A series of revolutionary innovations, from radar to lasers, solar cells to communications satellites, started at Bell Labs.
Bell Labs grasped the importance of the more intangible links between people and concepts. With its interdisciplinary approach and free-form organisational structures, Bell Labs was able to mint new ideas at the rate other companies churn out widgets.
"The silicon solar cell was created by a few people who came together serendipitously. It was a case of the right people, in the right place, in the right environment, working on the right problem," says Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory, a bestselling history of Bell Labs.
Where do new ideas come from? Perhaps you are picturing the lone genius poring over a notebook or a petri dish. In fact, great ideas are more often the result of networks and collaboration than an individual's eureka moment.
In his book Range, author David Epstein identifies Darwin as a generalist, as opposed to a specialist.
Once an aspiring clergyman, Darwin took up science relatively late and distinguished himself as a "lateral-thinking integrator", whose genius derived from his roving curiosity and talent for synthesising existing ideas.
Such individuals are of particular value in large and complex organisations where individual experts may find themselves toiling at cross-purposes, unaware of each other's work – "digging parallel trenches", as one influential scientist has put it.
Making connections can be extremely useful in finance. For example, Aviva Investors' CEO Euan Munro brought this approach to his investment process after learning of the collaborative methods employed by surgical teams in hospitals.
"A colleague who came from a medical family described the process on the morning of an operation: the chief surgeon, the anaesthetist, the physician and the chief nurse meet to review the patient's charts. You have all these different disciplines working together on a common problem. I realised the investment world was bad at that sort of connected thinking," he says.
Munro took this analogy and used it to build a multi-strategy approach to macro investing.
There is little point in hiring adaptable, generalist professionals if they are shut away in offices in remote locations, unable to communicate.
The executives at Bell Labs were keenly aware of the importance of place in facilitating innovation.At the centre of the physics wing at the company's New Jersey campus was a 700-foot long corridor that ran past the doorways to laboratories and offices. It was deliberately designed so that "travelling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas would be almost impossible", as Gertner writes in The Idea Factory.
Modern technology companies have identified other ways to bring about coincidental meetings between experts and ignite the creative spark. In 2013, as Google managers surveyed the canteens at the company's plush San Francisco offices, they noticed staff in long queues were more likely to speak to those around them. So they devised an experiment to find out the optimal length of time baristas should spend making a coffee: long enough to promote serendipitous conversation, but not so long as to irritate employees thirsty for a caffeine hit(the answer was four minutes).
In a similar vein, studies show that tweaking workspaces – or optimising spatial management, to use the technical phrase – can make a big difference to productivity by putting high-performing individuals into close proximity with their peers.
Just as important as the physical layout of an office or the cluster of buildings in a city is the more intangible surrounding environment, or organisational culture.
A good yardstick of a healthy working culture is whether meetings feel inclusive. Tabitha Alwyn, a consultant at Alliance Coaching, says creating a sense of "psychological safety" is important if everyone is to pitch in.One way of doing this is to outlaw interruptions – psychologists have observed that when a speaker is interrupted their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode, in the same way it would respond to a physical threat. Another option is to formalise the procedure for contributions so that everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak.
"We have found that opening a meeting by inviting everyone present to speak in turn – even on a relatively routine matter such as recent portfolio activity – can loosen up the group," says Sunil Krishnan, head of multi-asset funds at Aviva Investors. "In more substantive debate it's important to have the senior leaders speak last, so they don't influence others."
As social scientist Scott E. Page argues in his book The Diversity Bonus, diverse teams have a specific advantage in that they are better at predicting the outcome of complex systems such as markets. This effect is by now so well documented as to be a mathematical principle.
"Two people with the same training and experience will think about the world in similar ways and their predictions will be correlated. Here is where diversity delivers this big bonus. If we add someone whose predictions are not as good but are negatively correlated to the others, the collective prediction will be much better," says Page.
Bringing together all of these aspects of connected thinking – the right people, in the right place, in the right environment – can enable organisations to solve problems. In asset management, for example, marshalling global expertise to spot overlooked connections across companies and sectors holds the key to identifying opportunities.
"Connected thinking allows you to build an information infrastructure that maximises the ability to capture valuable insights wherever they originate from, and to deliver that intelligence to the place where it is most valuable," says Mikhail Zverev, head of global equities at Aviva Investors.
This might sound like common sense, but research shows many investors are poor at managing and responding to information in this way. In 2008, the academics Lauren Cohen and Andrea Frazzini conducted a study that found a high degree of "investor inattention" surrounding the links between companies and their suppliers.
Another example of the role of connected thinking in investment is the rising importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. Once considered a niche pursuit, ESG is now understood to be a vital part of the investment decision-making process across all asset classes. It can help deliver long-term value, offer insight into key risks and improve corporate performance on sustainability issues. On a wider scale, connected thinking on ESG is likely to play a major role in the global effort to tackle climate change.
Throughout history, from the deck of the Beagle to the innovation hub at Bell Labs, from the trading desk to the sports field, connected thinking has played a crucial role in bringing people together to solve problems. As we face up to climate change – the greatest challenge of all – it might just help save the planet.
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The scientist is biologist Arturo Casadevall, who has sought to 'de-specialise' graduate training to give students a broader range of expertise. See Epstein, Range.