Midnight Lunch – How Thomas Edison Collaborated
I caught up with Sarah Miller Caldicott to discuss her latest book Midnight Lunch: the 4 phases of team collaboration success from Thomas Edison’s Lab. Sarah is keen to talk about how collaboration “powers” innovation. As the great grandniece of Thomas Edison and a seasoned executive she has a singular perspective.
February 11 marks Edison’s 166 birthday. Time was good to him – he lived to be 84. Indeed, 166 years seems like a very long time ago, which makes it all the more stunning to look around our modern world and trace so many industries today to Thomas Edison: Movies, recorded sound, storage battery and electrical power to name a few. Edison is truly all around us. His lifetime bridged two centuries, his life’s work astounding. My interview with Sarah reveals Edison’s love for collaboration, and more… – Julie Anixter, Executive Editor
What is a midnight lunch?
Midnight lunch was the affectionate term Edison’s Menlo Park employees gave to the popular practice of staying late in the lab to run experiments, and having dinner together. Edison would often leave work at 5 PM to have dinner with his family, then return to the lab at 7 PM to monitor how his experiments were faring. He’d speak personally with the dozen or so employees who were staying late to work on their experiments, encouraging them to share insights with each other, and learn from the diverse expertise each person brought to their projects. Everyone would roll up their sleeves, working together amidst heady dialogue.
At about 9 PM, Edison would order in food for everyone from a local tavern. For an hour or so, the assembled crew would relax, tell stories, sing songs, and even play music together, before heading back to work until the wee hours of the morning. They connected socially, and created a deeper understanding of each other as people and not just workers. This process of midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues. It served as the foundation for collaboration in all of Edison’s labs. Through midnight lunch, we see the importance of activities that encourage employees to come together in ways that link work with their social lives.
For Edison, midnight lunch was crucially important in Phase 1 – Capacity, creating an environment in which collaboration could thrive. It became a powerful link to Edison’s use of small teams as a driver of innovation success.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote Midnight Lunch because I’ve seen a shift in the effectiveness of innovation initiatives over the past five years. Following the Great Recession, many executives have realized that innovation is not optional…it’s now a requirement. But there’s still a lot of confusion on how to draw people and resources together to effectively drive innovation in an increasingly digital and mobile environment. Without collaboration, innovation stalls. Midnight Lunch offers new ways for us to approach collaboration today, and understand its crucial connection to innovation success.
What can innovators specifically learn from Thomas Edison?
Although we don’t think of Edison this way, he worked in collaborative teams from the very start of his career. Most often we link Edison with the American lore of the ‘lone American inventor.’ But he realized even in his late teens that collaboration was crucial for innovation to succeed. We can learn from Edison how to create an environment of collegiality, how to use collaboration as a means to develop entirely new context around our thinking about a project, how to sustain momentum around innovation when the going gets tough, and how to navigate complexity as part of innovation itself. I address each of these issues in the 4 Phases of True Collaboration™, which are Capacity, Context, Coherence, and Complexity.
Will you share some lessons from Midnight Lunch?
- Collaboration is most powerfully generated in small, diverse teams of 2 to 8 people, with both experts and generalists present on the team.
- Collaboration begins with collegiality. Unless people feel they can roll up their sleeves and work together, innovation is much tougher.
- Collaboration evolves from a shared context of learning, not the mere execution of tasks. Through discovery learning, a collaboration team develops content they hold in common.
- Collaboration is reinforced through casual dialogue rather than stiff agendas. Every member of a collaboration team engages in dialogue with other team members, and is not able to shrink to the background.
- In part, collaboration gains momentum and sustains momentum through stories – the narrative prototypes a team develops over time.
- Inspiration must be present for collaboration to thrive. Inspiration can come from beyond the collaboration team, such as through a senior leader or champion, or it can come from a member of the collaboration team.
- Collaboration generates knowledge assets. These assets can be shaped and reshaped multiple times, in different configurations over time. These knowledge assets drive the fundamentals of value creation.
- Collaboration drives collective intelligence. By documenting a team’s knowledge assets and insights as they emerge, a footprint is established for others to follow. Collective intelligence can be documented via text, video, and sound.
- Collaboration serves as the sinews, the ligaments, the tendons – the ‘invisible glue’ – that allows innovation to advance and sustain momentum. Without collaboration, innovation stalls.
- Collaboration involves engagement with complex systems. It is complex and simultaneous rather than linear and sequential.
What do you hope people will do differently as a result?
Collaboration often operates as a background force. Like gravity, collaboration is something unseen, yet pervasive and powerful. I’m hoping that as a result of reading Midnight Lunch people will be able to recognize when collaboration is present — or not present — and see its various parts. I’d like Midnight Lunch to bring collaboration to the foreground, offering specific steps on how to set it in motion, and use it as a supporting structure for innovation.
image credit: National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site
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A great grandniece of Thomas Edison and innovation process expert, Sarah Miller Caldicott is co-author of the first book ever written on Thomas Edison’s world-changing innovation practices, Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System For Breakthrough Business Success. Her new book, Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab, was just released by Wiley. You can access her work at powerpatterns.com and Twitter @SarahCaldicott
Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on courage and innovation. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military, Healthcare, Manufacturing and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.
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