"We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything"

An Interview with Michael Gelb, author of Innovate like Edison
By Vern Burkhardt
Anyone interested in inventing, creating or innovating should acquaint themselves with Thomas Edison. We have all heard of him and we know he invented the light bulb, for which we are all grateful. What most people may not know is that he was a one person university—a careful examination and understanding of his methods should, when accurately and intelligently followed, be enough to lead to success.

Michael GelbMichael Gelb and co-author Sarah Miller Caldicott have distilled what this genius has to teach us into a very accessible book.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Innovate Like Edison is a very thorough and interesting book, full of inspiring details and useful, well organized information. You might say it has clean Edisonian lines and it practices what it preaches. How did you go about producing such a thorough and organized elucidation of Edison’s methods?

Michael Gelb: Our first concern was to be true to Edison. We were blessed to have Dr. Paul Israel, the author of the definitive biography of Thomas Edison as our academic mentor for this project. Dr. Israel, who heads the "Edison Papers Project" at Rutgers University, provided valuable guidance, ensuring that we represented Edison's approach accurately.

The second, but equally important concern, was to be true to our readers who want to innovate effectively now. We asked members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame to review the Edison Competencies and tell us if they offered an accurate and valuable guide to the innovation process. They confirmed that the Edison Competencies described in the book serve as a fundamental and comprehensive approach to innovation.

Then, we put it all together by applying the Edison Competencies to the process of writing the book.

VB: You say that our world "increasingly rewards innovation". Why do you think that is?

Michael Gelb: Competition!

VB: You also say innovation is "now more important than ever". Why is this so?

Michael Gelb: Increasing competition and speed of change. I don't have to convince most clients that this is true. They know it’s true, but they need help developing a culture that supports innovation.

VB: Another thing you say that is more important now than ever is "the acceptance of relaxation as a core part of the workplace culture". Why now more than ever?

Michael Gelb: My clients are under incredible, unrelenting pressure. Their quality of life is under assault and stress related ailments are becoming a pandemic. Learning to balance intensity and relaxation, as described in Edison Competency number 3, is not only a survival skill but is also necessary as a support to innovative thinking and action.

Innovate like EdisonVB: Edison had lofty and seemingly, for his time, fantastic goals. He was not an average being in any sense. Your book outlines his methods in a clear and thorough manner, encouraging us to emulate and learn from him. Do you think aiming to innovate like Edison is more about having imagination, intelligence, foresight and energy, or about having gumption, persistence and resilience?

Michael Gelb: It requires all of the aspects and traits you identified. Plus, the ability to work effectively with others. Edison believed we are all capable of astounding achievements.

VB: Most of us associate Edison with the light bulb and a number of other inventions, but you say his most important contribution was the invention of "a system for innovating". Would you please elaborate on this?

Michael Gelb: Before Edison, invention was usually considered to be a random product of a lone genius. Edison established the world's first Research and Development Laboratory. And he was the first to link R & D with manufacturing, production, marketing and sales. He created what he called "an invention factory" based on the principles of systematic innovation that we describe in the book.

VB: Failure did not exist for Edison. He saw what we would call a failure as new information, a place to be going on from. And he never gave up. He would make thousands and thousands of experiments looking for one solution. How can someone innovating today develop, or modify, and follow this approach in the face of financial, time or staffing constraints?

Michael Gelb: Edison's approach is the most adaptive, healthy and useful whatever the constraints. The greater the challenge, the bigger the obstacles, the more important it is to adopt what we call a "Solution-Centered MindSet".

VB: Edison seemed to be naturally equipped with the right personal attributes and native intelligence required to do the things he did. He had a lot of natural know how—he knew how to be curious, to read everything, to be organized, to never give up, to see failure as learning, to respect all his ideas, how to get the best out of his workers, and how to come up with great ideas. Not to mention the energy to do it all, and his uncanny foresight. He was extraordinary. Why do you think it happens from time to time in the history of mankind that one person comes along who makes a spectacular contribution?

Michael Gelb: Heaven knows.

VB: Are you aware of anyone living today whom you would characterize as a modern day Edison—someone with as much foresight, enthusiasm, energy, intelligence, imagination, persistence and success?

Michael Gelb: Buckminster Fuller was the last person I know who was in the Edison ballpark. (Vern’s Note: Buckminster Fuller was born in Massachusetts in 1895. He is perhaps most famous for designing the geodesic dome with collaboration of teacher colleagues and some students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the 1950s. By the time of his death in 1983 he had registered 25 US patents, written 28 books, and received 47 honorary doctorates and numerous awards including a nomination for a Nobel Prize in 1969.)

VB: While reading your book I occasionally found myself thinking "Edison invented and developed all this big stuff and now there can't be much left to discover and invent." What is your response to this type of thinking?

Michael Gelb: That’s what people said before Edison, too.

VB: Edison always worked closely with others, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm, as well as the financial rewards. Though he was clearly the leader and instigator people felt he treated them like equals. Did he pioneer the collaborative approach?

Michael Gelb: Yes. This was a significant aspect of his genius.

VB: One of Edison's strengths was his ability not only to invent, but to manufacture, market and deliver all aspects of his inventions. He invented and fabricated not only the light bulb, but the entire infrastructure necessary to generate and deliver electricity to people's homes and businesses. Is this approach still useful, necessary, or recommended today, when people and companies are becoming more and more specialized?

