Midnight Lunch™ - Looking to Thomas Edison for Marketing Agility

Innovation is a sensitive process. Creating a hospitable climate for innovation is a leadership skill. In her newest book, Midnight Lunch, The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab, innovation expert Sarah Miller Caldicott peels back the study of successful innovation practices, to find what it takes to establish a culture and a process where the seeds of new possibility can sprout and grow.

The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success.

We’ve all been to brainstorming meetings and been schooled about collaboration. This is different. The 4 phases Edison identifies are the precursor to innovation and set the tone for an innovating culture. They allow a climate of willingness to question and experiment — to take risks and to see in fresh ways. The steps are: 1 Capacity, building diverse teams of experts and generalist thinkers; 2 Context, the narrative of the environment in which the innovation has value and can thrive; 3 Coherence, relevance and contributions from across functions and perspectives; 4 Complexity, developing the capacity and resilience to navigate ever-expanding data, along with continuous change, interaction and influence.

Not answers; Capability.

Edison achieved a prolific level of productivity by many measures, including patents, revenue and economic value. He did this by empowering teams with his unique approach to questioning the universe, forming experiments and staying focused on generating economic gain. His training practices were aimed at creating resilience, curiosity and collaboration. They resulted in marketplace agility.

Anticipate and Create will supersede Sense and Respond.” —Caldicott

Innovation is more then solid research and new marketplace introductions. It is the generation of new ideas, models and strategies, born from a vision for what might happen next. Establishing the discipline to think and the climate to support the process is a radically different event from modern-day business and marketing planning. It calls for a number of key qualities. Edison taught that innovative thinking is not linear or sequential. Creative thinking is a continuous process unfolding over time and is often circuitous, looping back on itself. How can this type of process be planned and measured? It begins with support from leaders.

Leadership in the organization must have a growth mindset.

A growth mindset allows for a culture of questioning and experimentation, and for the process to be measured and quantified with a combination of activity metrics as well as measures of final outcomes. This is particularly important for measuring both soft and hard benefits of marketing.

What’s in a question?

Collaborative questions that lead to innovation are open-ended. They seek new understanding to reframe challenges and to allow for new directions to emerge. This type of questioning allows the context of the problem to emerge – unlike much marketing research, which attempts to isolate and demonstrate. Instead, finding cause-and-effect relationships and a broader sense of context allows for the discovery of unknown influences and outcomes; leaving more doors open to new possibilities.

Edison cautioned against seizing ideas and solutions too quickly. If a strong leading idea emerged, he instructed his team not to focus there exclusively, but to leave multiple options and directions open. These became contingency plans, to be proven over time in the marketplace.

Given the ambiguity as well as the broad amount of data generated with such open-ended ideation, Edison used scenarios to help frame and create understanding. He also used tools to facilitate rapid ideation—ways to explore hypothetical directions in order to test further. This led to fast learning cycles, which are similar to “fast failure” but with an emphasis on outcomes.

Google is an example of a company following this model. Google Labs releases new software in “beta,” and keeping the designation signals internally as well as to the marketplace that this is an evolving concept seeking evidence for utility and purpose. It is an honest approach that doesn’t pretend to be free of flaws or without incomplete functionality and avoids being labeled for bugs, flaws and questions about quality control. This is a model for marketing practices, making a powerful case to leaders to invest in marketing.

Edison was committed to tangible outcomes, in particular market impact and financial performance of innovation. Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in other countries, and billions of dollars of economic value at the time. However, his measure for progress was tracked within the team as: learning, contributing, meaning and impact. This allowed for the capture of subtle and also qualitative gains. It allowed for progress through a series of small wins, without disallowing that setbacks would be part of the process. He instilled a spirit of complete transparency.

Innovation is complex and Edison embraced that complexity. His process organized teams to navigate that complexity, and to develop this as a core competency.

Caldicott observes that, to be successful, the organization needs to be restructured, from ‘top-down’ hierarchies with departmental silos, to “smart layers” –flatter structures that allow individuals and groups the authority and access to interact with each other in all directions.

This is agile marketing.

Contemporary agile marketers need all of these qualities: collaboration across functional areas, curiosity and zeal for exploration, the use of context, prototyping and testing, ways to measures incremental progress, and the ability to adjust the direction of the program as new feedback is captured.

Edison’s ideas couldn’t be more relevant to our contemporary climate of business planning and marketing. They serve as a powerful set of practices that can enable marketers of all stripes to respond to complex challenges, pursue new opportunity, and fully tap the power of the cloud, social media, mobile computing and big data.