The Headquarters Innovation Paradox
Innovators often face the challenge of determining the optimal location for their work efforts. For a large enterprise, the decision is often between a central location, such as a corporate headquarters, and a remote location, such as a manufacturing facility. At first glance, one might think that locating an innovation program at a headquarters location would have significant advantages. At headquarters, one would be close to key decision-makers across the entire corporate spectrum, all the way up the C-suite executives in the company. Moreover, headquarters would also be the locale for other senior executives in charge of various divisions, departments, or other aspects of an organization. In this environment, supposedly, decisions could be made quickly and input could be obtained easily from influential individuals in the company. Rather than waiting for weeks to get a crucial go-ahead on a key item, a conversation to obtain approval could be held in an afternoon or, worst case, in a couple of days. An innovator designing a new business process, for instance, would have easy access to the person who owns that process across the company. Similarly, an innovator working on a new technology to deploy could have discussions about that new technology with the CIO or CTO.
An IT project from nearly 20 years ago provides an interesting test case of this and other innovation-location scenarios because various decisions resulted in innovation work taking place first at a headquarters location, followed by a remote site associated with customer operations, and finally with a remote, lab-type setting far away from either headquarters or operations. What makes this example useful for analysis is that fact that in these three different locations, the core working team on the project remained the same. In scientific terms, we can thus control for the variable of team contribution and test hypotheses against the outcomes of the work performed in the three different places. The type of work – call center transformation via packaged CRM software implementation for a manufacturing company’s operations – remained the same as well. Given the age of the legacy systems being used at the call centers at the time and the prominence of the project, there was a great need for innovative thinking in the initiative to ensure that the new system proved worthy of the investment of time and resources devoted to its implementation.
As is often the case with these types of efforts, the project started out at headquarters. The team worked with client personnel and two external consultants to put together initial plans for the project and develop goals and transformation objectives. Its offices were in a typical corporate building many floors above the ground with sweeping views of the nearby city and riverfront. The view was inspirational, and the various executive owners of the different aspects of the call center operation were always nearby for consultations, popping in as needed to resolve issues and provide guidance. Questions could be answered quickly and efficiently by senior management.
After a few weeks, external consultants recommended that the team move to one of the actual call centers that would be implementing the CRM solution. The team agreed with this approach because that call center also happened to possess a complete, separate testing environment for telephony, and CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) was a key element of the solution. Although the team could access all the systems it needed remotely from headquarters, the complexity of the CTI solution called for a more hands-on approach. The team packed up and headed for the call center, where it went from working in a large space in a tower to a small conference room packed into the corner of a busy call center. Space was at a premium and just running enough cables for power and networking (this was before WiFi was ubiquitous) was quite an endeavor. The team went from having plenty of workspace for each individual to having tight quarters and having to work hard to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Several months later, the team successfully completed its first production release of the application and were moved yet again at the client’s request, as the client needed to reclaim their conference room space for training. The team once again packed up and headed to a new location to begin working on the next application release. On this occasion, the team found space in an older development lab. The room provided to the team was enormous, and each team member had a large workspace with high side walls and multiple smaller rooms where people could take phone calls or work on tasks that required intense concentration. The noise level in the room was almost non-existent, as the lab was so big compared to the size of the team. In addition, the team was working in a building with a great corporate cafeteria and an outdoor space with pleasant walkways around a pond for developing new ideas about the project.
Three Innovation Environments
This project thus presented three completely different types of work environments that an innovator can examine to determine their impact on innovation. The first was innovation at headquarters, in a towering glass office building surrounded by key executives. The second was innovation at a field operations office, in this case a call center, in tight confines but very close to the action, so to speak. The third was innovation at a remote lab, with spacious facilities and areas to think and stroll.
In thinking about these three unique environments, I was struck by their similarities to three great historical sites where innovation, and indeed some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, occurred. The three sites are Charles Darwin’s House in Downe, just outside of London, where he wrote On the Origin of Species; Bletchley Park, again just outside of London, where British codebreakers solved the puzzle of the German Enigma cipher machine and saved thousands of lives, and Los Alamos in New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer’s team developed the first atomic bomb. While there is no parallel in terms of historical importance in comparing these three scientific projects to a small-scale IT implementation, it is nonetheless interesting to think about how the locations of these innovation efforts influenced the outcomes achieved by the people involved in these work efforts.
