2 May 2016

Lessons in collaboration from Thomas Edison

Reading through the Evernote blog this morning I came across this fascinating article detailing some of Thomas Edisons working practices. There's a lot of focus on his note taking obviously and this in itself is fascinating but I was also impressed by his collaborative way of working. In particular, I found this section really interesting:

At about 9 p.m., 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… 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.
This struck me as an early example of what we try to encourage in our teams today. Not working to the wee small hours of the morning of course but the collaboration and community that comes with small teams working together and also enjoying each others company. the phrase "transformed employees into colleagues" is particularly interesting. The suggestion here is that sharing a common bond and building friendships that go beyond the polite good mornings and small talk round the water cooler brings deeper collaboration.

I worked with teams based in Linz Austria for the past two years and they practice a similar ritual on Wednesday afternoons and it is clear to all who have contact with them that they are colleagues who enjoy each others company and collaborate really well together.

Thinking through this further and going back a few more years to my time at SAP I realise that we had excellent collaborative spaces for our teams, designed to allow lots of water cooler style conversations to happen where inspiration could spark a discussion and a small group of people could innovate together. One element we missed in many cases was Edisons 'midnight lunch'.

Bring both the creative space, the right people and opportunities for those people to become colleagues and you have the perfect opportunity for magic to happen.

You can read the full article over on the Evernote Blog.