This article from the NY Times website has an interesting story about the small group of scientists that produced some of Bell labs amazing innovations. Most intriguing to me was the insight to the culture that Mervin Kelly put in place at the lab to make things the most creative they could be amongst the scientists and engineers.
He setup an environment for creativity that allowed the exchange of ideas to flow between people. His focus was on making space one that allowed people to interact with one another easily. This is something that has been written about by Steven Johnson in his book about where creative ideas come from, the ability of people to cross pollinate ideas is a great way to inject others point of views. Like coffee houses in the old world, these types of environments foster conversations and debate that can lead to thinking in new ways about old problems. Being in close physical proximity to others even from other disciplines is a great way to have those chance encounters that can lead to interesting shared knowledge and problem solving.
Kelly also placed the labs inside the manufacturing plant, so that ideas could be transferred into things. This to me, describes the rapid prototyping ability that he wanted to foster. Prototyping gets people talking and conversing around a physical thing and can be a great catalyst as it keeps people focused on the task at hand.
He also believed in freedom for researchers to investigate the things that they most felt compelled and inspired to research. This is inline with the work Daniel Pink has written about, that autonomy is one of the driving factors of motivation for thinkers versus manual workers. It also allowed people to work at their pace and follow their own leads and direction. This I am sure was critical in helping Bell constantly create innovative new ideas and solutions to problems and new products. This kind of thinking is also what I think made Mervin Kelly a good leader of his group, he brought onboard the right people, self motivated and trusted them to work hard and produce great work, without constant monitoring.
Bell labs invented the laser, the transistor and the solar cell. I have no doubt that the insights of Mervin Kelly to the creative process and innovative environment he helped create were instrumental in the amazing work he and his team produced in their time.