>From Upside [http://www.upside.com/] The Face of Innovation February 09, 1998 By Robert Buderi Ever wish you'd gotten a peek inside Xerox's famed PARC lab in the early '70s, or been a fly on the wall at Bell Labs while it was pioneering the transistor, the laser or cell phones? It would have been like peering into the future. This column, based on tours of corporate labs in Japan, Europe and the United States, will profile innovation at top research organizations around the world. Some ideas showcased will soon hit the market, while others are the stuff of far-off dreams. But from micromachines to novel input devices, all will fire the imagination. Before viewing these labs, though, let's consider how some organizations foster creativity while others seem to stifle it. Standout innovations need standout researchers, but that's only a first step. Far more difficult is turning exciting ideas into things that matter. I've borne witness to many strategies, from touchy-feely teamwork training to hard-wired number-crunching. These can work or fail, depending on lab style, culture and implementation. However, the best companies seem to share a few simple measures that help forge a framework for successful innovation. No one I've met sums these up better than Lee Davenport. At age 82, Lee is restoring vintage cars and caravanning in road rallies. But as a physicist and industrial research director, he has enjoyed a ringside seat on the electronics age--from tubes to chips, analog to digital. He's seen ideas come, go and come again. So Lee offers a rare commodity these days: perspective. During World War II, at the top-secret M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory, Lee helped create a revolutionary fire-control radar, instrumental in shooting down buzz bombs over England. After the war, he spent 15 years as research director for General Telephone and Electronics, now GTE Corp.--then and now a major local phone service provider (it also owned Sylvania). Under Lee, the lab patented the bright red phosphor now ubiquitous in TV displays. In the pre-optical fiber days of 1963, as a publicity stunt to demonstrate light's capacity to carry signals, he appeared on "I've Got A Secret" with GTE's scheme for transmitting TV pictures via lasers. When panelists failed to guess his "secret," Lee revealed the laser. Smoke blown across the stage allowed viewers to see its red light. Lee then interrupted the broadcast's video portion by placing his hand across the beam. I recently visited Lee at his home in Greenwich, Conn. Around a lunch of baked chicken and fried Northern Spy apples, Lee dug through notes from his days lecturing at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and culled seven common-sense rules of corporate research. These gems represent basic steps proven to set the stage for innovation. 1.Success is based on schedules and results, not effort or job difficulty. "You must expect your R&D people to produce results and reward them accordingly." 2.Since most projects last several years, break them into segments, with measurable goals for each phase. 3.Never allow general goals. Avoid such words as advance, investigate, study, explore. All are false, immeasurable goals. 4.Look for and encourage idea people. Only a few individuals have unique, even hare-brained, ideas. Don't knock them. 5.Find product champions--internal entrepreneurs who understand technology, explain it clearly and can push ideas through corporate barriers. These traits typically elude top researchers. 6.Keep a little something on the side. A bootleg budget is sometimes the only way to pursue ideas that break the mold. 7.Hire young blood. A research staff's average age should not increase even one year annually. A nice average is under 35. Innovation alone can't save a company. But when done right, it provides a critical leg up, either through myriad small-scale improvements or a legendary breakthrough. The best organizations cultivate innovation by creating a climate that connects staffers to the real world, but also encourages out-of-the-box thinking. This column aims to provide a unique glimpse into that ongoing struggle. As Lee says, "Research is never just a gamble. You can definitely shape the odds in your favor." Robert Buderi is former technology editor of Business Week and author of The Invention That Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
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