Charles Darwin – From Innovation at Headquarters to Innovation in the Field
After returning from his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, in which he sailed around South America and the South Pacific from 1831 to 1836 and made fascinating discoveries about evolution in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin returned to Cambridge and London to much acclaim, benefiting from the fact that during stops in the voyage he had sent to his mentor John Stevens Henslow many of his findings. Darwin also brought home a multitude of unique and stunning botanical and biological specimens from his trip, and was invited to numerous London institutions to discuss his trip with noted zoologists. Darwin met with the famous geologist Charles Lyell in October 1836 as well as the anatomist Richard Owen, with whom he discussed fossil bones found during the voyage. Darwin’s paper on the geology of the South American landmass was read by Lyell at the Geological Society of London in December 1836, followed by interactions with the noted ornithologist John Gould in early 1837 in which the latter concluded that Darwin had discovered as many as 12 separate species of finches in his work in the Galapagos.
As his fame increased, Darwin’s intellectual circle continued to grow and included the polymath Charles Babbage, who would first develop the idea of a digital programmable computer. Surrounded by these intellectual powerhouses, Darwin continued to work on analyzing and writing about the results of his findings in various fields. In January 1839, Darwin was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. One can imagine that Darwin’s life in London was a whirlwind of intellectual activity, such as discussing Thomas Malthus’s thesis on population growth, and this environment almost certainly helped him develop his theory of natural selection. London in the Victorian Era, as it is today, was perhaps the best place for an intellectual person to be located, particularly one working on a world-changing revelation about the workings of nature. As the British writer Samuel Johnson quipped in 1777, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Yet in 1842, Darwin chose to move about 20 miles outside of London to the town of Downe. Darwin suffered from many ailments throughout his life but the impetus for him to move to the countryside was primarily his cramped living quarters in London, the constant noise of the city, and the foul air from coal smoke. The house he bought, known as Down House (Downe is the name of the nearby town in the London Borough of Bromley, while Down House is the name of the manor home that Darwin purchased in Downe), was not easy to reach, as it required a 10-mile train ride followed by an 8.5-mile carriage ride over hilly terrain and winding rural roads. The house itself proved to be a sanctuary from the outside world, situated as it was atop a slight rise and surrounded by trees and gently rolling fields bisected by numerous walking paths.
Darwin noted that “[t]he charm of the place to me is that almost every field is intersected (as alas is ours) by one or more foot-paths— I never saw so many walks in any other country.” Visiting the site today, one sees these footpaths everywhere, and one can leave the Darwin property in any direction and find a walking trail network that goes for miles through the countryside. The walking paths were of particular interest for Darwin as every day he set out for a walk around the grounds of his estate, traversing a circuit he created known as the Sandwalk Path in which he set up small stones that he could kick to the side to count the number of times he completed the circuit without having to interrupt his train of thought to think of the exact number of loops. It was on these pathways that Darwin did some of his best thinking.
When I visited Down House recently, the puzzle I wanted to solve was why Darwin chose to live so far outside of London. Although modern trains and roads make it a relatively quick trip today (about a 45-minute drive from central London), in the 1840s the trip was not an easy one. For a scientist of Darwin’s stature with a growing reputation, the move to Downe seemed illogical. Moreover, I also wanted to understand whether there were any aspects of Down House that helped Darwin develop his thinking about evolution. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in November 1859, fully twenty years after he returned from his voyage on the Beagle.
I discovered several aspects of the house that rendered it more suitable for Darwin’s work than one might imagine. The lack of noise and coal smoke certainly was beneficial to Darwin’s work. The house was quite spacious and his office was well-equipped with bookcases and a fine desk for writing. This is quite a contrast from the cramped, dark space he worked in on board the Beagle, which is reproduced in full scale on the upper floor of the house today. Likewise, the amazing walking paths around the property and throughout the entire countryside were certainly beneficial, particularly for someone who liked to use a vigorous walk to think through problems.
The house also gave Darwin an enormous laboratory space in which to explore some of his ideas, including large patches of garden to grow various plants, a sizable greenhouse for all-season horticulture, numerous fields in which to plant trees, grasslands on which to observe and measure precisely the work of earthworms (via a stone set on the ground with brass measurement rods, which one can still see today), as well as sufficient interior locations for working and thinking (even his bedroom windows were situated in a way to overlook his gardens and trees so he could always be thinking about his plants). I also learned from the docent that mail service during Darwin’s era was exceedingly efficient, with multiple deliveries of letters daily from London. This meant that Darwin could engage in a rapid correspondence with the intellectual giants in London with short response times, allowing him to exchange ideas with academics almost as efficiently as if he were in the city. The importance of this latter attribute of the site cannot be overestimated, for it addresses one of the biggest problems with a remote location – the challenge of communications.
