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Learning From Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott's New Book Explores Collaborative Innovation

Illustration by Andrew Rae

Thomas Edison's inventions would be nothing without collaboration. In her new book, Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success From Thomas Edison's Lab, Sarah Miller Caldicott (Edison's great-grandniece) details how the great inventor bonded with his team to breed innovation. It was a four-step process.

Step 1: Capacity

Build diverse teams of two to eight people.
What worked for Edison: To create the lightbulb, Edison's team had to include chemists, mathematicians, and glassblowers.
Modern counterpart: Facebook's small, collaborative coding teams.

Step 2: Context

After a mistake, step back and learn from it.
What worked for Edison: At age 22, he had his first flop—the electronic vote recorder, which legislators failed to adopt. From there, he changed his focus to the consumer.
Modern counterpart: At Microsoft, Bill Gates took intensive reading vacations each year.

Step 3: Coherence

When team members disagree, step in and make a decision.
What worked for Edison: Groundbreaking work in electricity isn't easy to come by. Fights and frustration followed; overarching vision kept creation on track.
Modern counterpart: Whirlpool has "collaboration teams" to spark dialogue between departments.

Step 4: Complexity

When the market shifts, change your direction—or face the consequences.
What worked for Edison: It was the era of electricity. Inventors ignored that at their peril.
Modern counterpart: The implosion of Kodak, which failed to adapt to market changes.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.