Engines of Innovation

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What did Thomas Edison invent? Most people mention the
electric light or the phonograph, but Edison didn’t invent them. That credit
goes to the “Muckers.”

Thomas Edison received his first patent, for a vote counter, in 1868. He
invented a stock ticker and a quadruplex telegraph. He set up companies to
manufacture and sell them. By 1877 he’d earned $40,000 from his inventions, a
bit over a quarter of a million in today’s dollars. He used the money to set up
an “Invention Factory” that he hoped would turn out a small invention every week
and two big inventions a year.

Edison brought together people with diverse skills including scientists,
machinists, secretaries and “unskilled” laborers. He put them into small teams
and expected them to work as long as necessary to take an idea all the way to
commercial application. Edison called them “Muckers” and they named him the
“Chief Mucker.”

Legend favors the lone genius as the brightest star in the innovation
firmament. The current fashion is to suggest that all you have to do is create
diverse teams and innovation will roll down like waters. The truth is you need
something more. You need a boss.

Edison was the Chief Mucker. The Manhattan Project included Nobel Laureate
scientists, but they wouldn’t have done as well without General Leslie Groves.
The Computer Systems Lab at Xerox PARC had Bob Taylor, Bell Labs had Mervin
Kelly, and the Bauhaus had Walter Gropius.

Some of those people were among the innovators, but they all made it possible
for others to contribute. They drove engines of innovation. The good news is
that they did things every boss can do every day.

They established direction so that people could work toward the same
Then they communicated the goal to the team over and over and

They managed the interplay of personalities and priorities.
When strong creative personalities rub against each other, sparks often fly. The
trick is to use the fires for energy and not burn the house down.

They encouraged people to work, but they also set them free to
Sometimes they acted like an umbrella that keeps upper management
stupidities from raining on the team. They put up with idiosyncrasies and
enforced the minimum of rules. When someone asked Edison what his rules were, he
replied “There are no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish

That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really everything. If you want an
innovative team, you have to do the same things. You have to set clear direction
and communicate the purpose, even when you’re sure everyone has heard it a
bazillion times. You have to work to keep the better angels of your team
members’ natures flying and the dark angels at bay, while you provide just
enough structure and rules for great things to happen.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Your job is to make your team and your team members as productive as they can
be. It’s a challenge every day.

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