One could argue that when Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage, his initial work occurred at the equivalent of a headquarters location (in London and Cambridge), as he was surrounded by many of the most important minds of his era and could interact with them on a regular basis to exchange ideas and make decisions about where his research should go. Yet the adulation of headquarters soon proved to be insufficient to overcome the downsides of working in that environment, which in Darwin’s case were the cramped working conditions, noise, and coal smoke of London, which negatively impacted his health. Darwin traded his headquarters location for a more remote spot where he could be more closely aligned with the actual topics about which he was writing. Down House gave him fresh air, walking paths, and a giant outdoor laboratory to test his hypotheses and refine them as he worked over the course of many years to complete his seminal work, On the Origin of Species.
Bletchley Park – Innovation at a Remote/Field Location
In August 1938, a small group of people from London visited the grounds of a mansion in Bletchley Park, England, ostensibly to enjoy a nice weekend of hunting and dining about 50 miles northwest of the capital. Despite outward appearances, these visitors were actually intelligence agents from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School and their mission was to identify a location outside of London that could be used as a hub for codebreaking endeavors in the impending conflict in Europe. The site needed to be far enough outside London (about 50 miles, but not so far as to make it difficult to communicate with the central government in the capital) and to the west (since German bombers would come from the east and would have to pass over target-rich London and its air defenses before reaching Bletchley, thus rendering it unlikely that any aircraft would ever reach this area).
The site would also ideally be located next to a train station (today one walks about 5 minutes from the train station to the museum). As it turns out, the site was only bombed once, in November 1940, when Hut 4 was hit by three bombs that were likely intended for the Bletchley Park railway station. The rail line operating through this station went on to Oxford and Cambridge, and MI6 expected to enlist many of the students and teachers from those universities in the codebreaking efforts. Another useful attribute of the site was the fact that high-volume telephone and telegraph communication lines were also nearby in the town of Fenny Stratford.
Satisfied with their site survey, the group returned to London and awaited word from their superiors concerning when to return to the site in earnest to begin their work. The work that these intelligence agents and government workers expected to perform at the site was the age-old work in the area of cryptography. From ancient times, armies had communicated in coded messages in an attempt to protect their secrets from the prying eyes of enemies. Over time, these cyphers evolved from simple shifting of letters in the alphabet to extraordinarily complex, machine-assisted endeavors.
At the outbreak of World War II, the German military used a particularly sophisticated coding machine known as the Enigma device. The device looked like a typewriter and consisted of multiple rotors and plugs that could be set in a large number of precise configurations. When an operator configured the device’s rotors and plugs in a certain way, he or she could then type a message on the keyboard and each key pressed would highlight a different cypher key to use in the coded message. Each press of the keyboard would force the rotors to turn one notch, meaning that the cypher changed continuously as the message was typed. In other words, on one occasion A might be Z, but on the next keystroke A might be coded as R. The resulting message would appear to be gibberish to anyone reading it, so the text could be transmitted safely via radio waves. Even if the British intercepted the message, the Germans though, the jumble of letters would render the message unintelligible. The German recipient, on the other hand, would be able to set up his or her Enigma machine with the identical rotor and plug settings as the sender, and by typing in the scrambled letters one by one, the recipient would see the true letter in the message light up on the Enigma machine, thus resulting in a clear text message.
The technology behind the Enigma provided 159 million million million possible settings, which the Germans thought rendered the system unbreakable. Each day the Germans changed the rotor and plug settings, thus any progress made on cracking the code during a single day would be lost when the new settings were entered in the morning. The British set up radio monitoring stations all over the world staffed around the clock with operators whose sole purpose was to monitor German radio transmissions and carefully write out each Morse code letter they heard. These encrypted messages were then packaged up and delivered to Bletchley Park. Initially, the British set up a wireless listening station at Bletchley Park itself, but the long radio aerials drew unwanted attention to the site and the operation was moved to another town.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, 150 people descended on Bletchley Park and worked in numerous simple buildings that were set up on the grounds of the former mansion. These buildings, known as “huts” with number designations for security purposes (in other words, rather than designating a building by the work underway inside, such as breaking German Navy codes, the building was simply known as “Hut 8”). Famous scientists such as Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park, as well as hundreds of other uniquely-skilled workers involved in all aspects of the operation, including linguists, translators, scientists, crossword puzzle champions, mathematicians, chess champions, historians, and numerous staff members to assist with the flow of information and paper through the site.
