Edison and Innovation Blog

Learning Innovation from Thomas A. Edison
February 22, 2011

Jeopardy and Innovation

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Become More Innovative, Thomas Edison - Tags: ,

Jeopardy has a new champion. Millions of people tuned in last week to watch Watson, a new super computer beat two former human Jeopardy champions. One of the human champions Ken Jennings stated that Watson was a lot like the top ranked human Jeopardy contestants, “It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.”
Watson is a very innovative computer comprising aspects of voice recognition, speech and the ability to recall an amazing amount of information (To see why Watson is not going to make you obsolete Click Here). It is really amazing to see what this tool can do. It will soon be put to work in the medical industry.

It is not the fact that Watson is an innovative product that caught my attention, rather it was how a computer of this nature could help all of us innovate better. When Edison worked on an issue he would do as much research as he could on the subject. He had large libraries at home and at the laboratory. Think how laborious his approach was, digging through books that may or may not apply to his area of focus and then looking for an insight that he could apply in a new way. Now, with the help of tools such as Watson, we can access and sort though terabytes of information almost instantaneously.

Such rapid research can help each of us in the areas in which we work.  Edison was a master at taking a project someone else had started, but could not complete, and then finding the way to finish it. He would take an idea past the point where others were stuck and push the idea to completion. If we are willing to take the time, we can look and see what others have started and springboard from their ideas to new and even better innovations. Or we can take an idea and apply it in a new area. With all the information that is now available, the possibilities are truly limitless.


To Read what Ken Jennings thought about playing against Watson Click Here

February 15, 2011

Whistle While You Work

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Become More Innovative, Thomas Edison - Tags: ,

As we spend time studying the great innovators, we learn that they have a great passion for what they innovate. This passion comes from enjoying what they do. Some may enjoy the industry or the product.  Edison enjoyed creating and inventing. He observed that, “The exercise I get is from standing and walking all day from one laboratory table to another. I derive more benefit and entertainment from this than some of my friends and competitors get from playing games like golf.” Some people like to golf for enjoyment, Edison invented for recreation.

Edison also provided an enjoyable work environment. Even though his muckers* worked long hours, they had an organ for singing and even at one time a pet bear.  (I suppose the modern equivalent would be employers like Google that provide ping pong tables or other entertaining diversions for their employees.)

How does this apply to innovation? Simple, we need to take steps to make sure we enjoy what we are doing and that our team enjoys what they are doing. This does not mean that there is not stress; most innovators worked under tremendous stress and faced difficult obstacles.  May I suggest three ways we can improve the enjoyment of our work and, as a result, increase our successes:

  1. Remove Unnecessary Processes and Burdensome Bureaucracy.  Many people enjoy what they are doing, but when do you hear, “I really enjoy the paperwork.”
  2. Focus on the Change. Innovators enjoy improving products or processes. If we focus on doing work we enjoy, good results will happen.
  3. Take a Break, as an individual or as a team. When Edison and his team would take a break, they sang songs or had other diversions.

There are many ways to find more enjoyment as we work and innovate. If we spend a little time on this we will be happier and create more success. As Walt Disney imagined, Snow White said that things will go better if you “Whistle While You Work.”

*mucker: a term of endearment Thomas Edison called some of his workers.

February 8, 2011

Learning by Experience

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Become More Innovative, Thomas Edison - Tags:

As part of the learning process, it is important to see, touch and feel what you are trying to learn about.  Edison was a ferocious reader, but he also recognized the value of being able to see and experience.  He stated it this way, “In regard to things I have never seen before, I would rather examine something myself for even a brief moment rather than listen to somebody tell me about it for two hours.”

I have seen this with the engineers I worked with.  After we hired a good person, one of the first things that we did was get them into the field.  Until they got out and actually saw how people used the product and how it worked beyond the drawing board, they would never reach their potential.  It was also amazing how many fewer mistakes were made after they had actual experience.

I found an interesting study that shows how this can work.  Currently the European Space Agency is sponsoring an experiment where they are simulating a manned trip to Mars, Mars500.  A group of six crew members are living in isolation simulating a manned trip to Mars.  During this nearly two year experiment they live as if they are in a spacecraft traveling through space.  They simulate the twenty minute time lag in communication, eat the food one might eat on the trip, and will even simulate leaving a landing craft and exploring the Martian surface.  With a little imagination, they behave every day as if they were having the actual experience.   By doing this, the crew and supporting scientists are learning more about how to help the astronauts who will make this trip a reality in the future.

So what does this have to do with our quest to become more innovative?  It is part of the foundation of what we are trying to accomplish.  We need to make sure we get ourselves, and/or our team out of the office and experience the world.  We need to see, feel, touch, and learn from reality and then apply it.  The benefits will be enormous.  Edison saw this and eloquently described the process in the lives of children, but it applies to all of us, “You cannot put a price on the knowledge gained by children when they are allowed to see something with their own eyes, such as a cocoon breaking open and a butterfly emerging.”  So let’s break out of our cocoon and see what emerges.

To visit the Mars500 Website Click Here

February 1, 2011

The Power of Imagination

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Become More Innovative, Innovation Quotes - Tags: ,

Imagination may be the life blood of innovation.  Unfortunately, many of us see imagination as something that is best left to children.  We may think of imagination as six-year-olds slaying dragons with sticks or spending time in a world of make believe.  As we get older we leave this world of fantasy and enter the “real world.”  In the real world we tend to deal with the pressing issues of the day and work through them.

How does this affect our ability to innovate?  Edison may have said it best when he said, “Inventors must be poets so that they may have imagination.”  It is interesting that he did not say that they “may be poets,” that “it would be nice if they were poets,” or “you would be more a more effective inventor if you were a poet.”  Edison didn’t say any of those things.  He said, they “MUST be poets.”  Imagination is a must for innovation.

So how do we apply this in our quest to be innovative?  If we do the following three things we can apply our imagination in our innovations.  We need to think, we need to dream, and then we need to do.

Thinking is not always an easy step.  Truly thinking deeply and taking time to examine the situation is a skill worth enhancing.  Edison stated it this way, “All progress, all success, springs from thinking.”

Here is the step where we use our imagination, where we dream, where we explore ideas in our own minds or with the help of others.  We have to look beyond the numbers and beyond the facts into the world of possibility.  “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” —George Bernard Shaw

Action often separates those who lead from those who follow.  Many may dream, but can we turn the dream into reality?

One of the best examples of putting these three steps together is the first manned mission to the moon.  Just a few years before, in the 1950’s, a trip to the moon was the stuff of science fiction, not science fact.  Hundreds of innovations were necessary to accomplish this feat.

In a speech given on September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation with his imagination, his vision of what could be.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win.” – John F. Kennedy

In our pursuit of innovation we may not get to the moon, but we can think, dream, do and inspire those around us.

For the Full Text of President Kennedy’s Speech Click Here