Illuminating Collaborative Innovation: Sarah Miller Caldicott (1957-2017)

by Mari Anixter

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, January 24, 2017, the innovation community lost a dear friend, colleague, and collaborator. Sarah Miller Caldicott will be greatly missed by so many. We extend heartfelt condolences to her family.

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Sarah Miller Caldicott was a great-grandniece of Thomas Alva Edison. After many years of studying Edison’s career, she wrote Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor with co-author Michael J. Gelb and began a career consulting to major businesses, including some Fortune 500 companies, and promoting Edison’s innovation techniques and strategies.

This led to her second book, Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab which expanded on these techniques and strategies. She also authored an e-book Inventing the Future: What Would Thomas Edison Be Doing Today?  Sarah’s books can be found in bookstores and on Amazon.

Sarah Miller Caldicott became the founder and CEO of The Power Patterns of Innovation which promoted the application of Edison’s methods to modern business. Through this focus on innovation, she developed an extensive speaking and lecturing career and conducted numerous seminars focused on best practices to innovate. She was always interested in sharing what she’s learned and gained from being related to an icon of innovation — and a pioneer of invention and collaboration.

 I believe there’s a crucial gap in our approach to innovation: we forget that collaboration is a vital part of the innovation process. In fact, I would go even farther and say we’re lacking a baseline sense of what collaboration really is. This collaborative gap is especially dangerous given the expanding connection between human beings and virtual technologies globally. 

In 2013, Innovation Excellence invited Sarah to discuss Midnight Lunch: the 4 phases of team collaboration success from Thomas Edison’s Lab.

February 11, 2017 marks Thomas Edison’s 170th birthday. Time was good to him – he lived to be 84. Indeed, 170 years seems like a very long time ago, which makes it all the more stunning to look around our modern world and trace so many industries today to Thomas Edison: Movies, recorded sound, storage battery and electrical power to name a few. Edison is truly all around us. His lifetime bridged two centuries, his life’s work astounding. Our interview with Sarah reveals Edison’s love for collaboration and more.

What is a midnight lunch?

Midnight lunch was the affectionate term Edison’s Menlo Park employees gave to the popular practice of staying late in the lab to run experiments and having dinner together. Edison would often leave work at 5 PM to have dinner with his family, then return to the lab at 7 PM to monitor how his experiments were faring. He’d speak personally with the dozen or so employees who were staying late to work on their experiments, encouraging them to share insights with each other, and learn from the diverse expertise each person brought to their projects. Everyone would roll up their sleeves, working together amidst heady dialogue.

At about 9 PM, Edison would order in food for everyone from a local tavern. For an hour or so, the assembled crew would relax, tell stories, sing songs, and even play music together, before heading back to work until the wee hours of the morning. They connected socially, and created a deeper understanding of each other as people and not just workers. This process of midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues. It served as the foundation for collaboration in all of Edison’s labs. Through midnight lunch, we see the importance of activities that encourage employees to come together in ways that link work with their social lives.

For Edison, midnight lunch was crucially important in Phase 1 – Capacity, creating an environment in which collaboration could thrive. It became a powerful link to Edison’s use of small teams as a driver of innovation success.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Midnight Lunch because I’ve seen a shift in the effectiveness of innovation initiatives over the past five years. Following the Great Recession, many executives have realized that innovation is not optional…it’s now a requirement. But there’s still a lot of confusion on how to draw people and resources together to effectively drive innovation in an increasingly digital and mobile environment. Without collaboration, innovation stalls. Midnight Lunch offers new ways for us to approach collaboration today, and understand its crucial connection to innovation success.

What can innovators specifically learn from Thomas Edison?

Although we don’t think of Edison this way, he worked in collaborative teams from the very start of his career. Most often we link Edison with the American lore of the ‘lone American inventor.’ But he realized even in his late teens that collaboration was crucial for innovation to succeed. We can learn from Edison how to create an environment of collegiality, how to use collaboration as a means to develop entirely new context around our thinking about a project, how to sustain momentum around innovation when the going gets tough, and how to navigate complexity as part of innovation itself. I address each of these issues in the 4 Phases of True Collaboration™, which are Capacity, Context, Coherence, and Complexity.

Will you share some key insights from Midnight Lunch?

  • Collaboration is most powerfully generated in small, diverse teams of 2 to 8 people, with both experts and generalists present on the team.
  • Collaboration begins with collegiality. Unless people feel they can roll up their sleeves and work together, innovation is much tougher.
  • Collaboration evolves from a shared context of learning, not the mere execution of tasks. Through discovery learning, a collaboration team develops content they hold in common.
  • Collaboration is reinforced with casual dialogue versus stiff agendas. Every member of a collaboration team engages in dialogue and isn’t able to shrink to the background.
  • Inspiration must be present for collaboration to thrive. Inspiration can come from beyond the collaboration team, such as through a senior leader or champion, or it from a team member.
  • Collaboration generates knowledge assets that can be shaped and reshaped multiple times, in different configurations over time. These knowledge assets drive the fundamentals of value creation.
  • Collaboration drives collective intelligence. By documenting a team’s knowledge assets and insights as they emerge, a footprint is established for others to follow.
  • Collaboration involves engagement with complex systems. It is complex and simultaneous rather than linear and sequential.
  • Without collaboration, innovation stalls.

What do you hope people will do differently as a result?

Collaboration often operates as a background force. Like gravity, collaboration is something unseen, yet pervasive and powerful. I’m hoping that as a result of reading Midnight Lunch people will be able to recognize when collaboration is present — or not present — and see its various parts.

I’d like Midnight Lunch to bring collaboration to the foreground, offering specific steps on how to set it in motion, and use it as a supporting structure for innovation.

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Mari AnixterMari Anixter is the Managing Editor for Innovation Excellence. Based in Chicago, she serves as director of community, digital editor, and content curator for the global IX community. Please follow @mari_IX and @IXchat

One comment

  1. I believe Sarah offered a lot in her thinking about collaboration. As we move more and more out of the labs, the very place Edison leveraged, we require open collaboration more and more. Just reflect on her last four points mentioned above

    Collaboration generates knowledge assets.

    Collaboration drives collective intelligence.

    Collaboration serves as the sinews, the ligaments, the tendons – the ‘invisible glue’ – that allows innovation to advance and sustain momentum.

    Collaboration involves engagement with complex systems.

    It is here, today, we struggle, to relearn collaborations in a more open world. Sarah gave us some insights that continue to be passed down within her family to help us connect more.

    I valued her views, I appreciated her thinking and her listening and relating in our conversations. Indeed she will be missed

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