The combined effort of this eclectic group of individuals led to a series of breakthroughs that enabled some of the German codes to be broken over the course of the war. Some of this was due to flaws in operational procedures by German Enigma operators, such as always initiating messages the same way or forgetting to change their Enigma settings. Turing and his colleagues also built one of the world’s first electro-mechanical computer-like devices, known as a bombe, that sped up the process of trying to determine the daily Enigma settings. Another set of German encrypted messages, known as the Lorenz messages, were used for high-level communications between Berlin and field commanders and were even more complex than the Enigma messages. The crew at Bletchley Park also developed the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer, known as Colossus, to break the Lorenz codes.
The work at Bletchley Park saved thousands of lives and shortened the overall war against Germany, possibly by as a much as a year. Breaking German Naval codes allowed the British to track the location of U-Boat Wolfpacks, diverting Allied shipping and reducing losses. Decryption of German Luftwaffe messages permitted the Royal Air Force to anticipate German bomber raids over England as well as enhance RAF counterstrikes against German territory. Finally, the breaking of German Wehrmacht codes helped shorten the North African campaign, saving thousands of lives, and allowed the British to deceive German forces on D-Day, protecting the Normandy landings.
There is no doubt that the Bletchley Park site spawned innovative thinking as diverse teams of intelligent individuals worked together to solve problems under tremendous pressure. Yet visiting the site today, one is struck by the austerity of the buildings in which these great minds worked. Although the primary manor house at Bletchley Park was architecturally pleasing and a nearby pond afforded a place for the workers to take a brief stroll in the fresh air after their shifts ended, the actual buildings in which these great ideas were developed and tested were extremely drab. When reading about the site, I had always wondered why the buildings were called “huts.” Upon seeing the structures, it became clear why that name was chosen. The buildings had siding- and concrete block-walls with metal roofs and low ceilings. Although most of the rooms had windows, these were often covered by blackout curtains during the war to ensure no light escaped to provide a target for enemy bombers. The furniture in the offices and workspaces was spartan and utilitarian. The site was definitely a government/military operation, with little focus on aesthetics or setting up spaces in which some of the greatest minds of the era could develop their theories to solve the enemy ciphers.
Another interesting attribute of Bletchley Park was its proximity to London. Workers at the site, when given breaks from their intense, round the clock work (in three shifts), could take a short train ride to London and visit their friends and families who were facing the ravages of aerial bombardment on a regular basis. The workers could see damage from previous raids and could not escape the fact that their country was engaged, in Churchill’s words, in a “mighty struggle” for its very survival. The proximity of a warzone almost certainly focused the minds of the workers as they returned to Bletchley Park and continued their work. Bletchley Park workers also almost certainly had siblings, relatives, or neighbors serving in the armed forces during the war, which brought home the need to do everything possible to protect the lives of their loved ones. Likewise, the intense focus on the security of the operation certainly played a part in raising the pressure on the workforce, as there was great fear that if the Germans found out their codes had been broken, then they could take immediate steps to change their procedures and render months of British codebreaking work useless.
One could argue that Bletchley Park was a remote/field operation in terms of its innovation strategy. The location of the work was far away from Headquarters (for good reason, given what was happening in London), and the concentration of many different kinds of work and talented individuals in a single location likely created a spirit of cooperation that improved the ability of the team members to deliver the kinds of new thinking needed to overcome great challenges. Although the advantages created by this diversity of work and knowledge were possibly counteracted by the austerity of the facilities, when combined with the sense of mission and purpose for the overall war effort, the resulting formula was something that likely spawned very innovative thinking at Bletchley Park. Moreover, the fact that the site was far enough away from London for relative safety but also close enough to keep the workers in touch with the sufferings of their fellow citizens in the capital meant that, despite the grinding work schedules required by the war effort, the workers at Bletchley Park remained engaged and dedicated to the task at hand, which almost certainly helped to win the war for the Allies.
Los Alamos – Innovation in a Remote/Lab Environment
Perhaps the greatest scientific project in world history took place on an isolated mesa in northern New Mexico from November 1942 to August 1945. The Manhattan Project, based primarily in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was led by the Berkeley Physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army. The project took an idea that had intrigued scientists for decades – splitting the atom – and rapidly developed two atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945, leading to the surrender of the Japanese military and the end of World War II.
