Picture a little girl turning seven. For her birthday she receives a genuine, working Edison phonograph with a big glass horn, Edison’s name across the wooden base in a golden script, and six or seven cylindrical records in paper sleeves. And with this gift she learns she is part of Thomas Edison’s extended family.
Across the bedroom is a normal plastic and metal phonograph, of 50s or 60s vintage, that plays 45s and LPs. Between sits Sarah Miller (Caldicott), for whom the devices represent two very different ways of listening to music. “On one side of the room was an old, beautiful phonograph, like piece of furniture, and on the other side a very utilitarian box also playing music,” she recalls. “It started me wondering — how do ideas change over time?”
A piano player from age four, Caldicott was very aware of music and sound and knew also that the piano was different from the phonographs. “I was interested in how and why these things were so different,” she says.
Caldicott’s quality of thoughtfulness did not come from Edison, who was her relative by marriage only; she was his great grandniece. Caldicott is, however, in the direct blood line of her great great grandfather Lewis Miller, who was an inventor in his own right, with 92 U.S. patents and father of 11 children. His fifth child, Robert Miller, was Caldicott’s great grandfather, and his seventh, Mina Miller, married Thomas Edison in 1886.
Despite her tenuous relationship with Edison and her family’s complete lack of interest in “the Edison side of the equation,” Caldicott was drawn to her Edison heritage as well as the accomplishments of her great great grandfather, Lewis, and the power of inventing. Putting that together with years of experience in marketing and hefty research in resources developed by the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University, Caldicott wrote a book titled “Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor,” which was published last October.
Caldicott, also founder of the consulting firm the Power Patterns of Innovation, will talk about innovation at a free event sponsored jointly by the MIT Club of Princeton and the Thomas Edison Papers on Thursday, May 15, at 6 p.m. at the Allison Road Classroom Auditorium at Rutgers University’s Busch Campus in Piscataway. Also speaking is Paul Israel, director of the Thomas Edison Papers and writer of “Edison, A Life of Invention.” For more information, contact Rachel Weissenburger at 732-445-8511, ext. 10, or E-mail Weissenb@rci.rutgers.edu.
In her research Caldicott uncovered five patterns in Edison’s life that contributed to his success as an inventor:
Solution-centered mindset. Fundamental to the innovation process is how people interact with their environments. Thinking like an innovator means taking a positive, proactive posture regarding challenges and obstacles. “You have to be willing to look for answers and results in a creative way,” says Caldicott.
That’s what Edison did, for example, as he and his team conducted more than 50,000 experiments between 1900 and 1905 to create the world’s first alkaline storage battery. “What differentiated Edison from his competitors was the ability to come up with creative hypotheses that pushed the boundaries out farther;” she explains. Edison saw all results as steps toward a solution. If one thing didn’t work, he tried the next thing. But he also looked carefully at surprising results and outlying options. “He was looking at problems with a more open mind, with a wider net of options,” says Caldicott.
Using the metaphor of Google results, Caldicott believes that whereas most people look only at the first 10 results, Edison would have looked not only at those but also at the 475th, thinking it might give him a whole different angle to work from.
Consider how Edison got the idea for his first filament. Looking for a material that could burn without falling apart, he noticed that the cellular structure of bamboo was uniform. As a result of this observation, he developed the hypothesis that bamboo would burn evenly. He then impregnated a bamboo fiber with carbon to create enough fuel for the filament to burn for several hours, and it worked.
Kaleidoscopic thinking. In the late 1800s no one had heard of whole-brain thinking. Whereas today the terms “right-brain” and “left-brain” have made their way from cognitive psychology into everyday language, who knew back in Edison’s time that using both types of thinking would activate the frontal lobe, where higher-level thinking and pattern recognition reside?
The way Edison intuitively developed his ideas could well serve as a model for combining left and right-brain approaches to come up with creative hypotheses: One example is his work with analogies, where he compared unlike things to find out their similarities. He also kept notebooks where he would draw ideas on paper while at the same time tracking data and looking at results and outcomes.
“This classic left-right brain combination was fruitful for Edison,” observes Caldicott, who describes how he used it to invent the world’s first electric circuit. After having invented the incandescent electric light in 1879, he had to figure out how to connect several light bulbs on the same wire. To get his juices flowing, Edison — being a master telegrapher — compared the flow of information through a telegraph machine to what he theorized could be the flow of electricity through a wire.
“He used analogical thinking to draw these ideas down on paper,” says Caldicott, “sitting and thinking, ‘How is x like y’ and coming up with a solution.” He brainstormed for days, and one of the eight ideas he came up with became the first electric circuit.
