Invention without Commercialization = Extinction, not Innovation
by Deborah Mills-Scofield
My job at Bell Labs was to invent and create. We dreamed up all sorts of wonderful solutions to problems that did and didn’t exist. But how did we learn about these problems? Some we just thought up. Some came from AT&T corporate product management & marketing. But few came from seeing customers firsthand, so we ended up using ourselves as ‘examples’ – not good. AT&T corporate product managers and marketers were supposed to commercialize our inventions; to decide if it met the market needs or if there even was a need.
See a disconnect? Since (us) Labroids were rarely allowed to go talk to real live customers, our ability to create solutions was stymied to a (large) degree. Why were we kept in the lab (we did shower and could get dressed up after all)? Because Corporate didn’t understand we needed to see for ourselves. They were concerned we’d commit to something we knew we could build, regardless of market size, cost, price, need, etc. and then corporate would be ‘stuck’ having to make it because it had been ‘sold’ to a major customer. Ok, so there was some truth to this; some of us (who me?) had done that for things we thought were important but couldn’t get ‘corporate’ to agree to.
This created a ‘challenging’ relationship between Labroids and Corporate. We weren’t allowed to see firsthand because they were afraid, they didn’t trust us and at the core, they didn’t believe (understand?) how important it was for us to ‘see’. Labroids were frustrated because we didn’t trust corporate (our hubris) to really understand market and customer needs.
On one particular project, a few of us were able to go visit real customers which led to some very profitable and valued solutions for both customers & AT&T. How did we do this? Friendship (relationship). One of ‘us’ Labroids had gone up to corporate (and survived J ) as a product manager, which helped break down the barrier. We were more willing to ‘risk’ trusting each other. Additionally, this was an exciting, never done before, kind of project with intense external competition. Are these the real reasons? I don’t know, but it worked, and the project resulted in one of AT&T/Lucent’s most profitable patents and customer solutions. By working together, understanding each other and letting us go see firsthand and learn, tangible and intangible rewards were reaped. However, this was not the typical scenario at the time.
Bell Labs had an incredible history of invention. AT&T did not have an incredible history of commercialization. We all know Bell Labs invented the Transistor in 1947 (upon which our lives are now totally dependent), but did you know Bell Labs invented cellular technology and the solar “cell”? Probably not, because you think of who commercialized them – Motorola, BP Solar, GE, etc.
The “So what”? While there are many reasons AT&T wasn’t good at commercialization (innovation), it is clear the big gulf between corporate and R&D certainly didn’t help. But this was a symptom, not root cause. A root cause was a management structure and style that reinforced a culture that iteratively reinforced a management structure and style leading to the gulf between Corporate and Labroids (and other areas within the company). It took a while to destroy invaluable global assets, didn’t it? Decades, actually. And Bell Labs has been a profound national and global loss.
So? Take a look at your organization. Go beyond traditional roles of who should know what, see what, visit who and experience that. Overcome institutional fear and lack of trust…try it on a small scale and see what can happen. Don’t repeat this kind of history!
Deb, founder of Mills-Scofield LLC, is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist with 20 years experience in industries ranging from the Internet to Manufacturing with multinationals to start ups. She is also a partner at Glengary LLC, a Venture Capital Firm.