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SPIE Professional July 2010

Fueling Innovation

Lessons learned from Bell Labs

By Angelique Irvin

There is plenty of writing on how to sift through all your company’s intellectual property to find the few exceptional profit drivers; this article is not about how to pick the best innovation from a large mass of assets. This is about the culture, structure, and tactics that fuel innovation. It’s not a scientific analysis, but a discussion of the art form that drives innovation.

Specifically, this is an article about how one large goliath, Bell Laboratories, created more Nobel laureates and innovation than any other company, and what dynamics helped the Labs amass an incredible wealth of intellectual property.

I worked at Bell Labs during its prime as a member of the technical staff and as a board of directors’ committee member who focused on new technology commercialization. I learned the basics of successful technology innovation there. These basics include three strategic elements—creating a vision, a culture, and a process for innovation—and several tactical essentials that I believe organizations can use to create true technological inspiration and new products and markets.

Everyone knows the vision

At Bell Labs, our vision was to focus on enhanced communication technology. That was broad enough to allow people to find new areas to innovate, but focused enough for us to build the right team.

That vision fit well with an engineer’s favorite job: fixing a problem. Discussing those problems with each other, the technical challenges and how to fix them, is what drove innovation.

We had many venues for technologists to connect with others outside of their immediate work space to work on better communication technology. For example, one of the best things about Bell Labs was lunch. You sat down at lunch and listened to what was going to happen in technology. Cell phones were going to be small and mobile, they were going to go wireless, we would be able to talk on them with ear pieces, and there would be voice recognition systems. Nobody else talked about voice recognition systems in the 1980s.

These guys were inventing the fundamental technology, and they had the vision to see where it would go.

Creating the culture

To create a culture of innovation, hire the best leaders you can find as well as some of those crazy, out-of-the-box thinkers. It does not matter if they do not fit the norm of what someone in your industry should look like.

Keep the doors open and the work schedules flexible. Innovation is not scheduled; you must trust that your employees will be responsible. If they’re not, they don’t belong on your team.

The only reason to close doors is for meetings or to talk to a colleague about something personal. Doors need to be open so people can be collaborative. Connect your work areas. Your innovation group, prototype group, and the manufacturing group shouldn’t be separated.

Structuring risk

Emerging businesses thrive only when you create a venue for risk-taking. You must reward people who are courageous enough to take the risks required to innovate.

Go out and make this happen. You can enable risk-taking in a structured way and still have accountability, whether your people succeed or fail.

Give prestige to inventor programs or technology sabbaticals, where people get to step out into another area and develop their own idea. No one is willing to take that risk unless there is a big reward. And most importantly, don’t punish them if they don’t succeed.

Enabling self-management

Make sure to select very clear boundaries and expectations on the time, money, and results you want. Break it down into little bites so that you don’t spend too much time or too much money without results. Ask them to deliver the proof of concept quickly: Show me, and if you don’t show me in this amount of time, then I am going to cut the program. Or maybe you still think the project is promising, and your response to less-than-stellar early results is to change the team around.

Because it’s not possible to manage people’s daily contributions, you need a process that enables self-management. This process should measure the ability of the innovation to meet customer and shareholders needs simultaneously, and it should be clearly communicated down all levels of management.

Start by defining clear market and technical objectives; then add accountability measures. Your process should define the size of the market and list what market factors are in play as your team develops the innovative product or service. Also, make sure everyone knows the timeframe for this window of opportunity. Are your customers always going to need your product? Or are they going to pick a supplier in the next year and you’ve got to be there within a certain time period?

Write up distinct, quantitative technical metrics, so everyone knows how the project is being measured. Identify key customers who provide the market input. These standardized methods will identify, measure, and later nurture that idea to drive profits.

