One of the benefits of living in the Silicon Valley is the ability to interact with the world's great innovation experts.  Early in the week it was Vint Cerf at Stanford, and today, at my own Santa Clara University, Sarah Miller Caldicott.caldicott Ms. Caldicott is founder of Power Patterns of Innovation, co-author of Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of Americas Greatest Inventor -- and a great grand niece of Thomas Edison - holder of 1093 patents. We need some perspective to understand Edison's innovation contributions. Edison created the first R&D laboratory (Menlo Park) with a "systematic approach to innovation."  Evidence that his methods work: A 1919 New York Times article reported:
It has been estimated that there are a thousand million dollars invested in the industries which he has either created or for which he has laid part of the foundation; and a million employees are in these industries.
He established 6 industries (in 40 years):
  • Document duplication (1873)
  • Telecommunications (1876)
  • Recorded sound (1877)
  • Electrical power (1879)
  • Motion pictures (1893)
  • Portable power (1905)
Working with the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, Sarah Miller Caldicott has identified the organizational processes Edison developed to support his innovation.  Key is how organizations today (e.g., Google, Apple, Target, Starbucks, Pixar) use these same processes with great success.  She did a wonderful job of bringing the issues down to a personal level: The Five Competencies of Innovation.
  1. Solution-centered Mindset: (she says most important) Imagine the solution, then get ahead of it, and use experiments to nail it down.  Edison conducted over 10,000 experiments in the first year of working on the storage battery.
  2. Kleidoscopic thinking: went beyond brainstorming - whole brain thinking. "To have a great idea, have a lot of them."  Once he invented the light bulb, he had to invent the system to run them.  He looked to telegraphy and electricity (multiple streams of knowledge).  He drew six pictures and one became the first electric circuit.  Use fantastical storytelling (dropping self censorship by getting your brain to think in fiction form).
  3. Full-spectrum Engagement: Important to work in solitude, and also important to work in teams.  Opposites -- important to be intense, but also to relax.  Sharing and protection.
  4. Master-mind collaboration:  Cross functional teams, organizational design (org and physical structure) that enabled ad hoc interaction across expertise areas -- in the late 1800s!
  5. Super-value creation:  Ethnographic research to understand the market. "A believer in going and looking."  Creation of a brand.
Again, my professional interest is in how he was able to systematize the innovation process.  The answer is hard work and innovating around process as well as products. The above five competencies are known, if not applied widely, today. But in the 1800s these were unique approaches. In the question session, one of the participants asked about Edison's friendship with Henry Ford. Ford was 20 years younger, but worked at the Edison Illuminating Company and eventually became friends with Edison.  Both industrialists were organizational design innovators, as well as great innovators of products.  It also came out that Edison hated people calling him the Wizard of Menlo Park as it made it seem like what he did was easy -- rather than 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. We can all keep this last point in mind: Innovation doesn't fall from the sky.  Even process innovation must be carefully managed -- but the results are well worth it -- even in 1919 dollars!