A Systems Approach to Light Bulbs


The book, Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor (Dutton, 2007) by Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott, has been described as a fascinating journey through Thomas Edison’s mind. Edison was a prolific American inventor to whom we owe the incandescent light bulb. He not only produced the first practical working light bulb, he also devised a complete system for bringing it to the consumer. The system included means for funding, producing, distributing, monitoring, marketing, and continually improving his invention. Edison did the same with the phonograph and moving pictures, launching the modern entertainment industry.

In his time, Edison was respected not only for his rigorous, disciplined innovation process but for his skill at identifying, promoting, and maintaining a market for his inventions. This cultural side” to the theory of innovation is now recognized as often providing the missing link to real implementation of inventions.

A Total Systems Approach


You can complete the Edison Innovation Assessment by going to www.innovatelikeedison.com/ AssessmentsectionfromILE.pdf. This is the first step in improving your innovation literacy.

It is clear that Edison followed a total systems approach in his endeavors. In Innovate Like Edison, the authors define and explain five competencies for Edison’s systems approach to innovation:

  1. Solution-Centered Mindset. A means of organizing perceptions of the world to allow you to move forward with a well-defined focus and engage the enthusiasm of others in supporting you. Among the key elements in this competency is an intense optimism and assumption that you will find solutions to the problem at hand.
  2. Kaleidoscopic Thinking. An ability to consider multiple projects and problems from many vantage points simultaneously. This sets the stage for making creative connections and discovering patterns and relationships that lead to solutions. Among the concrete ways to heighten this competency is to maintain a notebook in which you can record your thoughts and observations. Gelb and Miller also discuss ideaphoria—the delightful well-being that accompanies the effortless flow of insights and ideas.
  3. Full-Spectrum Engagement. A method of balancing work and play that enhances the productivity of a team. This competency includes balance between intensity and relaxation, seriousness and playfulness, sharing and protecting, complexity and simplicity, solitude and team. It reflects the Edisonian notion that principles of personal success and organizational innovation are inseparable. If you fail to nurture the individual, the toll will be felt in the project results.
  4. Master-Mind Collaboration. The ability to create an environment where people come together “in an expanding framework of positive, creative energy.” The scope of this competency ranges from the initial hiring process through developing positive collaboration among team members to rewarding productivity and innovation. High on the list for success in this competency is becoming a master networker.

    This competency also reflects the ability to nurture open exchange among workers. Steve Odland, chairman and CEO of Office Depot, offers the following thoughts on an environment of open exchange: “Edison was a master at figuring out ways to address resistance while creating high-efficiency circuits. In an organization, you’ve also got to address resistance—by removing it—and the biggest resistance in a company is ‘fear.’ And you’ve just got to take the ‘fear’ out of it, and allow people to be themselves—to come up with ideas and try different things, and not worry about negative repercussions—and only face positive repercussions, which then creates speed.”

  5. Super-Value Creation. The pragmatic sensibility to hone creativity with practicality, that is, meeting the needs of consumers and assuring a market for inventions. The ability to read trends, identify areas of changing needs in a field, understand a target audience, and develop a realistic business plan all fall within this scope. Edison was involved in some capacity in more than 150 businesses. The tremendous breath of his business empire is due not only to his far-ranging inventions but also to his willingness to experiment with various business models to assure success in the marketplace.

Gelb and Miller end the book with a tool for readers to assess their personal levels of competency in these areas.

Positive Energy

What is fascinating about Innovate Like Edison is that it outlines a process that worked in the late 1800s but is timeless in its application. A bonus is that since Edison embodied the eternal optimist, positive energy seems to jump out from the pages, leaving the reader invigorated and motivated.

JudithWarner directs the New York office of Aiki Works, Inc. and contributes regularly to the blog journeytocenter.net.

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