Thomas Edison’s collaboration secrets

“Edison’s dedication to collaboration crystallizes what we are capable of at our best,” Sarah Miller Caldicott writes in the introduction to Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab. “[He] viewed collaboration as the beating heart of his laboratories, a sustaining resource that fueled the knowledge assets of his sprawling innovation empire.”

When we lionize our great thinkers and innovators, we often imagine mad geniuses toiling alone in garages, basements and laboratories. That’s not often the reality – and even if you do hatch a brilliant idea or invention on your own, good luck bringing it to fruition (not to mention saving it for posterity) without some collaboration.

About the author

Caldicott is uniquely positioned for a deep dive into Edison’s collaborative habits. Her first book was Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success; drawing out the team-oriented philosophies was a natural extension from there. She’s not necessarily objective – she’s Edison’s great-grandniece – but Midnight Lunch doesn’t pretend to be a critical biography. For anyone who’s a collaboration champion, or just interested in leadership and business dynamics in general, it’s a great addition to the bookshelf.

Teamwork vs. true collaboration

Caldicott emphasizes the sweeping value of business collaboration; not only are you putting your business in better position to innovate, but you’re fostering better relationships with customers and empowering employees on a meaningful individual level. She focuses on “true collaboration,” which she distinguishes from mere teamwork. True collaboration isn’t just about marching in the same direction with a shared goal; true collaboration moves the goal posts. You can be on an assembly line and exemplify effective teamwork without ever really collaborating.

She quotes Art Fry, the inventor of Post-It Notes, as saying “Collaboration allows us as individuals to understand something we didn’t have the background knowledge to grasp before.”

Collaboration isn’t a free-for-all

Just because you are bringing a bunch of voices to your project doesn’t mean that everyone is going to talk all at once or that everyone’s voice carries equal weight. It’s perfectly fine and normal for a collaborative environment to have catalysts and leaders – particularly, y’know, if you have someone like Thomas Edison on your team.

Collaboration phase 1: capacity

Caldicott breaks Edison’s collaboration process into four unique phases. In the first, labeled “Capacity,” he’d try to assemble teams pulled together from various backgrounds and skill sets. We’ve previously noted agencies doing something similar in an attempt to shake up their creative teams. But, again, it’s not about bringing too many chefs into your proverbial kitchen. Edison believed in the value of small teams. A modern-day torch carrier for that policy is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who famously insists on “two-pizza teams” (if you need to order more than two pizzas for your team meeting, your team is too big).

“We specialists are likely to get into ruts of our specialties out of which it is difficult to progress,” Edison said. Instead of locking his team members into their “roles,” he pushed them with new challenges and solicited their opinions and ideas at times when other bosses would have thought they had nothing to contribute.

Caldicott’s book takes its title from Edison’s habit of bringing in food and cigars for his team members as they burned the midnight oil. He got his hands dirty (literally) and made an effort to be “one of the guys” even as his renown escalated. It seems very likely that Edison would have taken the notion of “social business” in stride.

Collaboration phase 2: context

Edison expected his collaborators to come prepared, having already 1) thought of ideas and 2) critically examined those ideas. It’s usually much more effective for a small team of collaborators to refine good ideas rather than just generate ideas – good and bad – from thin air.

Edison learned early on to question his own assumptions. He was a voracious reader who drew many actionable ideas and provocative questions from his legendary library. Once he’d started down the path, he often relied on his teams to help bring him to the finish.

“Heavy focus was placed on maintaining an environment of collegiality where outlying ideas were embraced, not cast aside,” Caldicott writes. “Team members recognized that if they did not explore unusual themes in their dialogue, Edison would freely step in to inject them.”

As for physical context, Edison was way ahead of the curve in designing workspaces to encourage collaboration. Caldicott describes his labs as “campus-style.” There were rooms for team collaboration as well as rooms for quiet research and solitude.

9781118407868.pdfCollaboration phase 3: coherence

Conflict will inevitably arise. How do you deal with it? By empowering proactive leaders and by repeatedly returning to your team’s shared goals. We pay tribute to innovative companies that leverage ideas from supposedly unlikely candidates (like interns!) – but, again, Caldicott shows Edison to be way ahead of the curve.

Moving toward a common goal doesn’t mean marching in lockstep. Skeptics can be hugely valuable. Again, going back to the “too many cooks in the kitchen” misconception about collaboration, though, Caldicott rightly notes that “collaboration is not a democracy.” She goes on to note how Edison’s business was negatively affected by several unresolved conflicts, but also how thrived by bringing even external partners like J.P. Morgan and Eastman Kodak into the fold as true collaborators (not just typical partners).

Collaboration phase 4: complexity

Midnight Lunch‘s final section touches on capitalizing on technological advances and using collaboration as a means of collecting and saving your shared knowledge. Perhaps the most important takeaway is a timeless reminder: simplify. Avoid busywork and unnecessarily cumbersome work processes. Caldicott tells the story of a reporter surprised to find a lack of formal procedures at Edison’s lab.

“Hell, there are no rules here–we’re trying to accomplish something,” Edison said.

You probably don’t want to throw out your rulebook, but Midnight Lunch may inspire you to make some revisions.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.