Midnight Lunch – How Thomas Edison Collaborated

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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  • What is a Midnight Lunch? Closing the Collaboration GapA 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.

Julie Anixter




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No Comments

  1. RalfLippold on February 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Dear Sarah, Thanks a lot for your passionate and insightful article which matches very much with my personal experience in various innovation contexts.

    Collaboration is based on trust, and this it most valuable ingredient of the innovation process to harness!!!

    Best from Dresden,

  2. Peter on February 8, 2013 at 6:44 am

    The collaborations are indeed the center of all effective collaboration and meaningful innovations. We should never forget that.

  3. Marshall Barnes on November 14, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I found this article interesting on a number of fronts. In particular the information about how Edison relied on collaboration. On a number of other blogs, on this site, I’ve discussed what I saw as the short comings of Edison, i.e. how he wasn’t the singular genius many people think of and your revelation about how Edison saw the value of collaboration early on in his career is a good example of that. I have mentioned in some of my prior comments that it was Tesla who was more of the singular genius and Edison hated Tesla.

    I tend to work alone but simultaneously see the value of collaboration. Like many variables in the innovation process, there is no one size fits all approach and fortunately I learned in my teens how to be the solo star or be just another member of the band. I think it is important to have both capabilities…

  4. Marshall Barnes on November 15, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I just noticed something in the comments that I think is important to bring up. I’m not going to identify who said it because it’s not about them personally. The comment was:

    “The collaborations are indeed the center of all effective collaboration and meaningful innovations. We should never forget that”.

    I think this is a perfect example of something that I’ve been noticing taking place in the innovation community (as well as in a few others) and that is something I call buzz word dislogic. It’s not about thinking illogically, which is why I use instead the new term ‘dislogic’. It’s about how the buzz words cause people not to really think at all or at least become dislodged from their normal, cognitive processes. The problem with the comment is that the person who wrote is was clearly caught up with the buzz word, ‘collaboration’. Personally I think the term is almost as over used as ‘innovate’ is. In this case they say that collaborations are indeed the center of all effective collaborations, which is saying nothing. Of course a collaboration is at the center of effective *collaboration* because it is a collaboration!

    Not only that but the second part of the comment is a factual error. Collaborations are not behind *all* meaningful innovations. Les Paul invented the electric guitar, by himself, which was a significant innovation over the guitar as it had been known before, which was an acoustic instrument. The result was the most powerful and versatile musical instrument in the history of the world.

    What happened here, consciously or not, was that the buzz word ‘collaboration’ was the subject of the topic but the same word was also in this person’s mental cue to be used as a buzz word and not the topic. So they just used it redundantly without even realizing what they had done. And of course the innovation buzz word was used with the amplifier, “meaningful”, which is in itself a buzz word. I mean, really. ‘Meaningful’, the way it is used in the industry is pure window dressing. Meaningful to who? Why? All these words tell anyone about the person using them is that they have same kind of pedestrian knowledge of a industry’s culture as anyone else could get from reading a few ads and articles in a couple of trade journals or blogs. Using the word ‘meaningful’ in that context actually means nothing because everything we do, create, or communicate *means* something. Who has ever seen a presentation and at the end actually thought, “Wow! That was a really meaningful presentation. Usually, presentations don’t mean anything…”

    Again, this isn’t a personal slam against the poster because I’m actually grateful for what they wrote because it gave me a simple and obvious example of this problem, which I’ve seen more complex versions of on this site. I’ve read articles which at the core had a solid idea but then were wrapped up in buzz words which at times actually undid the purpose of the article’s argument. It’s is ironic that in the middle of all this jabber about innovation that the actual process of communicating such concepts is un-innovative. In fact it is repetitive, knee-jerk, regurgitative, automatic, rote, mimicry, and some of the most uncreative language I’ve read anywhere. It’s only rival is that of the marketing and ad industry. In fact, I actually had a conversation with a marketing man who was older than me and was trying to tell me why something wouldn’t work but was using only current buzz words to say it. I perfectly understood what he was saying but felt that he was wrong and was making his case poorly. He used so many buzz words, in fact, that I knew that he didn’t even know what he was saying – only using them as a crutch, so I asked him to rephrase it as if he were talking to someone in 1980. His response should be shocking to anyone concerned with effective communication. He paused for a moment and said, “I can’t”.

    Now you know why I used the comment posted above as an example of a much bigger problem – because I have seen it in the real world. The idea that a person who had actually lived through the 80s as an adult and was in business in the 80s, but can’t figure out how to communicate an argument without using buzz words from two decades later, is ridiculous. It’s “dislogical”. It reminds of the scene in the movie, The 5th Element, when the one character says, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”, to which, in this case my reply is, “Yes, but I don’t think you do because they don’t mean anything!”.

    Everyone here is supposed to be concerned with innovation, yet when we can’t even recognize the lack of originality in our own language, how innovative can we really be? We should never forget that, indeed…

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