Harnessing the Power of Creativity
With more than 1,093 patents to his name, Thomas Alva Edison ranks as the archetypal inventor and innovator — a modern day Prometheus, the figure from Greek mythology whose wily intelligence allowed him to steal fire from the gods and harness it for mankind.
For Edison, who actually encouraged such lofty comparisons, the results of his creative “fire” are admired for their sheer volume and breadth: electric lighting, electric power, the phonograph, motion pictures, improvements to the telephone and telegraph, domestic cultivation of rubber, artificial cement and even wax paper.
In terms both reverential and candid, Edison on Innovation portrays a man at times mythical in his creative prowess but whose work often centered on creating reliable income streams and exploiting under-served markets with modest or incremental improvements. Ever the self-promoter, Edison deliberately blurred distinctions between minor innovations and major inventions, making it appear that everything he was working on represented a sophisticated breakthrough, and he rarely gave credit to any his employees, experimenters, scientists and craftsmen.
Still, there remains the question: Can we harness Edison’s creative genius and apply it to spark our own innovative thoughts and deeds in a focused and consistently productive way?
Duplicating the Process
Author Alan Axelrod, who has penned numerous business and management books, answers that question with a resounding “Yes!” by reducing Edison’s creative process into 102 pithy lessons.
“The truth is that most of us, most of the time, feel as remote and removed from creativity as we do from genius,” Axelrod writes. “What the example of Edison demonstrates is that creativity of the very highest order can indeed be made to happen, summoned up at will, and even reduced to a reliable working method and set of principles.”
While his book is not a biography, Axelrod loads it with enough historical perspective to provide the proper context to each management lesson. Fortunately, he has abundant resources from which to draw, including Edison’s meticulous notes, extensive diaries and detailed memos he used to keep his assistants in the loop. To ensure the reader makes the appropriate connection, each segment ends with a key management message.
For instance, after a detailed explanation about Edison’s work on the carbon button transmitter used to improve the fidelity of telephone transmissions, Axelrod writes, “By thoroughly understanding the properties — the inherent potential — of whatever materials you work with (and this includes ideas and people as well as physical substances), you increase your chances of discovering new applications for all that you already possess or have access to.”
The Success of Failure
Just as Edison learned from his mistakes, Axelrod helps us learn from our own mistakes. One particularly intriguing episode involves the electric vote recorder that Edison tried to sell to local, state and federal legislative bodies with the idea of providing a quick and efficient way of recording votes. But Edison failed to do his homework. While the machine worked as promised, he discovered the legislative process thrived not on efficiency but on the extra time involved in the roll-call process that gave legislators time for marshaling the required votes.
From that moment on, Edison resolved to determine “the existence of a market and a need before embarking on any other invention,” Axelrod writes. “For him, that lesson was sufficient to turn momentary failure into lifelong success.”
Similarly, Axelrod portrays with admiration Edison’s relentless pursuit of the ideal filament material to use in his incandescent lamp. For Edison, any trial or any experiment that yielded data was a success, even if it did not produce the result that had been anticipated or hoped for.
Axelrod also digs deeper into Edison’s philosophy on failure: “Only if the failure is the result of a careful process — the best thought and work we are capable of — can one reasonably assess the reason for the failure and thereby learn something of value.”
All told, Edison on Innovation makes for an enlightening read.