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Improving Collaboration in the Workplace Starts by Avoiding These Common Mistakes

Almost everyone has heard Thomas Edison’s famous quotation about genius being “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Far fewer people stop to wonder exactly what Edison was sweating about. 

Improving Collaboration in the WorkplaceThe answer is, Edison was not only working on the various inventions for which he’s well-known, but also on the emerging discipline of R&D itself. Even as he and his team were cranking out one technological marvel after another, one of Edison’s ongoing areas of interest was in improving collaboration in the workplace. 

According to Sarah Miller Caldicott (who happens to be Edison’s great grandniece), the world’s most prolific inventor developed a methodical approach to nurturing teamwork and innovation among his workers. In her book on the subject, Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success From Thomas Edison’s Lab, she describes the little-known, behind-the-scenes processes that Edison pioneered to create and sustain high-performing teams. 

Caldicott does a great job of finding insights into Edison’s approach that have relevance for businesses today, so I highly recommend checking out her book. In case you don’t have time to read it yourself, I’ve synthesized some of Caldicott’s key observations with current best practices in collaboration. For starters, I’ve identified three major areas where organizations often make mistakes that prevent them from improving collaboration in the workplace. 

Mistake # 1: Keep doing business the old way.

It’s natural to keep using the same tools and processes that have worked for you in the past. However, your competition is probably hard at work trying to figure out a faster, cheaper way to put you out of business. So “sticking to what works” may put your organization in an increasingly vulnerable position. Fortunately, there’s a constantly expanding variety of tools that can help you maximize your ability to collaborate. 

One of Edison’s interesting approaches to fostering collaboration was the “midnight lunch.” These were regularly scheduled but informal get-togethers where his engineers got to know and trust one another better, increasing their ability to communicate and work as a team. In today’s business environment, technologies like Kona and Skype may make it easier for teams to exchange ideas, but many people who write about collaboration still point to the effectiveness of starting with face-to-face meetings and then evolving to virtual collaboration as time progresses. 

In Edison’s day, the products of collaboration were obviously analog — although many of their ideas existed only in their heads, a great deal existed on paper as well. If a team member left, much of their work and insights could literally be passed out among team members. In today’s world, we are meeting the need by creating central repositories of files and communication — so if a team member leaves, all their intellectual property doesn’t leave with them. 

Mistake # 2: Assemble the wrong type of team.

The ideal size team for collaboration depends on a variety of factors — including the complexity of the work, the products the group is expected to generate (and the timeframe for doing so), and how often, if ever, the team needs to convene in person. 

For what it’s worth, Edison preferred smaller, more cohesive teams of between two and eight members, according to Caldicott. In addition to hosting the “midnight lunches” mentioned above, Edison also tried to ensure a mix of disciplines and areas of expertise on each of his teams; Edison’s light bulb team, for example, included chemists, mathematicians, and glassblowers. To put it another way, Edison and his colleagues were focusing on diversity decades before the term was ever used in a business management context! 

Mistake # 3: Take your eye off the ball.

One other lesson to be learned from Edison is to take the long view on collaboration. Real impact is not a short-term gain or achievement, but rather an investment of energy and resources that will eventually bear fruit. 

Taking this perspective, it’s easier to realize that mistakes can be just as instructive as successes. When Edison was only 22, he had his first flop:  An electronic vote recorder that legislators declined to adopt. Following that experience, Edison changed his focus to the consumer instead, and never regretted the decision. 

Another lesson Edison teaches us is to keep an eye on the market, and be ready to make adjustments as necessary. For example, he and his team ushered in the era of electricity, and then continued to invent new applications that used the increasingly available power source; other inventors ignored electricity at their peril. (For a more recent example of how not to do things, look no further than Kodak, which failed to adapt to market changes and is playing catch-up with hundreds of more innovative, nimbler companies.) 

Has the light bulb over your head turned on yet?

Most companies would consider themselves to be phenomenally successful to have even one innovation on the level of the light bulb, the motion picture, the phonograph, or any of the hundreds of other inventions and patents credited to the Wizard of Menlo Park. But by making the most of the collaborative tools and strategies for improving collaboration in the workplace mentioned above, your company can at least maximize the chance that your teams will do their very best work. 


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