Michael Gelb: There's an important distinction between specialization and narrowness of thought. A specialist can cultivate the Edisonian approach to systems thinking and work collaboratively with other specialists to generate major innovations.

VB: You say “one of the simplest and most profound things you can learn from Edison is generate first, then organize” meaning that it is good to free associate and let all ideas, whimsical or otherwise, come to the surface and be noted before judging and organizing them. What is the best way to do this in a corporate environment? And what is the best way as an individual?

Michael Gelb: The best way is to learn Mind-Mapping, the idea generation and organization method developed by Tony Buzan. Buzan was inspired to create Mind-Mapping partly through his study of the notebooks of Edison and Leonardo da Vinci.

VB: You quote George Parsons Lathrop as saying of Edison that “He does everything with the least amount of friction” and you say that Edison’s ability to discover simplicity and clarity in the midst of ambiguity and complexity “was an essential approach for unleashing his full potential for innovation”. Would you talk about this in the context of our present, increasingly complex world?

Michael Gelb: This quality is a characteristic of the most effective people throughout history. And, in an increasingly complex world it’s increasingly important. As Einstein commented, "Things should be made as simple as possible, not simpler."

VB: Given that, as you say, America has lost its leadership role as an innovation powerhouse what should the people and companies of the USA be doing to gain it back?

Michael Gelb: Applying the five Competencies and insisting on "Innovation Literacy" at all levels of the organization.

VB: You say "we now know with certainty that, at the level of quantum physics, all our knowledge is uncertain" and you stress the importance of practicing rigorous objectivity when considering data. This seems to open perceptual doors that one may not even have been aware existed, offering an Edison-like glimpse into the waiting mysteries of the future. How can we make sure we find those doors and keep them open?

Michael Gelb: We can't be sure but we can increase the likelihood by becoming more receptive, curious and flexible.

VB: Do you think it is time that people and companies stopped competing and began working together for the common good, rather than only for personal or corporate gain?

Michael Gelb: My vision has always been to help organizations become more humanistic, socially-conscious and life-affirming.

I believe that in the long-run companies with strong humanistic values will compete more effectively. And healthy competition produces the best results in the marketplace.

How to Think like Leonardo da VinciVB: In a previous article in IdeaConnection’s newsletter we featured your book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. You also co-authored Discover Your Genius: How to Think Like History’s Ten Most Revolutionary Minds. Which of the following is your favorite and most fascinating individual and why: Leonardo da Vinci, Edison, Plato, Einstein, Brunelleschi, Columbus, Copernicus, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Jefferson, Darwin or Gandhi? Or can you make such a choice?

Michael Gelb: Leonardo da Vinci. He's the supreme archetype of human potential.

VB: If Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison could meet what might they ask each other?

Michael Gelb: Leonardo would ask Edison about the nature of light and sound, and Edison would ask Leonardo “Would you please consider working for me?”

VB: Are you optimistic about the future ability of humanity to innovate and invent solutions to address world problems such as climate change and the disparity between have and have not peoples?

Michael Gelb: I don't think "the disparity between have and have not peoples" is the real issue. Wealth needn't be a zero-sum game. It’s more useful to focus on how to empower the poor and disenfranchised. The way we frame problems often determines the range of solutions that emerge.

I'm sure that we can solve these problems, and I'm hopeful that we will.

VB: Are you planning to write any more books featuring interesting or famous thinkers, innovators or inventors?

Michael Gelb: I'm working on one now. It will have a different twist than anything I've done before.

VB: We look forward to reading it. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about Edison, the inventor, with our IdeaConnection readers.

Michael Gelb: You’re welcome, and thank you for your interest.

The acknowledgments in this book begin with the statement: “This book emerged as a natural expression of the principles that it describes…The Competencies and elements for Innovate Like Edison that we describe in the following pages guided us through our entire creative process.” This statement is so true it was actually quite difficult coming up with questions for Michael Gelb—the book seems to have already answered everything clearly and thoroughly. The authors left nothing out and the book is rife with inspiration.

They have organized Edison’s approach into five competencies:

  1. Solution-centered mindset

  2. Kaleidoscopic thinking

  3. Full-spectrum engagement

  4. Master-mind collaboration

  5. Super-value creation

Each of these is then broken down into five elements which are individually explored using examples from Edison’s life in such a way as to make the knowledge extremely relevant in today’s world. As an example, competency #2 is described using the following elements:

  • Maintain a notebook

  • Practice ideaphoria

  • Discern patterns

  • Express ideas visually

  • Explore the roads not taken

At the basis of all that Edison did was his belief “that his life’s purpose lay in developing innovations that generated the greatest good for the broadest possible audience.”

Michael Gelb has been a professional speaker, seminar leader and organizational consultant for over 28 years. He has written eleven books and a number of audio programs including "Mind Mapping: How to Liberate Your Natural Genius," and "Work Like Da Vinci: Gaining the Creative Advantage in Your Business and Career." Gelb is a former professional juggler. He also performed with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. In 1999 Gelb shared the Brain Trust Charity's Brain of the Year award with former USA Senator John Glenn. In 2003 he was awarded a Batten Fellowship by the Darden Business School, University of Virginia.

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