AT&T’s Bell Labs can be credited with inventing the 20th Century, having created the transistor, solar cell, trans-continental and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, and communication satellites, not to mention digital audio and information theory. How they did it is the story of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. Here are some excerpts.
AT&T’s savior was Theodore Vail, who became its president in 1907,… (p. 18)… His publicity department had come up with a slogan that was meant to rally its public image, but Vail himself soon adopted it as the company’s core philosophical principle as well.  It was simple enough:
“One policy, one system, universal service.”
That this was a kind of wishful thinking seemed not to matter. (p. 20)
…in any company’s greatest achievements one might, with the clarity of hindsight, locate the beginnings of its own demise. (p. 186). [See also on this blog, Your greatest strength is your #1 blind spot.]
Measurement devices that could assess things like loudness, signal strength, and channel capacity didn’t exist, so they, too, had to be created— for it was impossible to study and improve something unless it could be measured. (p. 48).
“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but (more…)
A great article in the New York Times, a few highlights:
Paul J. H. Schoemaker, chairman of Decision Strategies International…
“We get fixated on achievement,” he said, but, “everyone is talking about the need to innovate. If you already know the answer, it’s not learning. In most personal and business contexts, if you avoid the error, you avoid the learning process.”
We grow up with a mixed message: making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them.
Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has studied this and related issues for decades.
“Studies with children and adults show that a large percentage cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks,” she said.
- We are risk-averse because “our personal and professional pride is tied up in being right. Employees are rewarded for good decisions and penalized for failures, so they spend a great deal of time and energy trying not to make mistakes.”
- We tend to favor data that confirms our beliefs.
- We assume feedback is reliable, although in reality it is often lacking or misleading. We don’t often look outside tested channels.
“For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds.”
“In fact, I think now that the two abilities – finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds-are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don’t just tell us what’s true – they tell us what’s possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don’t think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.”
The World Question Center at Edge.org
Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib