Thought patterns: How to innovate like Edison

Thomas Edison’s thought patterns can help us be more like the guy who has 1,093 U.S. patents, says co-author of the book, “Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor.” Edison facts, stories, photos, and advice to improve U.S. competitiveness include....


Factoids, quotes, why the book, customer experiences, research

Detroit, MI – Understanding Thomas Edison’s patterns of thinking can help us be more like the guy who has 1,093 U.S. patents to his name, says co-author of the book, “ Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor .” Sarah Miller Caldicott , also Edison’s great grandniece, helped a packed room of engineers at the SME Annual Meeting gain insights into Edison’s thought patterns, to improve U.S. competitiveness.

Sarah Miller Caldicott, co-author of “Innovate Like Edison,” also is founder of Power Patterns of Innovation and is great grandniece of Thomas Edison, shown above.

Bearing a family resemblance to her great great Aunt Mina Miller– who married Edison in 1886 – and telling stories of growing up with Edison phonographs in her bedroom, Caldicott offered exercises which seemed to win over SME attendees... along with a promise of an autographed book.
Caldicott, also founder of The Power Patterns of Innovation , noted five best practices based on her 3-year study of Edison: a solution-centered mindset; kaleidoscopic thinking; full-spectrum engagement; master-mind collaboration; and super value creation.
Advice from Edison, via Caldicott
Her advice included:
- Cultivate a solution-centered mindset . Do not seize an answer at the beginning of an initiative. A framework of options and pathways can lead to solutions. Look outward and scan the environment. Lean ahead and hunt for a solution. Combine factual information with what-if or if-then thinking. Envision the solution and “emotionalize” the state that will be experienced upon getting there.
- Choose to be positive . Edison showed optimism through some extraordinarily tough times. Don’t take things personally and choose to see any setback as a temporary glitch, as isolated rather than pervasive. “I never failed once,” he said. “It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.”

Mind maps, a collection of thoughts and ideas in nonlinear fashion, can help the right brain to create value through pattern recognition, as this example from Sarah Miller Caldicott’s presentation, and the book, “Innovate Like Edison,” shows.

- Discern patterns . Edison saw perfection in the interconnectedness of nature; seeking patterns in the world led to multiple successes. Multi-disciplinary teams helped Edison outpace his competitors again and again.

- Seek simplicity amid complexity . Are you at an impasse? Break things into smaller sequences or processes. What can be easily improved? Look through fresh eyes. Edison said, “In trying to perfect a thing, I sometimes run straight up against a granite wall a hundred feet high. If, after trying and trying, I can’t get over it, I turn to something else.”

- Tune in to your target audience , cultivating a skill for considering data without prejudice.

- Make time to think . Edison worked part of his day in solitude and encouraged employees to do so as well. He and his employees kept notebooks to measure and see the progression of their experiments, observing patterns, especially when they got stuck. Spend 10 minutes in thought, Caldicott says; it may quickly expand to an hour after observing the value.
We need to continue the U.S. heritage of innovation; it’s what we excel at doing, she says. Edison’s innovation legacy belongs to all of us.

Innovative Thomas Edison factoids
Thomas Edison’s greatest invention was the process of systematic innovation, says Sarah Miller Caldicott, co-author of the book, "Innovate Like Edison" and a great grandniece of Edison.

Some of that may have derived from being home-schooled and self-taught. With less than three months of formal education, he was described as a kinesthetic learner, working best by touching, looking, feeling, taking apart and putting together. Edison said, “I could never make a fact my own without doing it first.” In his “office,” he had a 10,000 volume library, one of the top five libraries in world at the time, which he made available to all his employees. He pioneered five industries and established the world’s first research and development laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ.

Ever optimistic, when Edison was 60+ years of age, in 1914, a fire destroyed 13 phonograph buildings right before Christmas. While he lost $5 million (in current dollars) before the flames died, he reportedly was making notes on how to incorporate the latest manufacturing processes. Separately, repeated trouble with circuits led Edison to improve copper wire quality– leading to dramatic growth in America’s copper industry.
Edison believed in flat organizations, more like a dome structure than a pyramid, so information was not lost vertically.

Innovation-related quotes
Quotes Caldicott cited, to provide inspiration for innovation, included the following.
-Peter Drucker: “Every organization, not just business, needs one core competence: innovation.” Also, “Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient that which should not be done in the first place.”
-Napoleon Hill: “Imagination is the workshop of your mind, capable of turning mind energy into accomplishment and wealth.”
-Western Union patent attorney, Edward Dickerson: “Edison has a remarkable kaleidoscopic brain. He turns that head of his and things come out as in a kaleidoscope, in various combinations, most of which are patentable.”
-George Parsons Lathrop: “Edison does everything with the least amount of friction.”
-Albert Einstein: “Things should be made as simple as possible, not simpler.”

Why the book? 5 million pages more
Why did she co-author the book? Caldicott had a rich family history to draw upon. Edison worked for 62 years, 1869 to 1931, and had 1,093 U.S. patents to his name, a record, among them: a practical battery, the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, and the carbon button microphone, which made telephones practical to use. A great grandfather of hers, Lewis Miller, had 92 patents and is featured in the Smithsonian as well as the National Inventors Hall of Fame, for developing various types of mechanized agricultural machinery, including reaper-binders.

Aside from growing up with great family tales and a couple of Edison phonographs (cylinder and flat records) in her room, Caldicott sincerely seems to want the U.S. to remain dominant among world innovators. Impetus, she said, also came from the observation that, in fourth-quarter 2003, China surpassed the U.S. as the primary destination for foreign investments.

For the book, she conducted three years of research at the “Edison Papers Project,” a collection of 5 million pages of Edison’s work housed at Rutgers University. She wrote the book with co-author Michael J. Gelb (author of “How to Think Like Leonardo daVinci.”) Caldicott says the book is endorsed by the world’s leading expert on Edison today, Dr. Paul Israel, director of the Edison Papers Project.

Value customer experiences

In selling phonographs, Edison concerned himself with the customer’s experience, keeping in mind a progression of increasing economic value, from the lower left to upper right:

Commodities, extracting

Ethnographic research: What I do, not what I say
Another way to innovate is to do ethnographic research, observing what people do. What do your customers spend too much time doing that you could help them do more quickly? Then make changes to help customers. Illinois Tool Works did some subassembly in one of its offerings after observing that customers took a disproportionate amount of time putting together one group of parts. Target put a store in Rockefeller Center for one week last year, observed customers, and learned from what they did.

Also read: SME: Get lean, get automation, get help

–  Mark T. Hoske , editor in chief
Control Engineering News Desk
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