4 January 2011

Thomas Edison and Innovation

The long-lasting light bulb. The phonograph. The motion picture camera. When we think of big successes in innovation, Thomas Edison's name can't help but make the list. The man holds 1,093 patents, making him one of the most prolific inventors in the history of the world.

RobotDoll2-Post.jpgBut not all was rosy for Mr. Edison. Despite that large list of successes, there is an even larger list of failures, some of which are quite interesting as they teach some really good lessons. Edison's doll with a phonograph inside it, made me realize exactly how far ahead of his time he was. Had he developed this in the 1980s, when Teddy Ruxpin was all the rage, instead of the 1890s, he might have had a winner on his hands. But in being so far ahead of his time, he ended up more of a loser on this one than a winner.

So what lessons can we draw from this failure of Mr. Edison? First, just because you can build it, doesn't mean you should. Technology is great, but sometimes something more simple, even just a better manual process, might be more appropriate.

Second, don't let failure stop you in your tracks. Edison's failure with the doll happened 40 years prior to his death. He didn't let this one stop him; he was inventing up until just months prior to his death. Learn from failure and make better decisions next time.

Third, learn timing. You don't always have to be first, but you do need to be timely. Being there with the right idea or product at the right time is better than being early or late. There wasn't much Edison could do to wait 90 years for his doll to be viable in the marketplace, but there is nothing to say he couldn't have created the genesis for the idea and then left that for his heirs to fulfill when the necessary technology had reached a cost and size ratio that was likely to make such a doll a success.

Those are the lessons I got from this article. What did you pick up from it?


  1. Todd Edelen9:16 am

    I agree wholeheartedly in the notion that timing is important. There is almost always a competitive advantage for organizations that innovate and thus becoming the pioneers in the industry.

    What disciplines should an organization adapt that aid in innovation? Should the process of innovation be methodical or perhaps messy and disorganized? or both?

  2. I believe that innovation is something that happens, if the right environment exists. The problem is that people make up the environment and people are notoriously different. :) What may drive innovation from one person may cause stagnation in another. This is part of why some people are just not good fits with some organizations.

    For innovation to really work, you need two things... flexibility and process. Those two may seem diametrically opposed, but they're really not. When you look at Edison's doll example, you've got a guy with a really flexible mind that created a product way ahead of its time; so far ahead of its time that it wasn't workable. That's where the process comes in. Innovation for the sake of innovation doesn't work. You have to be able to capitalize on it when the time is right and you do that by having a process to ensure success. In this instance, Edison had no one (so far as the article says) that said, "You know Tom, this might not be the right time for this one" (or at least not early enough to avoid this mistake). Had such a person existed to enforce some bit of process, the company could possibly avoided the failure.