The story of how the United States ended up launching the greatest scientific project in history began with a, August 1939 letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt which warned that it might be possible to create an atomic fission bomb with uranium that would be more powerful than any conventional explosive in our arsenal. The letter stated that the German military might already be pursuing such a weapon and recommended that Roosevelt nominate a person to contact the key American physicists involved in research in this topic to coordinate and fund their research, as well as secure supplies of uranium ore as quickly as possible.
Physicists working at the University of Chicago in December 1942 soon initiated the world’s first uranium fission reaction in a makeshift nuclear reactor constructed underneath the bleachers of a sports field at the University. The Army initially planned to build a large-scale uranium production facility nearby in suburban Chicago, but it soon realized that the project required much more space than could be found in the area, and was also concerned about engaging in hazardous activities in such a densely-populated region, though the Chicago area remained the site of an atomic research and testing facility.
In the early stages of the development of atomic weapons, one of the most difficult steps was obtaining fissile material. While uranium ore can be found in various places on the planet, enriching that ore to the point where it is viable as fissionable material (or producing the entirely new element of plutonium) is extremely difficult to do and requires advanced scientific knowledge, precision industrial machinery, and time for completing lengthy processing steps. This is why in the recent Iranian nuclear deal so much focus was placed on Iran’s thousands of centrifuges that were being used to enrich uranium. With the intense pressure of World War II and the race to develop an atomic weapon before the Germans, the Army decided to hedge its bets in processing uranium and realized that it needed to set up multiple processing plants (gaseous diffusion, liquid thermal diffusion, and electromagnetic separation) to all work in parallel in case one of the methods proved to be unsuccessful. As such, the Army needed an enormous amount of space. The search for a larger facility for uranium production led the Army to the Tennessee River Valley, which met to a (surprisingly) specific set of Army requirements for such a site:
-Sufficient land for facilities and housing for thousands of workers
-Sufficient land so that one of the plants – the plutonium processing facility – could have a buffer of 2 to 4 miles around it (in case of radiation leakage)
-A remote site for security and safety but not so remote that workers could not be found, with adequate rail and road access
-A mild climate so construction could be done year-round
-Steep mountainsides should encase the site to contain accidental explosions, but should not be so steep as to make construction difficult
-Soil needed to be firm but not too rocky so excavation work would be easy
-The plants needed 150,000 kilowatts of electrical power and 370,000 US gallons of water per minute (which could be obtained with the Tennessee River and nearby hydroelectric plants)
-Munitions facilities should not be located west of the Sierra or Cascade Ranges, east of the Appalachian Mountains, or within 200 miles of the Canadian or Mexican borders
The area around Oak Ridge, Tennessee met these strict requirements and the Army began a process to condemn the properties in the area and evict the residents in late 1942/early 1943 to make way for the new plant. The Army soon also began work on a plutonium production facility in Hanford, Washington, fearing that Oak Ridge was too close to the population center of Knoxville to work with such dangerous materials.
In parallel to working on producing fissile material, the Manhattan Project needed to set up a location for the scientists who would design the actual atomic bombs – a challenging scientific endeavor that required the creation of many new technologies from scratch. Initially there was talk of locating this facility, known as Project Y, at Oak Ridge, where the scientists would be working essentially alongside the production processes for fissile materials that they had designed in the laboratory. Yet the Army decided that in order for the scientists to be able to speak freely among themselves about their work and engage in the exchange of ideas needed for such a complex undertaking, Project Y could not be located in a place where thousands of workers were coming and going on a daily basis. The Army knew it needed a remote site for Project Y, and although logistics were important in terms of access to the site, the more remote the location was for this work, the better the Army believed it would be able to protect the secrecy of the work undertaken there.
The task of selecting the location for the remote site fell to Oppenheimer and Groves. Oppenheimer had spent a great deal of time in the Western U.S. and owned a ranch near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had spent his summers riding horses all over the area and knew its canyons and mountains well. Oppenheimer thus recommended a site in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range near the old city of Santa Fe. The site was situated on a mesa protected by deep canyons on several sides and access was easily controlled by a single, snaking road that followed along the edge of the canyon. The Los Alamos Ranch School for boys was located at the site and its buildings could serve as a hub for the project workers. Oppenheimer thought the amazing views of nearby mountains from the site would serve as inspiration for his team. The Army bought the land in November 1942 and work began on building various facilities at the site that would be needed by the scientists and other workers who would start arriving there almost immediately.