Merit-based recognition

Eliminate politics and be objective if you want to foster innovation. There was a lot of open discussion at Bell Labs. You could pretty much say anything to anybody and still be friends with them the next day. Create a non-political, non-bureaucratic analysis process to determine what gets pulled forward. We had a one-sheet summary at Bell Labs that recapped to the Board of Directors all the new, cool technology evolving from the ranks. That summary was a prestigious way to be recognized at a high level in the organization. It highlighted technical leaders and fostered excitement around change and the ability to make a difference.

You need to understand what motivates your inventors and create systems where people get rewarded for their work. Make it fair and do not give away trinkets without a truly valuable contribution.

Managing innovation’s cost

What is the minimum amount you need to do a proof of concept? What will prove that it works at the bare minimum, and how do you execute creatively?

It’s not always about how much money, but what return you receive on the funds. So controlling the investment is key to optimizing this equation. Make sure you have a detailed and well-managed program plan that gets you from research to development to commercialization.

Don’t wait until you spend a million dollars and you have no results at the end of the program before you start over. Manage in little chunks with technical, data-driven milestones to make it really clear what you expect at each level of investment. Create a venue to manage the costs and fuel further innovation at a lower cost. And require your technical leader to track progress monthly.

Steps to commercialization

Commercialization is putting a vital, qualified product into a customer’s hands. This is the stage where you are manufacturing something, whether it is 50 or 500,000 units a year, and somebody is using it to solve a real problem out in the field.

Large organizations too often lose good ideas to unofficial spin-off companies, when small groups of people leave because their innovation was not appreciated and there was no mode to get it to market because of the bureaucracy. We need to create channels for innovation to get developed and delivered without the complex bureaucracy inside our organizations.

Innovation isn’t necessarily a linear process where you conceive something, have a proof-of-concept and a prototype, go to your customer (who loves it), and then engineer it. Sometimes the customer comes first. Sometimes after you conceive it, you find the customer need. It is a non-linear approach, and when you embrace this with a structure that manages ROI, you will find your team is far more productive.

Marketing plays an important role in getting to this stage. Make sure you have all the key market input between proof-of-concept and prototype. You don’t get to prototype without talking to a customer, because if you don’t do that, you will have missed every opportunity to tweak another round of innovation to serve your customer’s needs. And you may have missed the whole point of what the customer wants.

Link your technical innovators with customer needs. Listen to you customers’ problems. That is what enables innovation. You cannot have everyone talk to a customer, but have whoever has talked to the customer organize a lunch-and-learn every two months to keep the team up to date.

The right stuff

All of these elements fuel the true technological inspiration that redirects products and markets in innovative organizations.

It’s taken me many years to learn these elements. It’s a very uncomfortable, soft-art form. I probably stole most of the ideas from people who are smarter than me, but that’s OK. Having the truth is better than inventing it.

Successful innovation

• Create a broad vision

• Foster a culture of innovation

• Connect technologists to the problem

• Reward and manage risk takers

• Create processes that allow team members to manage themselves and be accountable

• Structure the milestones to manage costs

• Involve customers early on

Take your team to the moon

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the ambitious goal of sending an American to the Moon.

What moon does your organization want to walk on?

Can you go to your people with a vision like JFK’s?

This is the moon we are going to walk on. This is what it looks like, this is what it smells like, and this is how we will get there. These are the technical specs we are going to hit. These are the requirements for success, and this is why we will be successful in the market. And you are coming with me. Let’s go do this.

Can you paint the kind of vision that will excite people about what they are doing and guide them to successful innovation?

Angelique Irvin presented a version of this article at an SPIE Women in Optics event in April.

See an SPIE Newsroom video interview

Learn more about Women in Optics

Angelique IrvinAngelique Irvin 

Angelique Irvin is president and CEO of Clear Align, a Pennsylvania-based company that designs, prototypes, and manufactures custom imaging, sensing, and fiber-optic systems for the defense and aerospace industry. She has 25 years of technology business experience, including at Bell Labs where she led a team that built out optical assembly facilities and developed new markets for a $500 million product line. Her bachelor’s degree in ceramic engineering is from Alfred University and her MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201007.07

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