By Diane Stafford
Published: February 7, 2008
It’s probably not on your business calendar, but Feb. 11 is the birth date of Thomas Alva Edison.
It’s on Michael Gelb’s calendar.
Gelb, who thinks, writes and teaches about innovation, a few years ago wrote How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. More recently, he’s written Innovate Like Edison (as in the “Wizard of Menlo Park”).
You’ve probably noticed that talking about “change” and “innovation” is all the rage these days. Gelb’s been on the consulting and speaker circuit on that topic for 29 years, so he’s hardly a Johnny-come-lately to the subject.
Here’s what he’s observed over the years:
“People say they don’t have time to go to time-management seminars, that they’re too busy taking care of business to come to a ‘change’ seminar, that they’re too stressed to go to the stress-management seminar.”
Sound familiar? That’s where Edison comes in.
Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and holder of 1,093 patents, was known to grab a fishing pole at some of the busiest, most stress-filled times in his workshop and go sit at the fishing hole — with a baitless hook.
“It wasn’t about catching fish. It was about taking time to let go,” Gelb relates. “Edison knew how to manage his personal energy while dealing with incredible intensity in his surroundings.”
Gelb, who’s taken his message to major companies, business schools, and members of the Institute for Management Studies, believes Edison epitomizes leadership that encourages innovation.
He says that Edison:
- Was willing to take risks and continue through multiple failures.
- Set optimistic goals and combined that with the discipline and detailed rigor to get there.
- Hired the right colleagues, partly by finding the right technical skills but also by hiring people with the right chemistry to fit in the environment he created. (He did this by including colleagues in interviewing prospective workers.)
- Worked long hours but recognized the need for fun. (He was known for bringing in midnight lunches, taking song breaks, and, generally, creating an esprit de corps.)
Recognized that “if you want to innovate, you don’t pick people who all think the same.”
Gelb believes that bureaucracy and layers of management are the enemy of innovation. “That’s the reason why innovation is often more likely at smaller places,” he says.
But, Gelb says, change — the good kind — can occur at larger organizations, given the kind of innovation leadership and organizational freedoms that Edison fostered.
“You have to start with where you are, and what your resources are, then make what difference you can,” Gelb asserts. “You can’t change everything overnight. But you can understand the principles of flexibility and being open to change.”
Without that understanding, he says, American companies won’t keep the “spirit of Yankee ingenuity” that fueled Edison’s innovations.