As I have written in a previous article on innovation at Los Alamos, the most striking aspect of the site is the immense natural beauty of the area. The city of Los Alamos sits on a mesa that juts out like the prow of a ship, surrounded on all sides by deep, rocky cliffs. In the distance, one sees the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, part of a nearby extinct volcanic caldera. The terrain is sagebrush and pinyon trees, with some pines mixed in, and the soil is multi-colored, like a Georgia O’Keefe painting (she lived and painted in this region for many years). In addition to its natural beauty, the site is also easy to secure, as the canyons and mountains form natural barriers to funnel anyone seeking access to the site to a narrow mountainside road, where the Army placed its primary guard post. Even today this site remains a high security area, as the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency continues to conduct top secret work in nearby, though they moved their facilities across the canyon to another mesa that is separate from the modern town of Los Alamos.
Workers coming to the original Los Alamos site in 1943 for the first time had an interesting experience. For the most part, they had to tell their families and neighbors very little about why they were leaving town as they boarded a train to Santa Fe. Upon arrival at the station, they would walk a short distance across the charming Santa Fe Plaza to 109 East Palace Avenue, a nondescript door that opened to a similarly unobtrusive office run by Dorothy McKibbin. She alone would process the paperwork for the new arrival then arrange a car to take the worker to the Los Alamos site, known then as “the Hill.” As the newcomer left Santa Fe and followed the winding mountain roads up to the site, it is unlikely that they were not moved by the natural beauty of the site, as well as the sense of isolation and tight security once they reached the gatehouse.
The Los Alamos site was truly a remote installation, far from any large city. Although some workers traveled away from the site during project (on rare occasions), they were traveling in a country that was not under threat of attack. This was quite different from a worker at Bletchley Park hopping on a train to London and being immersed almost immediately in the horrific experience of the incessant German aerial attacks. The Los Alamos site also had the advantage of being more like a camp than a military installation, despite the best efforts of the Army to render it into the latter. Meetings were held in a series of log cabin buildings that had formerly been used by the Los Alamos Boys School, such as the Fuller Lodge, which was the main meeting and dining area for the school and subsequently for the Los Alamos workers.
There were also six houses nearby that formerly housed the headmaster and teachers for the school. These houses were known as bathtub row because they came equipped with much sought-after tubs. Many of the scientists brought their wives to the base, and Oppenheimer did what he could to breed some semblance of normalcy to the site, at least as much as could be possible in a top-secret government weapons research facility. As the number of workers at the site swelled, however, the Army had to construct a large number of spartan, military-style buildings all around the area, robbing it of some of the feel of a camp that the site initially possessed.
Another advantage of the Los Alamos site was its proximity to a location where Oppenheimer’s team could conduct perhaps the most significant scientific experiment of all time – the Trinity Site. The Army needed an extremely remote location that was far away from population centers to test their first atomic device. After surveying several sites, the Army selected the Jornada del Muerto Valley near Socorro, New Mexico. The site was already part of the U.S. Government-owned Alamogordo Bombing Range, and was dozens of miles from any populated areas and concealed by mountain ranges on all sides.
Although the test site was only 220 miles away from Los Alamos, the plutonium core for the Trinity test device had to be carried (in a protective case) for what could be termed the most harrowing automobile drive in history, as it was transported in a basic 1940s-era sedan from the weapons lab to the test site in the heat of the New Mexico summer (on rough roads and certainly with no air-conditioning). The test took place on July 16, 1945, representing the dawn of the era of nuclear weapons. The US would go on to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, killing and wounding tens of thousands of civilians, hastening the end of World War II, and saving the lives of millions of American soldiers who would have been involved in an expected invasion of Japan as well as the lives of similar numbers of Japanese who would have been defending their homeland.
The Impact of Location on Innovation
The examples of Down House, Bletchley Park, and Los Alamos provided an interesting contrast in approaches concerning the impact of location on innovation work. Darwin’s strategy for researching and writing his world-changing monograph On the Origin of Species started first as a “Headquarters-Based” innovation approach followed by a “Remote/Field” model. After returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin spent time in Cambridge and London interacting with the country’s leading scholars in the various fields in which he gathered data (botany, zoology, geology, etc.) and was feted by colleagues in leading academic institutions in the country. Yet Darwin eventually left London to seek more space and solitude, as well as a large functioning garden, in the village of Downe. One could hypothesize that had Darwin not followed this pathway (Headquarters followed by Remote/Field), then it is possible that his publication of the theory of evolution might have been eclipsed by the work of another scholar who published a similar thesis before Darwin made his work known to the outside world.
