Maintaining the Creative Process: Lessons From Edison

On September 15, 1878, Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, famously declared to a group of New York reporters at his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey that – in just six week’s time – the gaslight would be obsolete. He had invented commercially viable electric light that was going to change the world, stating, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” The next day, the prices of gas stocks crashed. In the end, while Edison did succeed in bringing electric light to the world, six weeks proved to be a very optimistic prediction; it took him over a year to have his first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb at Menlo Park and another three years to successfully bring electric light to lower Manhattan.

Soon after his 1878 declaration, Edison quickly discovered that successful implementation of electric light would not only need the development of a new incandescent light bulb, but also an entire electric power system that included power generation, electric circuits, and sockets. How did Thomas Edison and his team of researchers at Menlo Park manage to overcome these numerous challenges and early disappointments? How did they remain deeply engaged with their work and sustain their creativity for many years? And how did that creativity and enthusiasm not dissipate with time?

History is littered with examples of creative breakthroughs that did not prove successful. For example, why did Microsoft not continue and succeed with its early development of the tablet in the early 2000s? What was it about Apple – though coming late to the game – that made it a success? The key is in sustaining creativity, enthusiasm, and innovation. Where better to get these insights than from Menlo Park?

Meaning

Edison and his team were out to change the world; this gave their work a great deal of meaning. Modern behavioral science has shown that having a sense of meaning in work leads to greater perseverance, higher productivity, a willingness to work longer hours, less employee turnover, and a strong appeal to those with similar values. In a world increasingly lead by technology and innovation, such a vision can also be very attractive to modern tech-savvy consumers, as Apple’s numerous fans can testify.

Meaning that comes from a desire to change the world is common in companies that specialize in challenging cutting edge innovation, research, and technology. It’s far more difficult to achieve this type of meaning if you’re making nails and hammers for a living, in which case it might come from other resources, such as an inspirational leader. Work of an altruistic nature can also be a great source of meaning – just think of the dedication and sacrifice of the many doctors and nurses that worked to overcome the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Safety

During the innovation and creative process, it is important for people to feel accepted, respected, and have the freedom to take risks without facing severe negative consequences. This sense is often referred to as psychological safety. Edison’s Menlo Park research lab accepted over 10,000 failed attempts to refine the light bulb. Why is this important? Because working effectively in teams with members from diverse backgrounds is fundamental to creativity and innovation, as interesting ideas are created where disciplines intersect. Without a sense of psychological safety, people are less likely to contribute and teams are less likely to learn from past mistakes out of fear of being laughed at or victimized, thus nullifying the benefits of working in teams. Successful innovation firms are good at accepting their failures and moving on.

Apple perfected learning from failure through their work with U2. Discontent with total failure of the U2 iPod in 2004, they came back for seconds in 2014 with the wildly unpopular free U2 album giveaway in iTunes. And let’s not forget the Apple Pippin, Apple’s game console, which reportedly only sold 12,000 units before the plug was pulled.

In a famous Nike advert, Michael Jordan – clearly considered one of the greatest basketball players in history – is quoted as saying that he lost nearly 300 games (more games than many NBA careers), missed 9,000 shots (more than many NBA players ever attempted), and missed the game winning shot 26 times. He goes on to say that these failures were necessary for him to achieve success. He should have also pointed out the importance of the psychologically safe environment that made it acceptable for him to take risks and accept his many failures on his path to greatness.

Availability

To maintain focus and enthusiasm during the creative process for a long period of time, it is important that people are able to meet the emotional, cognitive, and physical demands of the job. Edison was an avid power napper. There were napping cots throughout his lab and library, long before Google made it trendy. Napping was an essential counterweight to the intensity of his work. Indeed, modern research has shown that sleep is essential for overcoming creative blocks.

Designing workplaces in ways that allow people to re-energize themselves is essential if creative and innovative work is to be sustained. Cutting-edge technology and innovation companies recognize this and employ a wide variety of tactics to keep people engaged. Google is famous not only for their sleep pods, but also free gyms, climbing walls, free food, games rooms, and various other tactics at GooglePlex Headquarters, all of which help workers maintain creative focus.

“Vim and Enthusiasm”

A large part of why creative sparks never catch on is because companies are very bad at maintaining the creative process and focus. Research has found that only 10% of employees report being deeply engaged in their work. To achieve the fruits of creative and innovative ideas, companies need to find ways to better engage people; they need to find ways to be more like Edison’s lab in Menlo Park. To quote Edison, “My laboratory was a scene of feverish activity, and we worked incessantly, regardless of day, night, Sunday, or holiday. I had quite a large force and they were a loyal lot of men as a whole, and worked with vim and enthusiasm.”

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Dr. Vurain Tabvuma is a behavioral economist and head of quantitative analysis at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada

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Vurain Tabvuma