Even Small Businesses Can “Innovate Like Edison”

Take Edison’s approach to innovation and keep your small business competitive, creative and advancing.
May 07, 2012

The greatest entrepreneurs innovate, create and deliver new customer value in the marketplace. But many small businesses struggle with innovation. How about taking some tips from one of the all-time greats: Thomas Edison?

In the book Innovate Like Edison, authors Michael Gelb and Sarah Caldicott (Edison’s grandniece) suggest that Edison devised a specific pattern for innovation.

“Edison brings us some of the most practical information on innovation that we can find anywhere,” Caldicott says. “Even though he lived in the early years of the industrial age, his business practices were ahead of their time.”

These five principles, which the authors dubbed “Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation,” can help any small business owner maintain a competitive edge through breakthrough processes, products and services.

1. Solution-centered mindset. Edison consistently used reading as a catalyst for experimenting with new forms of thinking. This, along with his unique brand of optimism, generated solutions more rapidly than any of his competitors.

2. Kaleidoscopic thinking. Edison’s mind worked like a kaleidoscope. He consistently visualized problems from multiple angles, which allowed him to come up with solutions that weren’t obvious to others.

3. Full-spectrum engagement. Edison held specific ideas about balancing work and play, solitude and collaboration, concentration and relaxation. He was a fun-loving father of six who had a great sense of humor. He could shift his focus of attention in fluid ways from work to personal, helping him live a full life.

4. Mastermind collaboration. Edison believed in flat organizations where anyone could suggest an idea. He often brought people from multiple disciplines together on a team to solve problems and create diverse solutions.

5. Super-value creation. Edison understood that commerce demands creativity. He linked the two by designing the product for the need. He created what was missing.

As we think over these five principles, they seem quite timeless in today’s business environment. I’ve translated them into six practical things you can do in your small business to maintain your competitive edge.

1. Study industry trends. Entrepreneurs should seek knowledge relentlessly. Read everything you can, including science fiction and other content outside your industry—you never know what could inspire an innovative idea. Make sure someone in your company (if not you) constantly surveys the international business environment. Don’t be afraid to set a trend. Early adopters always stand a better chance of winning big.

2. Focus on your customer for answers. To identify need gaps, watch your customers in their environment. You may observe a new opportunity to provide your services or products to new customers or build a new offering entirely. Edison invented the document-duplication machine after watching insurance agents spend so much time hand writing documents for insurance policies.

3. Inspire creativity from employees. Don’t feel as if you have to come up with the answers alone. Hold monthly or quarterly brainstorming sessions with employees in which you publicly acknowledge great ideas and business concepts. As an extra incentive, offer a cut to employees who invent ideas you take to market.

4. Invest in continuing education. If the last time you stepped into a classroom was in college, it’s long past time to get exposed to some new ways of thinking. You can enroll in or audit week- or month-long programs at four-year and community colleges across the country. The National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship is a great resource for finding community college entrepreneurship programs. I’ve taken business courses at The Tuck School at Dartmouth and The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

5. Seek mentorship. Mastermind groups and peer mentoring programs such as those run by Vistage can make any entrepreneur better. Tap into the wisdom of professionals from diverse disciplines to brainstorm specific business challenges.

6. Take mini-retreats. As entrepreneurs, many of us eat, sleep and live work. That is no way to fuel innovation. Take regular time off to rest, relax, think and meditate. I try to do it every 90 days in my hectic business. When you rest your mind, amazing ideas can flourish. Keep a notebook with you at all times so you can capture these ideas in your daily travels—you’d be amazed how an article from a magazine you grabbed in the airport could give you the idea of a lifetime.

Innovation is the engine that drives change and transformation. Without it we stop looking to the future and become content with the way things are. If your small business values innovation, let the master of invention inspire you to institutionalize it in your organization. In Edison’s words, “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves."

Join me on Tuesday, May 8, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time, for a Tweet Chat sponsored by FedEx Office. We’ll discuss how to build a social media brand for your small business. Follow the conversation @FedExOffice on Twitter using #FedExOffice. Learn more about the “Our Office Is Your Office” Tweet Chat series. 

Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady, is one of America’s leading small-business experts. Forbes Magazine named her #1 woman for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She hosts #SmallBizChat Wednesdays on Twitter 8–9 p.m. ET for emerging entrepreneurs. She also publishes a resource blog and is the bestselling author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.

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