In the summer of 1858, Darwin was hard at work at Down House documenting his thoughts on evolution. He had arrived some years earlier at the conclusion that natural selection played a role in the evolution of species, but he had not taken any steps to publish his work to claim credit for the theory (as would occur a year later in November 1859 with his publication of On the Origin of Species). On that fateful day of June 18, 1858, Darwin received a parcel in the mail containing a short manuscript written by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that outlined a theory on the evolution of species based on observations Wallace had made while conducting research in the Malay Archipelago. Darwin was crestfallen upon reading the manuscript, fearing that his life’s work on evolution was all for naught since another scientist had documented the theory of evolution before he could claim credit for it. Darwin told his mentor, Charles Lyell, that he would willingly assist Wallace in getting the manuscript to the appropriate journal for publication and that Darwin would add his own thoughts to the work, though he realized that “all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.”
Lyell and the renowned botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (a close friend of Darwin’s), had another idea. They decided that the best course of action would be for Darwin and Wallace to prepare a joint publication and present their findings at the same time in London to the prestigious Linnean Society. This would allow both authors to claim credit for the work they had done to arrive at this new theory and would include documents written by Darwin in 1844 and 1857 that presaged these ultimate findings. The joint presentation allowed Darwin to cement his place in history as one of the founders of the theory of evolution, and over time Wallace’s name receded into the background and Darwin became exclusively associated with the theory. It is likely that by spending time in Cambridge and London after the Beagle voyage, Darwin solidified his previous network of contacts and established new contacts who would support him in the future, even to the point where they helped protect his primacy in the debate over authorship of the theory of evolution. Had Darwin moved straight to Downe after returning to England, the outcome might have been different and Darwin may have faded into obscurity.
In the Bletchley Park example, the British leadership chose the Remote/Field model for their innovation work. The site had to be remote for security reasons, both in terms of protecting the site from German bombers and to allow some isolation from the general public to protect the top-secret activities being undertaken at the site. Yet the site also needed to be close enough to London to allow for workers to get access to the site, as well as near the train line so that academics from Cambridge and Oxford could be engaged to work on the project. It is probably that this proximity to London created a unique sense of purpose and urgency that animated the work of the individuals tasked with the enormous challenge of decrypting enemy communications. For the workers who toiled away in the huts at Bletchley Park, success in their work meant an immediate ability to save lives of their fellow countrymen as well as their country’s survival as a whole. The reality of the precariousness of their situation would hit home every time they heard an air raid siren, or each time they returned to London to visit family and friends, or each time they drew the blackout curtains in their hut so they could work through the night without drawing the attention of enemy bombers.
Looking at the site (albeit with inherent biases from a 21st-century perspective), one could argue that the facilities should have been oriented more towards individual workspaces with enclosed, quiet areas that would allow for intense concentration on the work at hand. The enormous complexity of the puzzles that the workers were trying to solve would require a level of focus that one could imagine was difficult in an open workspace with dozens of colleagues shuffling paper, typing on typewriters, or debating approaches to problem-solving. Winston Churchill required his secretary to use a specially-modified silent typewriter to capture his dictation so as not to disturb his concentration, and one could argue that Bletchley’s workers would have similarly benefited from a quieter work environment.
It is likely that each worker at Bletchley trying to solve a particularly puzzling cipher or analyzing a decrypted message might benefit from a cone of silence and peace. However, the rigors of military security probably resulted in a need for open spaces, as a worker would be less able to engage in subversive activity (such as hiding a document inside one’s clothing to smuggle it out of the site) in an open floorplan. In the end, the sense of mission resulting from Bletchley’s proximity to London and the seriousness of the war effort as a mission for the survival of the British people was strong enough to outweigh any logistical inconveniences of the facilities at the site.
In the Los Alamos example, the innovation approach was that of the Remote/Lab model. The Los Alamos site was extremely remote, especially when compared to Bletchley Park. This was needed both for security reasons and because the site was going to be working with radioactive materials and explosives. Yet the site was set up in a laboratory model, with a scientific mindset of open discussions. Oppenheimer believed that his teams would work better together if they understood each other’s work and challenges, and he fought against Army regulations that tried to limit the communication among scientists on the project. The Los Alamos site also benefitted from a bucolic natural setting that, despite the horrors of war that the workers and scientists knew were going on elsewhere in the world, seemed very far away from northern New Mexico and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. While the workers and scientists at Los Alamos did have the usual complaints about facilities and a lack of adequate housing, their posting was much less austere than Bletchley Park, and they knew that they would not hear the droning engines of enemy bombers over their buildings. They did not need blackout curtains, and even had time for leisure activities to relieve the pressure of their race to build an atomic weapon.
