By Bruce Rosenstein
October 29, 2007
People who haven’t considered Thomas Edison since high school will see him in a new light, so to speak, after reading Innovate Like Edison.
Michael J. Gelb (_How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci_) and Sarah Miller Caldicott (Edison’s great-grandniece) set out to refresh the legend of Edison and show what made an industrial revolutionary tick. Their research included tapping Edison biographer Paul Israel, the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, in Edison’s adopted home state, New Jersey.
Edison lived in the late 19th early 20th century, an era of can-do spirit that produced world-changing inventions – cars, airplanes and telephone.
Edison was off the charts as an innovator in this golden age. Among his inventions:
- An incandescent lighting system (not only an improved bulb, but Edison lined up the financing to light an entire area of Manhattan).
- The phonograph.
- Moving pictures.
He held 1,093 individual or shared patents and created the first corporate research and development laboratory, which some consider to be his greatest achievement.
He may not have been a perfect businessman, but he built a number of companies, including what later became General Electric.
Edison’s work habits were so smart and efficient, they are worth imitating.
According to Innovate Like Edison:
- He taught himself to speed-read. In Edison’s words: “After I became a telegraph operator, I practiced for a long time to become a rapid reader of print, and got so expert I could sense the meaning of a whole line at once.”
- He always kept a notebook handy and jotted down words, pictures and diagrams. Edison and his laboratory staff generated more than 2,500 such notebooks in his lifetime. The notebooks weren’t skimpy, either: Most were 200-250 pages.
- He experimented constantly and maintained objectivity on his findings. Edison was an optimist about the big goals he set for himself and his companies, but that was “balanced with an almost Zen-like quality of detachment in regard to the results of individual experiments,” the authors write.
- He was a champion networker long before Facebook. Edison cultivated relationships with more than just scientists and other business people. His wide circle of associates included “technical experts, customers and prospects, journalists, academics, financiers and politicians.”
The point of Innovate Like Edison is to inspire people to start acting, well, more Edison-like, more spunky and spirited.
Gelb and Caldicott name “five competencies of innovation” that fueled his genius:
- Solution-centered mind-set
- Kaleidoscopic thinking
- Full-spectrum engagement
- Master-mind collaboration
- Super-value creation
With exercises, tips and examples, the authors aim to show how you, to, can adopt Edison’s habits – even in your own cubicle-shaped world.
What would authors ask Edison if they could?
Sarah Miller Caldicott and Michael J. Gelb make a good case for why we should adopt Thomas Edison as a role model for our times. They recently answered questions about Edison via e-mail.
Sarah Miller Caldicott
Q: What question would you ask Edison, and what would be his answer?
A: The question for Edison: How could we have avoided the challenges of global warming? His answer: You should have taken a longer-term view of how carbon-based fuels impact the environment and developed alternatives like solar power, bio-fuels and fuel cells for automobiles much sooner.
Michael J. Gelb
Q: What would Edison and daVinci ask each other if they could meet?
A: Leonardo might ask Edison about the nature of light, and Edison would ask Leonardo if he wanted a job.