The Houses of Invention

IF THE GREAT inventions of the past were usually the work of an individual--a Gutenberg, an Edison, a Bell--then those of the 20th century are increasingly the brainchildren of entire labs. In an age marked by an explosion of knowledge, argues Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California, "one is too small a number to produce greatness." Some solitary inventors notwithstanding, America's engines of invention are corporate labs. What makes a great one?

A taste for gambling: At Du Pont, it takes up to 250 ideas to generate one major, marketable new product. At Pfizer Inc., the yield is one new drug out of 100 possibilities. All of the ultimate losers suck up money before the winner pays off. Success therefore requires taking "monetary risks that would give most corporate finance officers a case of indigestion," says management guru Tom Peters in the new anthology "Innovation: Breakthrough Thinking at 3M, Du Pont, GE, Pfizer and Rubbermaid." At 3M, three cents of every dollar in sales ($900 million recently) is plowed into R&D, supporting 6,500 researchers. At Pfizer, R&D swallows 14 percent of sales--$1.7 billion in 1996.

Innovation: At 3M, the rule is that 80 percent of sales must come from products less than four years old. And its scientists and engineers can spend up to 5 percent of company time on their own projects, without even telling managers what they're up to. 3M calls it bootlegging. Both policies send a clear signal that risktaking is a core value. 3M's risktaking spawned Thinsulate insulation, Scotchlite reflective sheeting for traffic signals and hundreds more inventions. Du Pont researchers may pursue their blue-sky ideas one day a week. The idea is to be open to serendipity: every scientist makes mistakes, but only in a culture that encourages the exploration of the unknown do you get Teflon (when a Du Pont scientist working on Freon accidentally polymerized several gases into a white powder). Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center instituted mandatory weekly meetings. Everyone would grab a beanbag chair and take turns describing their ideas. "A universal characteristic of innovative companies is an open culture," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School.

Crossing disciplines: In a corporate lab, the walls between chemists and physicists, metallurgists and mechanics are often lower than in academe. It was by throwing together physicists with metallurgists and chemists that Bell Labs wove together the diverse talents that invented the transistor. And unlike universities, the culture of a corporate lab encourages collaboration. Says William Brinkman, vice president for physical-sciences research at Bell Labs, "We call it 'spontaneous teaming'--you see an interesting problem that another group is working on and you want to be part of it." It works: Bell Labs also invented the laser, the UNIX operating system for computers, high-definition digital television, digital cellular phones, the international communications satellite, photovoltaic cells and information theory.

Running interference: A great corporate lab needs a leader who will keep the Suits (or "toner heads," as some Xerox PARC scientists called management) from stifling creativity. PARC's former chief did it so well that his techies invented the first user-friendly computer, the mouse, graphical interface, the laser printer and the local computer network. Unfortunately, Xerox is more famous for fumbling these inventions--Steve Jobs turned Xerox PARC's ideas into the Macintosh. Which just goes to show that having a bright idea is only the first step in inventing.