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Collaborate like Edison

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management,Profiles in Leadership,Team Building


Having published Innovate Like Edison, author Sarah Miller Caldicott, great-grandniece of the inventor, is working on a second book about Thomas Edison’s collaboration methods.

EL: Why did you choose collaboration as a topic?

Caldicott: Edison believed in collaboration not only as a way of accelerating the innovation process, but to expand the solution set. He liked to create diverse groups of people from diverse disciplines. So if you had a collaborative effort versus having all experts and like-minded people on the project, you’d have a better product and be able to create it faster.

EL: What did Edison’s teams look like?

Caldicott: Edison’s teams were small, nimble groups—three to eight people—that had budgets. He believed in establishing them as nonhierarchical. There was virtually always a leader, but beyond that, people were asked for their ideas and contributions regardless of tenure and skill set. Edison liked to have the viewpoints of people who weren’t experts but who were bright and innovative on those teams.

EL: How would Edison find these bright, innovative contributors?

Caldicott: He would say, “Who are the current and future innovation leaders in my companies?” And he would groom them. This is a different kind of radar than we use today. We have fast-track programs for high-potential leaders—two years in this and that—and those are really good cross-training programs. Edison did a lot of that, too. But the mindset of a leader today may not be, “Am I increasing the innovation ability of this person?”

EL: If we were going to lead more like Edison, how would we create more innovative teams and future leaders?

Caldicott: First, we’d be identifying in­­dividuals with two qualities—creativity and risk-taking—and nur­tur­ing them. The notion here is that these qualities aren’t disconnected from leadership capability. A recent IBM study showed that creativity is the No. 1 thing we want from leaders, so how are we really getting at that? I don’t think we are.

Also, our teams would always be pur­­suing a line of thinking. Edison worked from in­­sights. Though it sometimes looked as though he experimented ad hoc, I found in his notebooks that he was always pursuing a line of thinking. If it didn’t pan out, he’d shift to another line of thinking.

Edison would never get upset if something didn’t work. He’d get upset if you were careless. Then he’d get mad.

EL: What did he think about team meetings?

Caldicott: When Edison had meetings, they were typically working meetings. They’d be doing an experiment to­­gether, so insight would come to the group in toto. Often he’d say, “Go do it yourself and see if you get the same thing; we’ll talk about it next week.” We tend to be more passive givers and receivers of information. He wanted them to see it themselves.

EL: What about social media? Would he have seen that as a collaboration tool?

Caldicott: Edison would think blogs are great, but he’d still keep longhand notebooks. He’d almost insist that his staff do that, too. He’d love wikis. But he’d tell his team not to get away from the core brain process of creating more neuro-connections in your mind. He didn’t know about the way the brain worked, but he could tell, when he got better ­re­­sults, that it had a lot to do with the way he wrote and drew.

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