Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success From Thomas Edison's Lab

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  • Book: Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison's Lab. Sarah Miller Caldicott. ISBN: 978-1-1184-0786-8. 284 pages. December 2012


"Edison's great-grandniece details how the great inventor bonded with his team to breed innovation. It was a four-step process."


The four-step process outlined:

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.

"First, assemble the capacity to innovate. Identify a small group (2-8 people) that brings together a diversity of experiences and perspectives. When I set up strategy efforts with clients, we aim for 5-10 collaborators that represent key areas of the company (marketing, operations, HR, etc.)." [1]

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.

"This is a two-step approach: First, run what Caldicott calls a “solo-meld” in which each member individually reads broadly about the collaboration topic, questions assumptions, and conducts initial analyses to create insights, without reaching conclusions. My work at McKinsey started every project this way, with members individually reading, conducting interviews, and assembling a fact-pack of insights.

Follow this with a “group-meld,” in which members come together to share their insights, experiment with broad range of potential solutions, and develop prototypes (often today these are narrative prototypes, stories of potential solutions). I learned this firsthand when I was having a tough time showing potential investors and clients what my “Outthinker Digital Tool” could become. Then, I built a simple mock-up and story and that got people excited." [2]

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.

"It’s not unusual for any team to get distracted and lose momentum. The key is to inspire the team with the shared purpose, while measuring the progress toward that shared vision. Give the team feedback to keep them engaged. For example, I am preparing a report next week summarizing the progress we have made in building a private equity fund; we are not yet where we wanted to be and I sense the team is losing momentum. To overcome that, I’ve looked back and summarized what we’ve already achieved--it is amazing, and I know it will help keep the team engaged when they see it as well." [3]

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."


"Innovative ideas are always inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs, so your challenge now is to manage the complexity of converting your idea into reality. This means starting to influence beyond your team so the idea catches on, networking in the broader organization to get people on board, and doing what Caldicott calls “footprinting”--building a collection of notebooks, documents, data, videos, pictures, and sound recordings that will serve as a record of your team’s work. I always build a “leave behind” PowerPoint for my consulting clients, but thanks to Caldicott, I will now incorporate pictures, audio, and video into a stimulating track of our journey." [4]



"As in her other books, Caldicott balances inspiration with hard research. In Midnight Lunch, she writes of Thomas Edison and surprises us with a simple, powerful framework to excel in what is becoming the most critical workplace skill: collaboration. With lots of time on a long flight to absorb this work, here is my CliffsNotes version of Caldicott’s collaboration framework. You can immediately put her method into practice--but I highly encourage you to read the whole book.

Collaboration has always been important. All of history’s most impactful entrepreneurs--from Thomas Edison to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson--were able to shape our world not only by their inventions, but by their ability to pull in bright people, to become a sort of collaboration machine, to invent together. The genius was in creating the context and culture for a collaborative process that moved their inventions forward, faster.

But now, it is critical. Throughout history, collaboration has followed the same pattern: Someone speaks, others listen, then someone else speaks, and so forth. From the nobles of ancient Greece to the boardrooms of today, this pattern is repeated. But it can change, and it should. Rather than this system where information trickles one-by-one, we can now use technology to put collaboration on the acceleration track.

Take Twitter, for example. One short message, with a hashtag, can engage thousands of people, often simultaneously, to discuss a topic. Dialogues are upgraded to “metalogues”, in which thousands (even millions) of people engage together to learn and create.

We know that virtual teams of thinkers and doers are already part of today’s workplace. According to Forrester Research, 40% of employees are already involved in some type of virtual team, and their research shows that number will grow to 56% in just three years. Looking ahead, we know that by the year 2025, Generation Y workers will make up 75% of the workforce. Because they’ve grown up with technology and are comfortable using it, supporting it, creating it, and improving it, they will demand a workplace with mobile connectivity and rapid virtual collaboration. They will continue to demand more freedom over their time, activities, and budgets. Workplaces and companies take heed--those that are slow to respond to this demand will falter. Today, only 7% of Gen Y-ers polled on Facebook report working for a Fortune 500 company, since historically those companies do not provide collaboration freedom.

Thus, Caldicott writes, a new form of collaboration is emerging: “Like a giant pulsing brain, a new kind of collective intelligence will become possible by the end of the decade, redefining how knowledge networks operate and how microcosms of people drive value-creating activity across vast geographies as well as entire organizations.”

Caldicott, a descendant of Thomas Edison, is an international expert on the inventor. But, she writes, the image of a white-coated Edison, alone in his lab, is a fantasy. Edison was a collaborator.

