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Bell Labs innovator connected us all

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

It was among the most innovative scientific organizations of the 20th century. With its somewhat small group of scientists and engineers, it was responsible for a string of inventions, including the transistor, the first cellular telephone system, the first communications satellites and the first laser patent. Like Facebook, it sought to connect us all.

This was Bell Labs in the early part of the last century, and the man at the helm was Mervin Kelly, a physicist who led the laboratory.

Follow his lead for inventing the future:

•  Build a critical mass of talented people. Kelly believed having a lot of talent was key to fostering an exchange of ideas.

•  Put them all under one roof. Having talented people wasn’t enough. They needed to be physically close to one another. So Bell Labs put thinkers and doers together, intentionally mixing engineers, physicists and metallurgists on projects.

At the Murray Hill, N.J., lab, the hallways were abnormally long. A researcher on his way to the cafeteria would inevitably encounter problems, ideas and diversions along the way.

•  Keep an open floor plan. Cubicles didn’t yet exist, but employees were told to keep their doors open.

•  Give them time. Kelly gave his employees years to solve vexing problems. That might seem impossible today, in a time when the desire for short-term results can override everything else. But to create the sorts of innovative leaps that Bell Labs did, products that created millions of jobs and a better society, you must sometimes move a little slowly.

— Adapted from “True Innovation,” Jon Gertner, The New York Times.

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