[Exclusive Interview] Midnight Lunch- Edison on Collaboration

Posted by Janelle Noble at 8:12 AM, December 17, 2012

Here at Brightidea, we talk a lot about the vital role collaboration plays in the innovation process. Understanding the way modern collaboration is changing and being shaped by technology, society and beyond, is an important aspect of the way we work. Sarah Miller Caldicott is a tenured expert of marketing and innovation, and a grandniece to Thomas Edison. Caldicott's latest book, Midnight Lunch, examines Edison's collaborative leadership techniques up close. An admirer of Edison and advocate for innovation and collaboration, our very own Matt Greeley, CEO and Founder of Brightidea, gives insights and context for Sarah's newest venture into Edison's world of collaboration in the forward for Midnight Lunch. We sat down with Sarah to talk about the inspiration for the book, and the key points almost anyone can take away about how collaboration is changing the way we work.

What was the inspiration for Midnight Lunch?

Midnight-lunchIn my first book, Innovate Like Edison, I wrote about Edison's extraordinary ability to master so many of the capabilities needed to be a successful innovator. It was stunning to realize that Edison pioneered 6 industries in less than 40 years. Master-mind Collaboration was the fourth competency in what I described as Edison's Five Competencies of Innovation. I was inspired to write Midnight Lunch because I wanted to go deeper into this collaboration competency, to explore it further. In working with companies over the past 5 years, I see collaboration as something that people can put their hands around. Most everyone has worked on a team. People have experienced exceptional teams as well as really dysfunctional teams. Offering a viewpoint on what I describe in Midnight Lunch as "true collaboration" was something that I felt could be immediately for people. Collaboration is doubly important in the digital environments we're dealing with now.

Can you give a little background on the title?

Midnight Lunch refers to the affectionate slang that Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey crew gave to what we to after-hours sessions that took place at the lab. When workers stayed late to monitor their experiments, Edison often joined them. He'd go home at 5 PM, have dinner with his family, then sometimes return to the lab around 7 PM to check in on progress of key projects. Often, he would also run his own experiments during these after-hours visits.

Edison encouraged all the lab workers to observe what the others were doing while he was there, and offer their insights to each other. These heady exchanges were casual, yet focused. At about 9 PM, Edison ordered in snacks and sandwiches from a local tavern for everyone who was still workig. The entire group would kick back, tell stories, sing songs – even play music. People had a chance to get to know each other socially in this setting. No one was monitoring performance, or "keeping score." After these 'midnight lunches,' everyone went back to work for a few more hours.

The magic of midnight lunch was the cohesiveness it created among the employees, and the creative insights it encouraged. Midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues.

Who can gain the most from reading this book? (i.e. CEO's, Executives, college students, etc?)

This book is really designed to benefit anyone who serves on a team. It can benefit senior leaders who are guiding an innovation team, striving to assemble an innovation team, or working to address differences of opinion being voiced by project team members. It can also benefit individuals who want to improve how they serve their teammates. The book offers step-by-step guidance on how to create collaboration as a capacity of the individual, and then how to meld the creativity that emerges from this in a team context. Midnight Lunch also addresses the unique collaboration styles of Generation Y, so anyone who's part of a multi-generational workforce can benefit from it.


What are the biggest factors changing the way collaboration takes place in modern businesses?

I see three huge factors. The first is that from 2010 through 2020, one billion working-age adults will enter the global workforce. This is an unprecedented number. Organizations must understand how to engage these individuals, how to inspire them, and how to connect them to the innovation process.

The second factor is that this newly emergent group of workers will have access to mobile devices, almost without exception. Leaders must find ways to "collaborate and connect" across the vast network of mobile devices owned by this emerging group, integrating the practices of mobile-native users alongside the face-to-face practices of those already in the workforce. Even though many older workers today are comfortable online, it doesn't mean they understand how to operate in a hybrid virtual/live environment This means that differing work styles must either be integrated, or made to exist comfortably alongside one another – a big management challenge.

And the third factor is leadership style. The days of the stacked hierarchies we saw in the Industrial Age are numbered. Vertical communication is not fast enough to compete with the instantaneous communication of peer-to-peer networks. So teams are flattening, organizations are flattening, and this means that titles and positions long-held in esteem during the Industrial era will shift. New types of leaders will emerge – leaders who can work shoulder-to-shoulder in this new environment, leaders who can inspire others and instill a sense of purpose. All three of these factors are addressed in Midnight Lunch.

What is one surprising thing you learned about Edison from researching for this book?

Edison was dedicated to the self-development of his workers. He wanted to see them progress, to be part of a discovery process that meant continual learning – no matter what area of his operation they were engaged in. While Edison certainly didn't have career paths charted for his employees, as leaders might do today, he rolled up his sleeves and taught his people core skills – most particularly, how to experiment. By emphasizing the importance of experimentation as a means to discover and advance one's learning, he boosted the creative contributions of each individual in his employ. Edison also created an incredibly cross-trained workforce that was adaptive and responsive to changing marketplace conditions. Edison's emphasis on continual learning as a central part of collaboration I think is crucial for us today.

Any predictions on the future of collaboration and how it will change the way we work and build successful companies?

Yes. I think the "industrial internet," (The Internet of Things) coupled with advances in artificial intelligence will transform the way we work. We will see an emergence of data and patterns as huge drivers of our decision-making process, and our ability to drive new business models. A second prediction I would make, which I emphasize in Midnight Lunch, is the rise of the "metalogue." A metalogue is a focused set of communications from few to many. Advances in digital technologies and breakthroughs in visual platforms like holograms will allow more people to engage in metalogue simultaneously, and for their input to be processed and synthesized in realtime. This has huge implications for how innovation happens in the workplace, as well as other parts of our lives, particularly politics and freedom of speech.

These two major trends help define why we need to become adept at collaboration now, and position it as a "superskill" everyone must master. Edison's ability to link collaboration and innovation offers us some important clues on how to succeed in driving value-creation in our digital era.

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