In the example above from the small-scale IT project, the team that in delivered the most innovative solution was the one that worked onsite at the call center. Although working at Headquarters certainly made the team members feel more important, particularly in terms of the ease of interaction with the senior executives in that location, the impact on the team of being in the place where their work would come to fruition on a daily basis proved to be inspirational for team leads, developers, analysts, and testers, who were used to operating behind a computer screen and phone line hundreds or thousands of miles away. The mere act of walking through the call center each morning on the way to the cramped conference room they had commandeered for a development lab reminded the team members of why they were there and gave them a sense of purpose. If the team could build something that made these hundreds of hard-working call center agents better able to do their jobs, and that would make the customers calling into the site happier as well, then the late hours they spent solving problems with the system would all be worthwhile. This is not to say that the team wouldn’t put similar efforts into working on the same solution if they were based at headquarters or in a remote lab. Yet it is indisputable that there is a different feeling when there is a closer tie between a team’s daily work and clear outcomes emanating from that work.
For Darwin, the escape from headquarters allowed him to get closer to the land and conduct numerous experiments in his fields and in his greenhouse to test the hypotheses that he had been crafting so carefully for so many years. Darwin knew that to understand how nature worked, he needed to be closer to it on a daily basis, rather than ensconced behind a desk in a noisy, crowded metropolis, however full of insightful colleagues London might have been at that time.
Bletchley Park was the closest to this paradigm of tying one’s work directly to an outcome, for the workers there could see and feel the threat to their country on a daily basis. Moreover, they could see details in a successfully decrypted message about how an enemy was moving to attack their fellow countrymen or allies, and they knew that by getting this information to the right people they could have an immediate impact on the war.
Los Alamos had a similar connection between daily work and an outcome, though without the immediate threat faced at Bletchley Park and with more salubrious living conditions. The sense of mission was still there for the brilliant minds gathered in remote New Mexico, but it is hard to believe that they felt the same pressure as their allies outside of London.
In all of these cases, the importance of field work resonates. A good example of this is recent research into the guillemot egg, as reported on the BBC Inside Science podcast. The guillemot is a sea-bird whose egg has perplexed scientists since the first eggs were discovered hundreds of years ago. The eggs are about twice the size of a standard chicken egg and are shaped like an obelisk, with a tall point on one end and a flat base on the other.
Scientists over the years have speculated that these eggs are oddly-shaped so they will roll in an arc when placed on a flat surface, though analysis shows that if these eggs rolled in an arc, the arc would be about 18 inches and the typical guillemot perches on rocky cliffs sometimes as narrow as 2 inches. Guillemots live in tight packs with fellow birds for protection from predators, so space is at a premium on the rocky ledges where they perch. Modern scientists have created life-like replicas of these eggs using plaster and 3D printers but none of them have reached satisfactory conclusions about the reason for the peculiar egg shape, and many believe that the plaster eggs are not behaving in the same way as a real guillemot egg.
Research undertaken by Tim Birkhead, Professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield, postulates an entirely new rationale behind the egg shape. Birkhead decided not to use models and conducted extensive field research on the guillemots, performing close observations of their nesting sites and carefully procuring a few actual eggs for testing. Birkhead positioned himself on a ledge with a 30-degree slope similar to the type where the guillemots like to nest and placed one of the real eggs on the slope. The egg miraculously stayed in place, using its shape to maximize the amount of surface area touching the stone. He then placed a more traditional bird egg on the same slope and it immediately tumbled down the hill.
He also noticed that guillemots tag-team in guarding their eggs, with the male and female taking turns sitting on the egg to protect it. During the periods where one bird is leaving the nest and another is arriving, the two birds have to be very careful to keep the egg in place on their tiny perch while they swap places. In this vulnerable transition period, the shape of the egg allows the guillemots to hold the egg in place with their webbed feet. Birkhead observed this behavior on numerous occasions and immediately understood the importance of the unique shape of the egg.
When asked how he arrived at this conclusion that so many others had missed, Birkhead said that “one has to get one’s hands dirty – there is no substitute for field work.” Rudyard Kipling said something similar in 1892, writing ”[a]nd what should they know of England who only England know?” In both cases, the message to the innovator is to get outside of headquarters to make true discoveries. This is the headquarters innovation paradox: while it is exciting to spend time in that environment, the best discoveries are often made elsewhere.
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Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.