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Inspiring an Innovation Mindset: 2012 Edison Awards

Edison and Light Bulb

Astonishing factoid: the six industries Thomas Edison pioneered from 1873 to 1910 all still exist in some form today. These industries – including the new markets they spawned – today yield an estimated market value exceeding $1 trillion dollars globally. Not bad. Perhaps even more formidable, Edison’s establishment of the world’s first Research and Development lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey established R&D as a model for profitably harnessing breakthroughs in science and technology. America can trace the acceleration of its position as a global innovation power in the 20th century to Edison’s pioneering lab.

2012 Marks the 25th Anniversary of the Edison Awards

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Edison Awards, a unique program celebrating innovations and innovators. The awards aim to reflect the extraordinary creativity, technological prowess, new product generation capacities, and business insight Edison himself modeled. A true forte of Edison’s, the use of innovative marketing strategies and tactics led him to form deep relationships with journalists, leverage product demonstration to create buzz, and launch high visibility beta tests to catapult his extraordinary creations into the public eye. To recognize Edison’s marketing genius, the Edison Awards this year has added an exciting marketing category, sponsored by MENG (Marketing Executive Networking Group). Dubbed The Thomas A. Edison Marketing Award, it honors outstanding achievement in marketing with particular emphasis on how marketing can accelerate the acceptance of new business models or speed adoption of unique interfaces between people and technology. Nominees for the new 2012 MENG Powered Edison Award will be voted on later this month by members of MENG as well as leaders in diverse technology communities, including the IEEE (Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers). The Edison Awards also recognizes innovations in twelve industry categories which Edison directly influenced or pioneered, including: Electronics & Computers; Science & Medicine; Energy & Sustainability; Applied Technology; and more.

Innovation Mindset Tool #1: Expand the Context of Your Thinking

Although many qualities set Edison apart from his competitors, one dominated his success: his fervent cultivation of an innovation mindset. This year’s Edison Awards nominees model many facets of Edison’s mindset. By adopting two key practices Edison favored, you can also harness the power of an innovator’s mindset each day. The first is to expand the context of your thinking by asking new questions. Rather than seeing one option, Edison saw six. Instead of restricting the potential field of solutions to a narrow frame, he asked new questions that pushed the boundaries of his logical mind. For example, in seeking a substance that could serve as a filament for what became the world’s first incandescent electric light, Edison experimented with bark, tar, boar bristles, feathers, thread, bamboo – plus more than 100 other compounds. In examining items representing such breadth, Edison asked a broad question, ”How do things burn?” rather than ”What would make a good filament?” By expanding the context of his thinking to include properties that allow substances to burn evenly, he hit upon a novel solution – bamboo fiber. Instead of just asking the logical question — ”What would burn the longest?”– his expansive question yielded a solution he likely otherwise would have missed. YouTube Video Edison Author Steven Johnson, in his extraordinary book Where Good Ideas Come From (check out this YouTube video link) calls this expansive approach ”accessing the adjacent possible.” By asking unique questions and seeking intersections between contrasting ideas, Edison cultivated an innovation mindset that consistently accessed new context. His ability to expand the framework for potential solutions allowed him to develop new-to-the-world industries, including recorded sound, motion picture entertainment, and the electric power grid.

Innovation Mindset Tool #2: Use Analogies to Create New Patterns

I recently read a book on how to adopt a ”lean” mindset. The author was motivated to find ways to continually subtract and subtract and subtract steps in the processes he observed, ultimately streamlining them to a core nub. Rather than constantly subtracting, Edison took a different path. Although he loved efficiency (pioneering six new industries in less than forty years required him to move pretty fast), Edison viewed the world as an expansive stream of patterns. Viewing the world this way offers us a second key to Edison’s innovation mindset. In my book Innovate Like Edison, I use the term Kaleidoscopic Thinking to describe Edison’s pattern recognition capabilities. Edison consistently connected the power of the left brain with the power of the right brain in his pattern seeking efforts. His use of analogies offers a powerful tool for developing an innovation mindset today. When seeking to connect light bulbs together, for example, Edison set up the analogy: ”How is electricity like telegraphy?” In forming this analogy, Edison linked something he knew a great deal about (telegraphy) with something he knew less about (electricity). This novel comparison enabled Edison to discover common patterns in how each realm operated. The outcome? Edison linked the pattern he saw governing how communication flowed through a telegraph network with a novel design for sending electricity from one light bulb to another. The pattern yielded what we know today as the world’s first electric circuit.

Idea by Edison

Innovative Solutions from 2012 Edison Awards Nominees

Dozens of this year’s Edison Awards nominees demonstrate the same innovation mindset that Edison so deeply prized. Here are a few examples of products and services from this year’s extraordinary nominees, submitted by companies large and small:

  • Cogito Health: Software that detects early depression in adults using word patterning.
  • Whirlpool: Refrigeration technology that requires little electricity to cool food.
  • YouTube: Scientific experiments conducted in space that can be viewed on Earth.
  • Melafind: Portable instruments which can detect diverse forms of skin cancer.

By expanding the framework of his questions and constantly forming new context, Edison developed new market spaces that no one else had conceived. His fierce cultivation of an innovation mindset stands as an inspiration to all of us today.

About Sarah Caldicott

Guest contributor Sarah Miller Caldicott is a great grandniece of Thomas Edison. An innovation process expert, Sarah advises leaders and organizations on how to apply Edison’s timeless innovation methods in the 21st century. Sarah’s latest book "Midnight Lunch" was recently featured in "Fast Company " magazine. A TEDx speaker, Sarah has appeared on CNBC, PBS, and in the New York Times and Fortune Small Business.

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