In Review – Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab

I knew picking up this book that the author, Sarah Caldicott, is the grand niece of Thomas Edison so I fully expected a love letter of sorts. What I found appealing was the immediate and direct application of Edison’s practices to current day collaborative innovation efforts. Caldicott is passionate about her distant relative  because she believes wholly in the great potential inherent in the successful collaboration he practiced:

Edison’s dedication to collaboration crystallizes what we are capable of at our best. His astonishing contributions inspire us to achieve more, to embrace more, to explore the richness of our mental capacities. Edison’s achievements consistently defied the boundaries of what the scientific community believed was possible— indeed, what was believed to be humanly possible.

Midnight Lunch CoverMidnight Lunch is focused on collaboration and on grounding Thoman Edison’s belief that collaboration is a key ingredient in successful innovation. Edison’s collaboration methods are relevant to strengthening live and virtual teams today and the title referes to one such practice—late night gatherings of team members at Edison’s workshop and laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey—leading to collaborative sessions that served as the genesis of inventions and innovations that have become famous the world over and resulted in 1,093 US patents.

Edison did indeed touch millions of people through his inventions—inventions he acknowledges he would not have gotten credit for had it not been for the hard work of his laboratory teams. This book directly tackles the knock on Edison’s reputation that he was self-aggrandizing. Caldicott places him firmly in the context of a whole network of divergent players who, through their collaborative efforts and his guidance and urging, were able to be hugely productive and largely successful.

In this light Edison offers Caldicott a blueprint for the presentation of a framework for achieving such high-performing collaboration. That method has four phases, which make up the four primary sections of the book:

Phase 1: Capacity—Select small, diverse teams of two to eight people who will thrive in an environment of discovery learning and collegiality.

Phase 2: Context—Focus the outlook of the team toward development of new context that broadly frames the problem or challenge under consideration. Use a combination of individual learning plus hands-on activities to drive perspectives for potential solutions.

Phase 3: Coherence—Maintain collaboration momentum, creating frameworks for progress through inspiration and inspirational leadership even though disagreements may exist. Newly discover, or reemphasize, the shared purpose that binds the team together.

Phase 4: Complexity—Equip and reskill teams to implement new ideas or new solutions using internally and externally networked resources, rapidly accessing or managing complex data streams the team must navigate. Leave a footprint that contributes to a broader collective intelligence.

In outlining this approach, Caldicott is also very clear about the fact that these are skills for a new economy:

In a global business environment that increasingly values speed and nimble thinking to deliver breakthroughs, true collaboration now represents a superskill that will be fundamental for you and a high percentage of the individuals in your organization to possess. Less visible, and traditionally less valued, skills that marry the talents of the individual with interlocking webs of capability, such as data synthesis, leading and inspiring others, perceiving and communicating progress, and facilitating debate, will surge to the fore.

As if to recognize the necessity of those newly ascendent skills, Midnight Lunch also leaves room for the notion that collaboration will also need to evolve in order to meet the unseen needs of the future. For those interested in collaboration and innovation and how to grow the skills of your organization in order to realize a more innovation-capable culture, I commend this book to you.

Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab by Sarah Miller Caldicott, John Wiley & Sons, Kindle Edition, December 2012

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