Edison and Innovation Blog

Learning Innovation from Thomas A. Edison
March 29, 2011

Joy in the Journey

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

Is being able to find “Joy in the Journey” a trait like being 6’11”, or is it a skill you can  improve like being able to dribble a basketball?  I believe finding joy in the journey is both a trait and a skill.  Some people have a natural ability to do this, while the rest of us have to work at it.

As we have studied the lives of innovators, it is clear that being able to enjoy the ride is a common characteristic.  Edison put it this way, “I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing.”  Edison enjoyed inventing; he enjoyed innovating.   He also saw it as his mission in life.  He stated, “My philosophy of life is work.  Bringing out the secrets of Nature and applying them for the happiness of man—I know of no better service to render during the short time we are in this world.”

The ability to enjoy what we are doing is a key to overcoming all of the setbacks that come with innovation.  For example, at one time Edison was immersed in a large scale iron ore separation experiment.  Years of his life and millions of dollars (back when a million dollars was a lot of money) was spent on this project.  The process was a financial failure.  When Edison was asked about the project, he replied that while it cost a lot of money, they sure had a lot of fun.  This attitude allowed him to go onto his next project and continue inventing.  Many of us would have been very discouraged, but he had enjoyed what he was doing and was ready to move on to the next adventure.

Find joy in the journey; it will get you through the difficult times and help you enjoy the ride.

March 22, 2011

Can Ketchup be Innovative?

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

In the interest of full disclosure you need to understand one thing.  I am not a big ketchup fan.  Not that I dislike it, but if I have a choice I am probably not going to put it on anything or dip my fries in it.  That being said, two different types of ketchup containers recently caught my eye.  The first is the large ketchup bottle that opens at the bottom.  The second is a small packet.  The ketchup comes out by squeezing or you open it and dip your fries in it.

A container that opens on the bottom is really ingenious.  The old glass bottles were a pain.  You turned it over and nothng happened.  You looked in the bottle and could see the ketchup down there.  It seemd to be coming down, but nothing was really happening.  Hitting the bottle or sticking a knife in might speed up the process, or make a big mess.  With the new bottle you just flip open the bottom of the container, give it a little squeeze and you’re done.

Frankly, I had never given a thought to single-use ketchup packets until I saw the new one.  They were just the little bags or small tubs that someone threw into my bag as I left the fast food place.  With the old packets, some people liked to create a little pile of ketchup on their plate while others dipped their food into a small tub of ketchup.  Now you can do both from the same container.

What is amazing to me is that both of these containers are painfully obvious in design.  When we see something so simple, we often say to ourselves, “I could have done that”, but the truth is we didn’t.  Somebody else thought of it and then perfected it.  

Now for my question, “Are these containers innovative?”  They are new.  They are interesting.  They are useful.  But that does not make then innovative.

Edison described part of innovation in this way, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” A key part of innovation is utility.  So what is the definition of utility.  In different situations it may vary, but start by asking questions such as these about the project you are working on:

  1. Will the improvement increase sales?
  2. Does it enhance the experience for the customer?  How does that change the way the consumer interacts with the product?
  3. Does the improvement drive down the cost of the product either improving profitability or lowering the price for the end user?

So are these containers innovative?  What do you think?

 Popular Mechanics reviews the New Ketchup Packet



March 15, 2011

Success May Be Right Around the Corner

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Innovators, Thomas Edison - Tags: , ,

“We are never going to be able to do this. We need to cut our losses and move on.” How many times have you heard that in a meeting? Or on the other hand, some will argue, “We know we’re over budget and past deadline. But, we just need a little time and a little more resources/money then we’ll be done, and it will all be worth it.”  I have been in such meetings and had to make the decision. The easiest decision is to cut the funding and end the project. The risk is gone, costs are controlled and everyone is happy except those on the project, but we can always move them to another project or let them go.

There is no question that ending a project is often the safe approach and sometimes it is necessary, but the next time that you are in this situation and are considering ending a project, consider this. One of the reasons Edison was able to invent the light bulb is because he kept trying when other people gave up. His attitude about failure kept him going. Edison said, “I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.” This attitude made him willing to try at least 10,000 attempts before he found success. This does not mean that on some projects he did not stop after a certain period of time, but his attitude was that every “failure” was a learning experience.

