Saturday, February 11 is Thomas Alva Edison’s 176th birthday. Edison, inventor of the modern incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera, among other things that have impacted and defined today’s world, has special relevance for me and for Stern Strategy Group. One of his laboratories as well as his home and burial site in West Orange, New Jersey is a 15-minute walk from where I grew up and still live, while his other lab in Menlo Park is nearby Stern’s office. I also had two different family members work for him. But one thing I was recently thinking about is how much his accomplishments were relevant to what we at Stern – and in the communications field more broadly – do on a daily basis. Here are three ways that Edison’s life and method of working can inspire us and drive success in communications:
He Embraced Flexibility Over Rigidity
Supposedly, once when someone joining Edison’s team asked about the “rules” of the laboratory, he replied by saying “Hell! There ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!” I wouldn’t necessarily tell my team that there aren’t any rules; some sort of structure is necessary, of course. But I take Edison’s point about not being chained to rigid ways of doing things. The freewheeling nature of Edison’s lab made it an incubator for innovation and new ideas, precisely because his team was encouraged to think outside the box. In the communications profession today, with a 24/7 news cycle and ever-changing issues of the day that require a response or can be leveraged for coverage, we also must – and do – think in terms of open-minded flexibility and being able to shift gears at a moment’s notice. Success in communications is not guaranteed. Nothing is static in the world today – and neither should our methods or approaches to getting things done.
He Understood the Need for Teamwork
We often have a stereotype in our heads of the lone individual inventor tinkering in their lab. That was very far from how Edison ran his facilities. Indeed, he collected the greatest minds of his time, including such figures famous in their own right as Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla, to build a thriving innovation ecosystem. Similarly, nobody at Stern is an island. We need to constantly interact, bounce ideas off each other and pool our skills and talents to produce results. As we increasingly understand the value of diversity in organizations, we also grasp the importance of different perspectives and backgrounds in being able to effectively strategize and tell a story.
He Was Always Looking Ahead
We work a lot with organizations on their sustainability initiatives – and of course the greatest challenge to the world today in this area is making the transition to clean energy. This may seem like a relatively new priority, which is why I was surprised to recently find this quote from Thomas Edison from the early 1900s:
“Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property. There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it cannot be destroyed.”
Edison being able to predict the green energy revolution that long ago is amazing, but is also only one aspect of his exceptionally farsighted predictive abilities. After all, few people probably could imagine the light bulb or movies before Edison made them. In the communications profession, we have to constantly be looking to the next big trend so we can get our clients out in front of it – and have people saying how amazed they are that our clients got it right so early!
As I reflect on Edison, I think of how we all can be masters of invention (along with the help of others, of course) within our own careers, companies and professions. And we achieve success in communications by remembering and practicing these core lessons from the Wizard of Menlo Park.