Book Review: Edison on Innovation: 102 Lessons in Creativity for Business and Beyond
By: Alan Axelrod, San Francisco : Jossey-Bass , 2008 . 178 + x pages . Review by: Kelly L. Frey
Alan Axelrod's Edison on Innovation provides an illustrative snapshot of the life and talent of one of America's premier innovators: Thomas Alva Edison. The book is subdivided into 102 short sections (each a few pages long), each of which deals with a unique aspect of Edison's professional career, followed by a paragraph that abstracts the central “lesson” that is applicable to product development. The basic premise of the book is that Edison wasn't a “genius” but rather just a keen observer who preferred to make incremental improvements to existing technology (innovate) rather than engage in theoretical research and development (R&D). The examples from Edison's life that are used by Axelrod are selected to support the author's proposition that current practitioners of product development don't have to be Mensa members to be successful; they just need to follow Edison's approach of careful daily observation, obsessive note taking, and preference for incremental improvements (rather than breakthrough technology).
Historical scholars and Edison buffs may consider the book a bit superficial. But for those more interested in abstracting practical product development lessons from Edison's work than digesting voluminous biographical detail, the book is excellent. Similarly, the target audience is more general public than scholarly researcher. That said, however, for those of us in the product development trenches, the book offers an optimistic perspective for dealing with the day-to-day obstacles of professional life (along with encouragement for those who toil rather than ideate).
Each of the 102 sections begins with a recitation of a specific event or accomplishment of Edison and ends with a short “management consulting” paragraph that reduces the facts to a maxim for the reader. This format is no coincidence—Axelrod is a student of history and a management consultant, combing the lives of leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Elizabeth I to illustrate business principles applicable to today's marketplace. At first I found this format irritating—since I wanted to concentrate more of what Edison did than the author's “management speak.” But after a few sections I found the author's summaries added the structure that was essential in stringing the anecdotes of Edison's work into a cohesive story of lifelong innovation.
The central premise of the book is that Edison was not so much a genius inventor as a meticulous innovator and self-promoter. Though that characterization may sound harsh, the author is convincing in making the argument that you don't have to be a genius to be good at developing new, innovative products—you just have to be obsessively observant and willing to “get dirty” by practicing rather than theorizing about product development.
There are numerous examples in the book of Edison's willingness to be personally involved in experimentation and prototyping. From his early interest in better power sources than the open-acid batteries used for early telegraph (which apparently cost him at least one job from an acid spill on his boss's desk) to his later work in finding the most economically feasible element for a consumer light bulb (which required that he test and eliminate thousands of “failures”), the author stresses that Edison liked to physically touch the products he was developing. The author also uses this tactile approach to innovation as a rationale for Edison's dismissal of atomic energy—he could not see it or touch it, so it was beyond his tactile approach.
Although the book does provide examples of Edison's shameless self-promotion, the author graciously describes this as a “branding” mechanism—once Edison was able to associate his very name with innovation, it facilitated market acceptance of his hundreds of patents and products. Even though this conclusion makes intuitive sense and fosters the concept of Edison as a renegade in establishing one of the first R&D facilities in the United States by shear force of personal will, it overlooks the countless co-inventors who toiled under this tutelage (to whom equal credit should probably be given for turning “ideas” into “products”).
Axelrod also does a clever job of illustrating how Edison turned weaknesses into strengths in product innovation. Edison suffered with hearing loss over the course of his life, but Axelrod notes, “… Edison seemed genuinely to regard his semi-deafness as a gift of nature, which spared him from all manner of time-wasting distraction …” (p. 30). Similarly, Axelrod includes several sections illustrating Edison's principle of innovating to the weaknesses of a competitor and inventing “work arounds” for the cumbersome components of his newly developed technology.
But more than just a recitation of events (and deconstruction of those events into “management speak”), Axelrod does a great job of providing context for the life and inventiveness of Edison. Beginning with Edison's early jobs as newsboy and telegrapher, Axelrod traces the evolution of Edison's career from tinkering with early electrical apparatus to developing a modern “systems” approach in the design of electrical lighting (that encompassed not only the end product consumer light bulb he invented but also the mechanism to both generate and distribute electricity that allowed his product to become a common fixture in New York residences).
Axelrod also notes some of Edison's unique perspectives. While Edison was self-educated, he thought that structured, formal education should be more than just memorization of facts—education's imperative was “to create among the population a restless dissatisfaction [with the status quo]” (p. 70). Edison is also credited with the maxim that if a business attempts to extract more profit from a market than the “general average,” the business would be “immediately punished by competition” (p. 46)—a rule he applied in developing economical inventions rather than perfect ones.
As a credit to both Axelrod and Edison, the book also presents several of Edison's failures—again as examples of how innovation works (through both failure and success). For example, there are illustrations of Edison's grand obsession with sight and sound for commercial applications (e.g., telephonic and phonographic apparatus) against his failure to understand his innovations' applications for entertainment purposes (missing the motion picture business entirely and having to license that technology from the Lumiere brothers).
Informative and inspirational, Edison on Innovation is a great way to confirm what we already know: (1) that the next innovation is just one observation away; and (2) even if it helps to be mentally gifted, you do not have to be genius to be good at product development!
Released: October 4, 2013, 8:54 am
| Updated: October 30, 2013, 11:45 am