Also, consider the innovator James Dyson. He is the inventor of the Dyson bagless vacuum. It took him nearly four years and over 5,000 attempts to get his product where he wanted it to be, a significantly superior vacuum than what was on the market. At the time, none of the other vacuum companies were interested in his product.  Vacuum bags were a half-billion dollar market. Who wanted a new product that eliminated that revenue stream? So, Dyson took the risk himself and started his own company. He did not just create a new product, he revolutionized an industry. Take a trip down the vacuum aisle at your local store and see how many vacuum cleaners still have bags. Dyson reinvented the vacuum. His attitude on failure was very similar to Edison’s. Dyson stated, “In fact, it took me 4.5 years, and I built 5,127 prototypes until I got it right. That sounds tedious. In fact it was absolutely fascinating. I mean each failure, the 5,126 failures taught me so much. Successes teach you nothing. Failures teach you everything. Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do.”

So, the next time you are thinking about giving up or ending a project, remember Edison and Dyson. Be careful what you do, the only thing separating you from success may be 5,000 or 10,000 learning-filled attempts.  Success may be right around the corner.

March 7, 2011

The Other Side of Innovation

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

Edison's Vote Recorder

When we think about innovation we think about what we can do to create something new and exciting and hopefully helpful.  But let’s take a look at the other side, how does the innovation look from the side of the consumer or the user?  Edison had experience with this early in his career.  His first patented invention was for an electric vote tabulator.  He was very proud of his invention, but it was never a commercial success.  Why did it not succeed?  Look at this invention from the point of view of the elected officials.  The tabulator would create a record of their votes.  What politician wants this type of accountability?  From this experience Edison decided that he would only make inventions that people would use.

I can remember the first phone I purchased that had the ability to access the internet.  I am sure that the engineer who put this feature on the phone thought this would be innovative, but it was not as useful or beneficial as he thought it would be.  Take a look at this phone on the right, my first internet phone.  I had access to the internet but it was anything but cool or innovative.  It was incredibly slow and expensive.  The cost of the data plan was more than I currently pay for my smart phone.  Also the screen was ridiculously small.  Two quarters covered the entire screen.  And if you tried to read an email, assuming you had not fallen asleep by the time it was downloaded, it was a complete mess.  I tried to play games, but you needed a magnifying glass to see Pac Man.  (I did love this simple phone.   It was small and had great reception.  It was a good solid phone.  I miss the ability to put your phone in your pocket, sit on it, drop it, and not worry about it).

Now compare this with the current range of smart phones.  It has some of the same features, on paper, as my small phone, but now it is a product that can be used.  Also on the older phones  (should we say not smart phones) apps were not even an option.  Today, it is the applications that make the phones so valuable.  In many ways the basic technology has not changed between my early phone and my current phone, but people found a way to make this technology helpful for the user.  That is where innovation actually takes place, changes and improvements that can be used and enjoyed.  So the next time you’re working on a project step to the other side and see how this can really be used.  You will be glad that you did.

To visit an interesting quiz on great and not so great inventions click here.

March 1, 2011

How Harry Potter Has Helped Me at Work

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

Last fall I attended Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 with my family. I really enjoyed the movie until the car ride home. You see my kids had all read the books several times and were discussing various aspects of the story. I was not able to join in the conversation because although I had read some of the books in the past, I remembered very little. I decided that I would try to read the novels again before Part 2 comes out this summer.

Now I do like to read, but I read some fiction, some business books, some non-fiction. It had been a long time since I focused on just reading fiction. Something interesting happened as I began to spend more time in the world of Harry Potter. It became easier to access my imagination. The value of accessing our imagination cannot be overvalued in the area of innovation. You must be able to see possibilities that you could not see before, you must be able to imagine a better future.

As I thought about this, I wondered if I could quantify any improvement. Did my performance at work improve because I was reading fiction? I came to the conclusion that it had. Not that I was faster or more efficient at what I was doing, but that I was more open to new possibilities. Just as my mind spent more time in my imagination by reading, it also spent more time in my imagination while I was trying to solve problems and work out solutions. And that is one of the keys to innovation, often our solutions come in the undiscovered country of our imagination.