In addition to publishing my monthly innovation newsletter, Edison's Notebook, I blog on innovation for  Follow my Forbes posts here!


29 July 2015


On Su​nday, Cisco sales wunderkind Chuck Robbins stepped in as new CEO of the renowned internet giant. Robbins takes the reins from John Chambers who – at 20 years – will go down in business annals as one of the longest-tenured CEOs in Silicon Valley history. Robbins now sits atop an empire which Chambers amassed while piloting the company through the early years of the Internet, the dot-com bubble, the rise of the search engine, and the Great Recession. Can Robbins remap Cisco's culture to drive new growth? Read the full Forbes post here

22 May 2015


Who knew that drinking coffee would become such a market-moving event? Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz added another steamy leg to his business model this week in a deal positioning Spotify to be the sole provider of streaming music for all 7,000 Starbucks stores.

This fall, U.S. Starbucks customers who are part of its rewards program can choose what music will play in the stores they visit. Plus, they can immediately pay for the music in-store with Starbucks rewards points – like plunking virtual quarters into a digital juke box. The Spotify deal is the first stage of a massive, next generation music ecosystem the coffee franchise is brewing. ​Read full post


31 Mar 2015 


 It’s not often that we witness a pivotal juncture in an entire industry sector. A juncture that – if wisely managed – holds potential to transform a huge chunk of the US economy, or even reskill major segments of the workforce. In the eyes of AOL founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, such is the power of advanced manufacturing at the dawn of the third wave of the Internet. Steve Case believes advanced manufacturing represents a juggernaut linking the power of productivity gains with innovation, workforce competitiveness, and big data as the Industrial Internet unfolds. Read full post here


27 Feb 2015 


RadioShack, the brand that did more than any other retailer to bring technology within reach of everyday consumers, received long-sought Chapter 11 protection earlier this month. Tomorrow, over 1,000 of its 4,300 U.S. stores will close forever, with another large tranche slated for closure at the end of March. Zippy taglines like, “It’s always the future at RadioShack” will bite the dust as the company negotiates additional store sales to Sprint and others.  After a 94-year run, the brand that stood for American ingenuity and a hands-on connection to technology could have avoided this difficult end. Read full Forbes post here


11 Feb 2015


If using data is not part of your job today, make no mistake – it soon will be. Data is rapidly becoming the common currency within leading organizations. Data is the new digital super hero busting down silos in large companies, dissolving the “not invented here” syndrome and dissembling fiefdoms that hark back to the Industrial Age. In a very real way, data proliferation is forcing us to acknowledge a kind of digital Darwinism that has already begun transforming organizations – ready or not. Read full Forbes post here.

14 Jan 2015


If you’ve already written your resolutions for 2015, here’s one item that’s probably not on your list: Take New Risks. I’m not talking about new risks like sky diving, or sampling cannabis. I’m referring to risks that test your ability to fulfill your deepest ambitions, including starting a new business or becoming an entrepreneur. For many people, the key stumbling block to trying something new involves a fear of ambiguity and the unknown. Ambiguity involves a willingness to operate in a context of uncertainty or vagueness. Individuals who can tolerate ambiguity can achieve success without significant infrastructure or ... Read full Forbes post here

16 Dec 2014


As we revel in glittering displays of holiday lights this season, we can hark back to the awe the nation felt when Thomas Edison unveiled his first twinkling Christmas lamps in 1879. Just weeks after inventing the first practical incandescent light and the world’s first electric circuit, Edison decided to demonstrate his disruptive new technologies in a familiar place: his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory. 

Fresh from a successful series of phonograph demonstrations – including one to sitting US President Rutherford B. Hayes – Edison sought to ignite public interest in his lighting innovations. The Wizard of Menlo Park believed a live outdoor display with dozens of incandescent lamps strung together would ignite broad public support for his invention. Read full Forbes post.

30 Nov 2014


November marks the season when high school students plug away at their college applications, and executives draw up business plans for the coming year. It’s a time when thoughts about the future dominate conversations from the dinner table to the Board Room. Yet despite age gaps between college students and CEO’s, these disparate groups share anxiety over the resources needed to navigate the coming waves of new technology. In particular, this includes transformative technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT). As never before, students entering college as well as adults who long ago graduated are scratching their heads asking, “What kinds of jobs will be available a few years from now, and what skills do I need to be employable?” Full Forbes post.

28 Oct 2014


 IBM is having a Kodak moment, but not the kind that brings beautiful memories. Last week IBM reported an ugly earnings picture for the third quarter, bringing the company’s string of consecutive quarterly losses to 10. Its lagging performance has forced IBM to acknowledge long-promised growth for 2015 would fall far short of expectations, sending its stock reeling.  It’s clear that the strategic roadmap former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano handed to successor Virginia Rometty in 2012 has stalled out. This concerning growth gap leaves IBM at a tipping point which mirrors the slow decline of another iconic tech giant, Kodak. Full Forbes post.  

