Book: Edison's Success Based on His Collaborations

Feb 11, 2013

Thomas Alva Edison: We all know what he did, right? He was the creator of modern conveniences, improving and innovating light bulb, motion picture and sound recording technologies.

Thomas Alva Edison listened to his team.
Credit Courtesy of Thomas Edison NHP Archives and National Parks Service

But Edison wasn't just ahead of his time when it came to his inventions - his managerial style was way ahead of the curve. A new book suggest we could say he also invented the collaborative management style.

In Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab, author Sarah Miller Caldicott - a great-grand niece of Edison - takes us inside his process. Caldicott is, naturally, an innovation process expert, working with organizations to foster innovation so they can grow and remain relevant in the global economy.

Midnight Lunch

Collaboration is not a new concept, Caldicott says, but there is a difference between true collaboration (what Edison had) and just putting together employees in a team.

The most important step to get to Edison's true collaboration is what Caldicott calls "capacity." That's the formation of collegiality between employees. They need to feel like they can trust each other. In Edison's lab, suggesting an idea was a low-risk situation; employees would suggest an idea to their colleagues, who would in turn get to work experimenting with it.

Edison was masterful at driving the sense of collegiality, particularly with his "Midnight Lunches." After hours with his team, Edison would go home for dinner and then come back to check in on their experiments. There tended to be 10-12 people there on any given evening. His team would pitch ideas and discuss them and then at 9 PM, Edison would order food for the team.

“This was the Midnight Lunch at 9:00 PM, he’d bring in sandwiches and beverages. They would kick back, sing songs, share stories, and then continue with work for another two hours.”—Sarah Miller Caldicott

The Midnight Lunches instilled collaboration, camaraderie, and trust among Edison and his team. The combination of their expertise, their sharing, and the social environment gave Edison a successful collegial environment.

Experts and generalists

“Edison didn’t like to just have experts work on something. He liked to balance experts with generalists.”

Caldicott says Edison’s team seemed to be made up of 2/3 generalists and 1/3 experts and specialists. With this set up, he gained more ways to solve problems from different perspectives. This is how he generated so many “disruptive” innovations (motion pictures, recorded sound, electrical power, etc.)  Today, Caldicott says it is important to make sure teams reflect diverse levels of expertise and general knowledge.

Edison also liked a flat playing field among his employers. In contrast to the "pyramid style" that dictated production at many businesses in his Industrial Age, Edison didn't have layers of managers and supervisors. Caldicott says that's more similar to today's "horizontal" management style, due in large part to the equalizing effect of the internet.

She says middle managers are becoming irrelevant in today's market. They need to reinvent themselves, and demonstrate their value by contributing their own expertise in a collaborative setting. She says they need to ask: Who do I connect with? How do I connect with them? What are the ways I can create those connections that will drive value?

Flawed mental models

Like his possibly apocryphal quote goes, Edison learned a lot from failure (10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, included). Caldicott says he also learned a lot from "flawed mental models.” These mental models refer to the filters of how we individually look at the world. Edison encouraged his team members to create and experiment based off of these models, their life perspectives.

For example, Edison’s first patent was the electronic vote recorder for the Massachusetts congress and although it did work, it was not needed. He realized from this that he hadn't asked people what they wanted and needed, that he had not put his machine into context. This occurred because of a “flawed mental model.” From this, he learned to ask questions first; discover potential ways to solve a problem rather than taking the first idea and running with it.

Collaboration through action

Though Edison did not write about the importance of collaboration, Caldicott says the value he placed on it was demonstrated through his actions - and in compensation records in his notebooks.

Profit sharing was radical in Edison’s time; only two people could be on a patent even though more than two worked on an idea. He wanted to compensate his team members for their work and he did so through a paycheck, Midnight Lunches, and a healthy work environment. Rather than keeping himself in the spotlight, Edison let his workers be recorded more than himself.

Caldicott says Edison also taught his team members essential aspects of collaboration. He taught them how to think creatively and develop their talents. He cross-trained each of his workers, giving them different perspectives on projects. Most importantly, he taught everybody how to experiment, this becoming the collaborative backbone of his team.

Edison in the 21st Century

Caldicott says the value of Edison's style of collaboration is evident when we look at the successful outcomes from his lab and their subsequent impact on our culture.

And he offers an example for modern innovators, she says. Edison wanted to know how to serve mankind, how he can make daily life easier, and to make our ways more efficient. Smart devices and mobile devices are the 21st century version of his drive.

Caldicott says through this technology, we are able to collaborate in informal and formal ways - and we shouldn't let that go to waste.