Full-spectrum engagement. Edison was successful navigating extremes across different aspects of experience: emotional highs and lows, simplicity versus complexity, and solitude versus teamwork. He was able to handle the highs and lows of the innovative process; he and his team dealt with complex concepts that they explained in simple terms to bankers, politicians, and investors; Edison worked both in solitude and in teams; and Edison sometimes shared his intellectual property with others, including other scientists, and sometimes patented it for himself.
In her own life Caldicott has found that solitude multiplies productivity, so she tries to set aside 15 minutes of alone time every day. Fifteen minutes daily of writing and thinking gets the ideas going and generates ideas for potential solutions, she claims. “If you don’t allow the mind to percolate, you get less robust outcomes,” she says. But if you invest in daily solitude, you expand your ability to get things done, in the end saving time.
Master-mind collaboration. Edison designed multidisciplinary innovation teams by hiring innovation-minded employees and rewarding his teams. “These are helpful practices for companies today,” says Caldicott. “These are some of the toughest challenges we have now — how to create a climate of innovation in my company.”
Edison created mixed teams. He would, for example, put chemists together with physicists, mathematicians, and mechanics on one team. But Edison also valued different learning styles.
Edison’s mother, a retired school teacher, realized he did not learn in the standard way and decided to home school him. Edison understood that he was a kinesthetic learner, who learned by doing. He is supposed to have said, “I could never make a fact my own without doing it first.” Rather than just reading about an experiment, therefore, he would buy chemicals and do it himself; and when studying a Shakespeare play, he would also go and watch a performance.
“This was his way of engaging his mind,” says Caldicott. “He knew this about himself.” And yet he surrounded himself with different types of learning and valued the diversity. We know from management science that the most robust, creative output is generated from diverse teams. This is something companies can do right now — they can reevaluate and restructure their teams.”
Super-value creation. Edison was also a master at connecting his ideas and solutions to the needs of the marketplace and in creating value for his user groups, whether business or consumers. A favorite way of connecting with his target audience was through ethnographic research — studying individuals in their environments and seeing how they interacted with different things, what they did, and how long they spent doing it.
Edison had observed insurance clerks, for example, working for hours in their offices writing the same thing over and over, and he created several patents in the early 1870s that allowed insurance clerks to write out insurance documents more quickly.
He developed an electric pen and press that became the foundation of the document duplication industry, says Caldicott. He knew a lot about batteries and machines and how to lay a liquid on top of a flat surface evenly, and he hypothesized that maybe he could lay ink on top of paper. The resulting Edison mimeograph machine created little perforations in paper and passed ink over the top of the paper and onto another sheet that became the final product.
“This is an example of seeing a gap, an opportunity where no one was providing a solution, and creating value for an audience,” says Caldicott.
Caldicott grew up in Milwaukee, where her mother was a professional fundraiser and her father a lawyer. She majored in English and history at Wellesley College, and after graduating in 1980 she worked for two years as a research analyst at Temple Barker, a consulting firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. She then received a master’s in business administration, with a focus on marketing, from Dartmouth.
In 1986 she started working in brand management in Chicago for the Quaker Oats Company, developing new brands and refreshing existing ones “to put them back on a growth path.” Then she moved to Helene Curtis, where she did brand management and international marketing.
“That whole span of my career showed me what it is like to develop new products — the innovative process — in domestic and international settings in multi-billion dollar companies,” says Caldicott. She moved to Florida for a change of pace and to get away from the cold and in 1997 started Starwave Associates, a strategic marketing and branding consultancy helping business owners and entrepreneurs grow their brands and make them more profitable.
Since completing her book, she has expanded her focus to include innovation and has renamed her company the Power Patterns of Innovation (www.powerpatterns.com).
Caldicott’s marketing and history backgrounds came together in writing her book on Edison. As a marketer she had gone through aspects of the innovation process herself, and as a history major she appreciated accuracy. To ensure her work’s authenticity, she worked with Paul Israel, the world’s leading expert on Edison. Since 1979 Israel’s team at Thomas Edison Papers has been analyzing and documenting over five-million pages of notebooks and personal and business correspondence.
Edison loved the innovation process and, although his estate measured in the millions, he made and spent several fortunes during his life as he invested and reinvested in his own inventions. “His aim was to create products that benefited humankind,” says Caldicott, and he built five industries: telecommunications, electric power, recorded sound, movies, and portable power (that is, the storage battery industry).
Most books about Edison are from a historical perspective, but Caldicott believes that, writing the book as a marketer, she has been able to see him through a different lens. “My goal in writing my book is to give individuals, teams, and companies access to these innovative best practices,” she says, “so they can begin to use these now in the global economy.”
— Michele Alperin