Such a tight feedback loop requires two pieces that are easy to leave behind. First, there needs to be a ton of trust between the PM and the performers. Second, the projects need extremely precise goals so that everybody is on the same page on whether the project

Venture research is at the opposite end of the feedback spectrum from DARPA. Once funding commences, the research is completely open-loop (if the researcher wants it to be) for the full five years of the grant. The open-loop model in venture research gives the researcher an incredible amount of freedom but also requires extremely high trust on the part of the funder. Venture research built trust by iterated meetings to refine precision around the idea.

Bell Labs had more frequent and less formal loops, which they could get away with because everything was in house. Bell Labs management was extremely light. It’s not recorded anywhere but my hunch is that there were a lot of casual “how’s it going” chats but few formal status reports.


The three different organizational models have very different constraints and expected outputs so most of the lessons come from the deltas between the organizations. However, it’s striking that there are a few constant patterns.

Trust is essential for all three approaches
Venture research built trust by iterated meetings to refine precision around the idea - in some cases, it could take up to a year for the researchers to trust the VR team and for the VR team to trust the researchers. This trust was essential because by definition it is basically impossible for anybody who didn’t have the idea to know the underlying risk distribution for paradigm-shifting work. Therefore, rather than just labelling the work ‘high risk’ and expecting it to fail, the VR team built up the trust to understand the researcher’s assessment of their probability distribution. Uncertainty always involves risk but risk does not always involve uncertainty. This trust enabled the researchers to work without worrying that constraints would appear all of a sudden and for the VR org to commit to them for five years.

DARPA requires trust for the opposite reason VR does. Tight feedback loops require trust just as much as loose ones because the performers need to trust that they can be open with how things are actually going to the PM. Additionally in order for the tight feedback loops to exist at all, the director needs to trust PMs enough to give them free rein over spending.

Bell Labs needed trust so that it could switch between these two modes.

Precision is essential for all three approaches
Venture research built trust by iterated meetings to refine precision around the idea. Braben’s assertion that people can develop very precise ideas around paradigm-shifting research up front is counterintuitive but important.

Venture research’s trust-through-precision-refinement could be seen as an externalized version of DARPA’s seedling programs where PM’s build trust and precision through seedling programs once they’re part of the organizations.


^1:The anecdote of a powerful PM with high level direction coming from above and low-level direction coming from below, suggests a that there are different roles in the process that need to be filled, but you can shift them between collaborators, if this fact is understood and transaction costs are low enough. What are the different roles in an innovation org?
^2: It’s also important to think about locus of control vs. perceived locus of control. Specifically, you have Alan Kay’s account of having complete free rein, while at the same time it was clearly J.C.R. Licklider’s project, inception, and vision. There are two explanations I can see for this. One is that someone is wrong: Alan is idealizing/misremembering or Licklider had no idea what he was doing and it all just happened to come together. The other explanation is that Licklider managed to construct programmatic blocks and found people to fill them whose interests were such that they didn’t even notice the boundaries of the box because that is exactly where they wanted to be. This seems very hard.

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