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Communications Innovation through the Power of Collaboration (Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison!)

Edison and Communication Innovation

When most people think of Thomas Alva Edison, they probably envision the famous inventor locked up in his lab with only his brilliant mind for company, creating the light bulb, phonograph or motion picture camera – just a few of his innovations.

Nothing could be further from the truth – as I learned during a recent presentation at Georgia Tech by Edison’s great-grandniece, author and innovation process expert Sarah Miller Caldicott. Titled “Transforming Innovation Success in the Digital Era: 4 Lessons from Thomas Edison,” Ms. Miller Caldicott’s talk was based on her book Midnight Lunch, named after the food, fun and spirited conversation that Edison provided to his team when burning the midnight oil in the lab.

Edison, born on February 11th (he would have been 167 years old tomorrow if he had invented immortality) definitely didn’t operate in a vacuum. He owed his prolific output to the power of collaboration. His creative spark was unleashed thanks to a rigorous four-phase framework that serves as an excellent model for public relations and communications teams tasked with developing innovative ideas.

To follow Edison’s approach, bring your ideas to life by mapping out:

  1. Capacity. Before you can collaborate, you need to create the foundation.  Start by selecting small, diverse teams of two to eight people (so they’re nimble and collegial), representing a cross-section of experience, thinking styles and backgrounds. This will maximize the depth of perspective and expand the discovery learning process for each team member.
  1. Context.  Despite the day-to-day reality of ambitious to-do lists, deadlines, distractions (and, yes, more potential snow days here in Atlanta), you must make time to define, frame, assess – even question – the assumptions around the context of the challenge or problem to be solved. Are you bringing experiences and learning from other client successes, failures or previous experiences to make connections to achieve your outcomes?
  1. Coherence. Stay focused and stick to the purpose. While experimenting, navigating disagreements and agendas among creative, sales, marketing and in-house/agency and other contributors, stay on course.  Celebrate the wins (large and small), share the successes and reward results.
  1. Complexity. Use all resources at your disposal to implement new solutions or ideas and expand their reach. It can be as simple as an easel pad to record and share ideas or the use of technology, the cloud or social media.   Recognize how complexity impacts team effectiveness, especially diverse teams of individuals with not only different titles but different perspectives.

This process can be applied to communications professionals to create innovative communications and public relations outcomes.

Edison’s innovation process not only developed breakthrough inventions, but also established new industries like electric utilities, sound recordings, mass communications and motion pictures. In fact, Edison’s collaborative approach was behind 1,093 U.S. patents and 1,293 international patents over 62 consecutive years!

When you’re looking for that next innovative product or service offer, rally your troops and think big. As Edison said: “I like to begin at the large end of things; life is too short to begin at the small end.”

Image “Affiches Posters Phonographe Edison 1901- 066” by Jalal gerald Aro via Flickr Used under CC BY 2.0 / / Cropped from original.

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