Coding towards critical mass

It’s a rare thing to get a glimpse inside of a truly creative organization, to learn how it works and to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

A recent New York Times article on the staggering history of innovation at Bell Labs offers a glimpse inside the mind of the man responsible for the “culture of creativity” there – Mervin Kelly.

Kelly had very specific thoughts about how to create an environment that fostered innovation and new ideas.

“His fundamental belief was that an ‘institute of creative technology’ like his own needed a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.”

It’s striking how these same principles can be used to explain the success of coworking spaces (the good ones at any rate). Critical mass is everything – too few people and it’s like working at the library; too many and it’s like working at the corner coffee shop during morning rush.

The proper mix of talent and individuals is also critical to fostering a creative environment – homogeneity does not breed serendipity.

I think well organized hackathons operate under the same dynamic.

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