How One of America’s Top Innovators Did It

A conversation with Sarah Miller Caldicott, author of "Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success."
By Alice Bumgarner
Sarah Miller Caldicott may be the great grandniece of Thomas Edison, but she relied on more than simply family anecdotes to write her book, Innovate Like Edison. She delved into all things Edison with Dr. Paul Israel, the director of the Edison Papers at Rutgers University, who presides over an archive 5 million pages deep.

She also drew from her own repository of knowledge, having worked as a business leader for 20 years in Fortune 500 and entrepreneurial businesses.

Alice Bumgarner (AB): What is the most exciting innovation Edison developed? What factors made it so exciting?

Sarah Caldicott Sarah Miller Caldicott: Everyone expects me to say the incandescent light bulb. But to me, one of the most exciting innovations was the storage battery.

Of course, Edison invented the incandescent electric light in 1879, which led to building an infrastructure so people could use electricity in their homes and businesses. But this same man also invented what you'd use instead of the grid, which would be a battery. This was new; it was a disruptive concept.

There were batteries in his day that powered lights that lit up the streets at night. But they were large, and they leaked acids that could burn your skin or put holes in your clothes. Edison said, this is just not good.

It took him five years of experiments – over 50,000 experiments – to come up with a nickel and iron battery the size of a thermos that you could carry around. Compare that to the two years it took to develop and begin commercializing the light bulb. It was a very challenging manufacturing process, let alone engineering process.

People said, "It's impossible." Five years later, though, the Model Ts were powered with Edison batteries.

AB: What is the most difficult problem Edison and his team had to solve?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: Figuring out how to create incandescence for the light bulb. "Incandescence" means burning at a high level but not being consumed, like fake logs in a fireplace. So you have to find a system that can resist high heat and give light at the same time. Wow, that's a tough problem.

In creating the filament, Edison and his teams went through over 150 different compounds to find the right combination of ingredients to create a long-burning filament. Once again, people thought it was impossible to create incandescence. No one had thought about a filament before.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what did Edison recommend?

Innovate Like Edison Sarah Miller Caldicott: If Edison was trying and trying and not coming up with new insight, he would stop working and go to a different project. His teams would do the same thing. Or he might take a walk or read. By doing that, he refreshed his thought patterns and could come back to the problem later having created new neural pathways.

AB: What were some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products, in Edison's opinion?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: Lack of perspectives. Edison believed the best way to create was to have diverse perspectives that could be brought to bear on problems. It wasn't like he only hired chemists who sat behind a chemistry bench. He had multi-disciplinary teams for everything. The incandescent light bulb benefited from this, because it's actually five inventions in one.

AB: What, if any, problem solving or creativity tools did Edison use?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: What intrigued me when I started studying Edison was, what techniques is he using to come up all these robust ideas? He's manufacturing stuff and marketing stuff, but he still keeps asking questions. How does he keep figuring out the questions to ask? How does he know what to look at next, to see into the future and see what's possible?

The answer is, he used whole-brain thinking techniques. It wasn't even a concept back then. But he did realize there were different parts of the thinking process – there was a data-oriented part and another part that was about the big picture, patterns, concepts and linkages. So he used tactics to bring those two ways of thinking together.

For example, he worked with analogies. He'd compare disparate things that were like each other, to make connections. He might think, "OK, I'm learning about electricity, and I don't know much about that. But I know a lot about telegraphy. So how is electricity like telegraphy?"

AB: What innovation methodologies, theories, and training did Edison give his team?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: Edison formally trained his employees, especially his lab employees, in how to experiment and document outcomes, because that was at the heart of everything. Even in manufacturing, they were experimenting on the line. He was not the plant manager who said, you have eight hours to fulfill a certain number of orders. Working in flow and being able to look at problems creatively was very important to him, and he made all his people do that.

AB: Did Edison's innovations come from inside the company, or did he ever pull from outside sources or consultants?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: Only in a handful of occasions in his long career did he bring in an outside party, because he wanted to maintain confidentiality. And remember, he's the guy who invented R&D. He felt that there weren't that many scientists in world who operated at the level he did. So typically, you'd be looking for his input, not the other way around!

But if he were alive today, he'd probably be doing this in certain instances – crowdsourcing and things like IdeaConnection.com. He'd recognize the power of the web.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as IdeaConnection.com) that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: I've heard of it, but I haven't used it.

AB: What sorts of things did Edison read to stay current with innovative ideas?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: Edison liked to read widely, because he felt it allowed him to see more patterns. He read Greek philosophers, the classics – loved Shakespeare – and science fiction, particularly Jules Verne. Edison felt scientific publications were important to read, so he'd have these things mailed to him.

He had a 10,000-volume library at his West Orange facility. It was one of the top five libraries in the world. And he encouraged his employees to read. He was a believer in the power of knowledge through books.

AB: Any other thoughts you'd like to share about innovation?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: In Edison's organizations everyone was responsible for innovation, even manufacturing employee, because they were called to solve problems on the line, even if it was their first day. Today, we don't think of everyone in an organization as innovators. We tend to think R&D or engineering will handle it. So we shunt off the innovative thinking.

This is counter to what we need to be doing. In these times, where innovation is the creator of competitive advantage, everyone needs to be able to think like an innovator.

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