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To Invent Like Edison, Learn to Collaborate

Midnight Lunch encourages innovators to follow Edison's penchant for collaboration.   (Source: Wiley)
Midnight Lunch encourages innovators to follow Edison’s penchant for collaboration.
(Source: Wiley)

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Elizabeth M
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Re: Good set of principles
Elizabeth M   6/12/2013 6:22:43 AM
Yes, I think it often depends on someone's mood or what type of person they are. Some people just don't like working with other people. I myself am a people person in general, so find collaboration very helpful. That said, in the work I do now, I work alone and in quite a solitary way, so collaboration doesn't come into play. But I'm not an inventor...so I would think bouncing ideas off of others definitely has its place. That's an interesting story about Edison! It's nice to think it's true...often it is people with no formal education who have the type of mind to think outside of the box.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Good set of principles
Cabe Atwell   6/11/2013 5:17:03 PM
Great advice.

However, Edison was wasteful in his early days of design. The trial and error method was costing a fortune.

Frank J. Sprague joined Edison's team and taught (forced them to learn) the mathematical method. Design on paper first before performing trials. Changed the company forever.

Invent like Edison, before or after Sprague?


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Re: Good set of principles
oldguywithtoys   6/11/2013 4:39:47 PM
Collaboration can be a good or bad thing, depending on the collaborators and the reason for the collaboration.  When a previous employer mandated "cross-functional development teams," it was an example of the bad kind.  When the "collaborators" are assigned by management, to a product "we absolutely have to have" because the VP of marketing saw our competitor with it at a trade show, you're liable to get "design by committee" - no real originality because there's no real "buy-in".  With no real "buy-in"  you compete, not for credit for a successful product, but to avoid the blame for one you expect to fail.

On the other hand, when one  seeks out collaborators of his own choosing, and they voluntarily help make his idea real, a great idea can turn into a great product very quickly.  I'm an electronics type, and from the start I realized that I needed help... not in my own area of expertise, but in areas where I'm not expected to have much of a clue. I had my own "cross-functional team" long before it entered the lexicon of management buzzwords.

  I'm not a software engineer, but my friend Ed is: Let's get his input on processor selection and I/O pin assignments.  Let's both talk to Jim, in field service: what can we do, in hardware and software, to make his job easier?  Jay's a mechanical engineer - he's got to mount the board, let's talk to him and to John, in industrial design, and make sure we're all on the same page before we start layout.  Consult with Fred, in purchasing, before the BOM is finalized.  Lean on Mike, in subassembly test, while I'm drawing the schematic, and Bob in board assembly while we're actually doing the layout.  That  collaboration led to what became a "cash-cow" product for that company.


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Simplification of rules.. has it's limits
Thinking_J   6/11/2013 3:59:30 PM
Many examples of what to do and what not to do. Simplifications for success. AKA 'rules of thumb', ' rules to live by', 'lessons learned'. etc.....

And just as many examples of when those rules/guidelines don't work.

'Listen to your customers' ..

' to be truly innovative, don't listen to your customers - they don't know what they want until they see it demonstrated'

'be focused and passionate' to some engineers would be in conflict with 'being colabrative'.


Similar to the 'serenity prayer'. .. the trick is having the wisdom to know when a rule applicable and appropriate.

Just knowing the 'lessons learned' ... isn't enough.

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Collaboration - thought organizer
Droid   6/11/2013 2:30:52 PM
Based on my own experience, collaboration is useful even if the other(s) involved have no clue what problem you are attempting to solve or how you are trying to solve it.  I can't count how many times I've observed or experienced the ability to creatively solve a problem by simply talking it out with someone else.   And in my experience, it doesn't seem to matter if collaboration is with a PhD or my 14 yr old daughter.  Ideas build on ideas  and when and the very act of having to convey the idea to someone else seems to spawn the next layer of ideas.

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Great principle
sc   6/11/2013 12:21:28 PM
Edison was a great man, no doubt about it. He invented things people didn't even know they needed or wanted. For instance who knew they needed a phonograph? So knowing what people want or need is not necessarily the best approach to inventing something great.

Edison did not have a good reputation as far as collaboration goes. For example, Nicola Tesla collaborated with Edison but it didn't turn out too well for Tesla.

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profgroove   6/11/2013 11:08:37 AM
Learned from Edison: ...  Sure I'll collaborate, where's 'my piece of the action'?

The Designist
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Sarah Miller Caldicott perpetuates a false stigma
The Designist   6/11/2013 10:20:21 AM
Nice column.  But if the intent of the author is to get rid of the stigma around her great-grand uncle, why does she pass one on to us:  "Engineers ... fall in love with their technologies ... You should ... find out what the customer's needs are".  True, but as far as customers go, let me ask you the following.  Do you know of any engineer that is not concerned with his customers' needs?  And if so, is that the rule?

By the way I believe Edison was brilliant ... No need to cover for his harsh work environment ...

If anyone truly becomes a more effective engineer from this book, I would certainly like to hear about it; and then I would know to stay away from that person.


User Rank
Re: Good set of principles
RTristani   6/11/2013 8:56:50 AM
Elizabeth, - Dittos on your "both methods" comment.  Well said.  There are times when you need to put your feet up on your desk, listen to your iPod, and think.  And there are times when you need to collaborate.  Knowing the difference is a sign of wisdom.  Also, I have heard an urban legend that Edison highly valued the input of a particular technician of his, a man with far less education, who was actually the one who developed the method by which tungsten could be drawn into a filiment.  Don't know if it is true, but his anti-collaboration with Westinghouse and Tesla were a marque of the age!  If I were a betting man, I would wager that Edison followed your "both methods" comment.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Good set of principles
Elizabeth M   6/11/2013 4:51:10 AM
I can see how collaboration is a better way in some aspects than working in a vacuum, but I also think there is something to be said for both methods, and it depends on what kind of person you're dealing with. Interesting to think Edison had so many collaborators, but not surprising. I wonder if anyone ever felt bad or jealous because he got all the credit for something they also contributed to?

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