From the start, he sought collaborators to attain materials to create his prototype and commercialize it. In his lifetime, he founded General Electric and more than 200 domestic and international companies, essentially to bring together investors, engineers, salespeople--collaborators--with a common mission. Reading about Edison makes me feel a bit less crazy knowing I started four separate corporations to commercialize my IP.

And Edison kept his ear tuned to other inventors--when he learned that Alexander Graham Bell would launch a phonograph and cylindrical records that would make Edison’s technology outmoded, Edison quickly gathered dozens of people for a three-day work session with the express goal of creating a technology that would leapfrog the competition. Edison’s collaborators dropped everything else they were working on and focused on that one collective goal. And it worked.

Imagine Thomas Edison with today’s technology, using Twitter to help him collaborate on inventions."[5]

Illuminating How to Create Conditions for Collaboration

From a review by Jennifer Sertl:

The three most frequent words in the macro today are digital, collaboration and innovation. This is an era where doing remote work with complex frameworks is the norm, not the exception. Sarah Miller Caldicott’s Midnight Lunch: the 4 phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab could not have come at a better time. With great stories and quotes from not only Thomas Edison but also contemporary voices such as Dr. C. K. Prahalad and Margaret Wheatley Caldicott weaves a thoughtful tapestry of past, present and future.

Never have there a been a more succinct distinction between teamwork and collaboration:

- “To illustrate some key differences between teamwork and true collaboration, consider the example of a pair of two-person teams: Team A and Team B. Imagine they each have one member that is 5 feet tall and another who is 6 feet tall. Team A and Team B have the task of traveling together from one end of a football field to the other in less that 10 minutes. Team A’s members respond by simply clasping hands and running side by side from one end zone to the other easily achieving their goal. Team B is given the same assignment. Team B elects to travel the length of the field side by side in a three-legged race. The left leg of one person is bound to the right leg of the other person. They must grasp each others shoulders to keep balance and determine the right place to bind their legs so they can run in unison.”

While Team A’s strategy is straight forward, Team B’s strategy built in deeper learning and required collaboration. Team B learned much more and is more able to manage higher layers of complexity. Moving forward in life and business is very much like running that three-legged race - where the discipline to connect and the placement of where to connect is vital.”

We can expect the macro to be increasingly more volatile and our ability to navigate and create value with others is going to rely on how we engage to accomplish our shared goals. As Caldicott states,“our core challenge is to acknowledge where and how to embrace collaboration as the centerpiece for this new ecosystem.” Collaboration is not a means to the goal; collaboration is the goal itself.

Here is a basic outline of the four phases of collaboration:

  • Phase 1, Capacity: Seeing a challenge though the eyes of another discipline; Creating collegiality
  • Phase 2, Context: Developing a new context for framing a problem; Being willing to question facts and test creative hypothesis
  • Phase 3, Coherence: Inspiring others to go beyond their perceived limitations; Navigating conflict positively
  • Phase 4. Complexity: Recognizing how complexity impacts team effectiveness; Capturing the collective intelligence of a team

“Within the four phases of capacity, context, coherence and complexity lies the glue that linked Edison’s true collaboration practices to the success of his innovative enterprise.” This glue is perhaps the mindset Edison had regarding the value of collective intelligence to solve a problem, the importance of diversity, and deep appreciation for collegiality.

There is an explicit design based on gathering facts and scenarios and there is a fundamental need for inspiration and aspiration. Throughout the book Caldicott shares very practical scenarios and case study examples illustrating the distinctions and tactics within each phase. Many of you have probably already read Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind. I find it interesting that the model extracted from Edison has a wonderful blend of left brain, right brain.

An area that Caldicott touched on that I believe we need to amplify and pay much more attention to is the phase and concept regarding “coherence.” I don’t think people really understand the need for psychological safety when problem solving or creating innovation. There needs to be trust for risks to be taken, there needs to be safety for people to fail, there needs to be more ways for people to process conflict. People need to have stories and experiences outside of the work to express themselves and make deeper connections.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe ~ Abraham Lincoln

While this is a celebration of Thomas Edison’s contribution to our collaboration practice, I find this message from Abraham Lincoln to be vital. We often don’t take the time and effort One of the reasons why Thomas Edison was so successful in his innovation was the way he created conditions for robust collaboration to occur the deliberate manner and deep appreciate he had for how multiple perspectives add value to learning & creating. He put in four hours thinking about how to create a great experience for team members and designing ways to foster coherence. One is left thinking it is the chef more than the recipe that makes a great meal - so to in creating teams that foster innovative outcomes.

People continue to seek silver bullets to solve very complex problems. What Caldicott does is remind us that it takes the right mindset, a commitment to design, and continuous investment to create environments & relationships that result in good ideas. All who lead a team, participate on a team or have direct reports can gain valuable insight from this meld of history and case study."

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