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Book of the Day: Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success From Thomas Edison’s Lab

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
6th March 2013

Book: Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab. Sarah Miller Caldicott. ISBN: 978-1-1184-0786-8. 284 pages. December 2012


The four-step process outlined:

Step 1: Capacity

  • “Build diverse teams of two to eight people.
  • What worked for Edison: To create the lightbulb, Edison’s team had to include chemists, mathematicians, and glassblowers.
  • Modern counterpart: Facebook’s small, collaborative coding teams.

“First, assemble the capacity to innovate. Identify a small group (2-8 people) that brings together a diversity of experiences and perspectives. When I set up strategy efforts with clients, we aim for 5-10 collaborators that represent key areas of the company (marketing, operations, HR, etc.).” [1]

Step 2: Context

  • After a mistake, step back and learn from it.
  • What worked for Edison: At age 22, he had his first flop–the electronic vote recorder, which legislators failed to adopt. From there, he changed his focus to the consumer.
  • Modern counterpart: At Microsoft, Bill Gates took intensive reading vacations each year.

“This is a two-step approach: First, run what Caldicott calls a “solo-meld” in which each member individually reads broadly about the collaboration topic, questions assumptions, and conducts initial analyses to create insights, without reaching conclusions. My work at McKinsey started every project this way, with members individually reading, conducting interviews, and assembling a fact-pack of insights.

Follow this with a “group-meld,” in which members come together to share their insights, experiment with broad range of potential solutions, and develop prototypes (often today these are narrative prototypes, stories of potential solutions). I learned this firsthand when I was having a tough time showing potential investors and clients what my “Outthinker Digital Tool” could become. Then, I built a simple mock-up and story and that got people excited.” [2]

Step 3: Coherence

  • When team members disagree, step in and make a decision.
  • What worked for Edison: Groundbreaking work in electricity isn’t easy to come by. Fights and frustration followed; overarching vision kept creation on track.
  • Modern counterpart: Whirlpool has “collaboration teams” to spark dialogue between departments.

“It’s not unusual for any team to get distracted and lose momentum. The key is to inspire the team with the shared purpose, while measuring the progress toward that shared vision. Give the team feedback to keep them engaged. For example, I am preparing a report next week summarizing the progress we have made in building a private equity fund; we are not yet where we wanted to be and I sense the team is losing momentum. To overcome that, I’ve looked back and summarized what we’ve already achieved–it is amazing, and I know it will help keep the team engaged when they see it as well.” [3]

Step 4: Complexity

  • When the market shifts, change your direction–or face the consequences.
  • What worked for Edison: It was the era of electricity. Inventors ignored that at their peril.
  • Modern counterpart: The implosion of Kodak, which failed to adapt to market changes.”


“Innovative ideas are always inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs, so your challenge now is to manage the complexity of converting your idea into reality. This means starting to influence beyond your team so the idea catches on, networking in the broader organization to get people on board, and doing what Caldicott calls “footprinting”–building a collection of notebooks, documents, data, videos, pictures, and sound recordings that will serve as a record of your team’s work. I always build a “leave behind” PowerPoint for my consulting clients, but thanks to Caldicott, I will now incorporate pictures, audio, and video into a stimulating track of our journey.” [4]


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