Thomas Edison’s Great-Grandniece To Talk About Innovation

April 27, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sarah Miller Caldicott, a great-grandniece of Thomas Edison and founder of The Power Patterns of Innovation, will hold a daylong workshop on innovation at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park May 7 as a guest of The Right Place Inc. and its InnovationWorks team.

At the workshop for West Michigan business leaders, Caldicott will talk about the innovation system Edison used and how business managers can learn how to think like innovators, seed innovation best practices across their organizations, or simply fine tune innovation processes already in place.

Caldicott and best-selling author Michael J. Gelb ("How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci") recently co-wrote "Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor," which was published by Dutton Penguin in October. The book offers an in-depth look at Edison’s comprehensive approach to innovation — an analysis that has never previously been documented.

It identifies the “Five Competencies of Innovation” that spurred Edison to generate a record-breaking 1,093 U.S. patents over 62 years. Caldicott also shares how organizations can use Edison’s time-tested methods to create innovation literacy among their employees, propelling them toward ongoing innovation success.

Caldicott, who lives in Chicago, has spent more than 20 years as a marketing executive for major corporations such as Pepsico and Unilever. She has extensive experience in product development and brand management, and now works as a consultant to small business owners and entrepreneurs.

In her book, she covers the "best practices" that Edison used over and over again, "patterns that I discovered in the three years of research that I did," she told the Business Journal.

At the workshop on May 7, she said, "One of the biggest things we will be focusing on is how to look at trends in the marketplace and take advantage of trends, or begin to understand how to connect trends to your own business."

"This is something that was a big part of what Edison did," she added, explaining that Edison was constantly on the look-out "to see what was happening in the world and how he might be able to take advantage of opportunities created by the trends — or even in the gaps in the market that might be created by trends."

Edison died wealthy in 1931, but at least twice he nearly went bankrupt, according to Caldicott. One of those times was when he invested the money he made on his successful electrical inventions — he founded General Electric — in new methods of mining and milling ore. Edison learned to his chagrin that his venture into a commodity market subjected him to external forces over which he had no control.

He had to sell some of his most valuable patents, but one that he hung on to turned out to be very lucrative — Portland cement.

One of the most important points that Caldicott picked up from studying Edison's life was his understanding of business teams.

"One thing companies can do immediately is look at the structure and the size of their teams," she said. "Edison typically used teams of three to eight people … and these teams were multidisciplinary in nature." With experts in a variety of fields, Edison was able to "move faster in terms of troubleshooting problems, as well as understanding how to manufacture an item."

Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation are: solution-centered mindset, kaleidoscopic thinking, full-spectrum engagement, master-mind collaboration and super-value creation.

When it came to having a solution-centered mindset, Caldicott said that Edison had an "extraordinary ability to widen the scope of possible solutions, instead of just solutions that might be close by, or the least cost … the low-hanging fruit."

Looking far beyond the present situation can help business managers today, she said, because solutions are "not always what's just going to help us in the next 90 days."

She said one example of that was Edison's invention of the movie industry. Other inventors might have been content with simply devising the apparatus for making movies, but Edison took it much farther — he basically figured out the American movie industry, she said. He had learned that the public wanted more than filmed documentaries of famous people and actual events: The public wanted to be entertained. So it was that the first feature film, "The Great Train Robbery," was shot in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter in Edison's New York studio and at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna Railroad. The 12-minute movie, by the way, established once and forever that Americans love Westerns.

In the workshop, Caldicott will break down the Five Competencies of Innovation into 25 elements, each of which serves as a building block in the creation of innovation literacy for the individual or team, and a corporate innovation infrastructure for the organization.

As explained in their book, Caldicott and Gelb have developed targeted exercises and proprietary tools to help an individual or organization achieve innovation literacy. There is an “Edison Innovation Literacy Blueprint” — a chart summarizing the Five Competencies and 25 Elements of Innovation — plus assessments and scoring gauges to track an individual's progress over time.

The "Innovate Like Edison" workshop begins at 7 a.m. May 7 and ends at 5 p.m. Lunch is included. Advance registration is required.

For more information and to register, go to www.innovationworkswestmichigan.com, or call (616) 717-3180.

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