The recent NY Times obituary of Dr. Ian Ross, former President of Bell Labs, observed the genius of Bell Labs as a crucible for invention, led by the sharp, pragmatic and visionary innovators like Dr. Ross. In particular, this section captures the essence of their approach:
Bell Labs was the glamorous vanguard of this drive to go beyond communications into all phases of information technology. Preaching “urgency,” Dr. Ross nudged his army of scientists to align their sometimes spectacularly esoteric schemes and dreams with market needs, going so far as to dispatch some of them to accompany AT&T sales employees on their rounds.
But he refused to give specific instructions to the 10 percent of Bell employees doing basic research, an enterprise that, among other things, yielded proof that the universe started with a Big Bang.
“It’s a foolish thing to tell a research person what the problem is — you’ll get the answer to that problem and miss a brilliant discovery in the process.”
This extract illustrates fundamental similarities with the practice of productive conversation. From an outcomes based perspective, Dr. Ross took a light hand to directing researchers towards aligning abstract ideas with present practical needs. Also, by blending scientists with salespeople, he threw diverse viewpoints into the dynamic, inducing broader frameworks of creative reference (consider Scott Page’s work showing that diverse groups outperform groups of like minded experts). Especially importantly, Dr. Ross recognized that stipulating the problem imposed a constraining rigidity to the process of ideation, whereby the problem may be solved, but wonderful discoveries missed along the way.
I have written before about the fertile capacity of unbridled conversation, and Dr. Ross was emblematic of the breakthrough success possible with that mindset.