3 Oct 2014


As the third anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death approaches, it seems time has etched his legacy ever more deeply into our collective consciousness. In grappling with his absence, we somehow expand our understanding of what made Jobs so extraordinary in life. Every launch of a new Apple product since October 2011 has prompted the comment, ‘Would Steve Jobs have done that?’ And it sets us wondering. Reflecting on Jobs’ unique innovation style often spurs comparisons to another great American innovator – Thomas Edison. Many consider Steve Jobs the Thomas Edison of the modern era. What learning can we draw from these two innovation giants? Full post.

18 Sep 2014


Operating behind the scenes in roles often unrecognized by senior leadership, this unique group constitutes 7.6% of the US workforce – some 10.8 million people. An integral part of the ethos that makes companies excel, middle managers prove pivotal to the successful launch of any new product, service, or business platform. So crucial is the role of the middle manager to daily operations that this cadre of workers is described by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist as “the most durable tech-proof profession out there.” Forbes post here

26 Aug 2014


As the summer tourism season draws to a close, Priceline is licking its chops. In June, Priceline acquired online dining reservations leader Open Table for $2.6 billion in cash, bringing a fresh round of innovation to its travel business. Pursuing a unique growth path versus online competitors Travelocity and Expedia, which have grown through expanding the flights and cities their services cover, Priceline is leveraging accelerating travel in Asia and at-table mobile payments, forming an enticing innovation concoction. Full post.

12 Aug 2014


There’s more to innovation than finding clever people and throwing them into a room in hopes that game-changing collaboration will follow. Today, to drive innovation and attract the best talent, it’s crucial to create workspaces that cater to diverse forms of collaboration. Organizations that fail to embrace the innovation power of collaborative workspace risk winding up in the digital dustbin.  Research from Steelcase confirms 4 innovation drivers that Thomas Edison intuitively employed in designing the world-famous Menlo Park laboratory. Read full Forbes post here.  

18 Jul 2014


Carving a new path through the US minimum wage debate, Starbucks recently announced plans to fund online college tuition for workers who log at least 20 hours per week at its cafes and roasting plants. Steaming competitor McDonald’s in the battle for hourly food service employees, Starbucks is redefining the minimum wage as a new platform for competitiveness.  McDonald’s, in contrast, has waffled at increases in minimum wage rates. The burger maker fails to see there are new ecosystems being built around the minimum wage today that will have strategic impact on its franchise health far into the future. Read full post.

12 Jun 2014


Few new CEOs have their corporate legacy defined within the first 100 days of their tenure. Generally months – even years – pass before it becomes clear how a rookie CEO’s actions will be gauged. Not so for newly crowned GM CEO Mary Barra, whose brief stint leading one of the world’s largest automakers has already faced bruising tests. Wide-reaching findings from an investigation into the faulty ignition switch design of a Chevrolet Cobalt model created over 10 years ago are now rippling through the GM. Rather than a traceable breakdown in specific engineering or manufacturing protocols, ‘cultural failings’ were cited as the source for the ignition switch problems. Read full Forbes post. 

25 June 2014


Ford CEO Alan MulallyIn less than one week, Alan Mulally will resign as CEO of Ford Motor Company after an 8-year run, packed with achievements and an innovation track record that should be the envy of every executive today. When Mulally steps down, Detroit will lose a true innovation leader.  Mulally’s turnaround of Ford will likely be studied by business students for years to come as an artful combination of needed financial belt-tightening, plus a cultural change that took the car and truck maker from the brink of bankruptcy to the forefront of growth in the U.S. auto industry. Read full Forbes post.

28 May 2014


Since the mid-1980s, almost everyone who has worked with a computer has used a Microsoft product. Innovations like Windows, Word, Excel and PowerPoint helped drive business activity at millions of companies, and cemented Microsoft as a founding member of the digital age. Microsoft helped usher-out carbon paper, typewriters, and secretarial pools. Though Microsoft’s place in history is certain, how the company innovates under new CEO Satya Nadella will define its future. What can Nadella do to reposition the company at the leading edge of computing?  Will Microsoft languish and become the next IBM, a legendary but now secondary player? Read full Forbes post

30 April 2014


Now that has crossed the 7 million subscriber threshold, lawmakers and contractors are drawing a collective breath. While it’s likely that more gremlins lurk for the beleaguered healthcare portal, software bandaids furiously applied prior to the March 31 enrollment deadline seem to be holding for now. 

The much-touted failings of the website offer a textbook example of how a lack of collaborationKathleen Sebelius Apr 2014 can deeply damage important projects – even careers. Just ask former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned April 11th after a tumultuous ride as head of the department responsible for delivering the website. Development of the site, a key part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was overseen by Sebelius and her team working closely with the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and numerous contractors. But all parties came up short. 

Whether or not you’re in favor of Obamacare itself, it’s hard to be neutral in observing the potholes that have plagued the project since it’s intended October 1, 2013 kickoff. Just weeks after the March 31, 2014 launch date, there are 3 core lessons project failures can teach us about why collaboration is so essential to innovation success. 

Remember…before you snicker at the ham-fisted efforts of the team, think about which of its failings may be symptomatic of your own organization. The lessons offered here stand as basic guidelines for any group endeavoring a broad scale initiative that draws together people who’ve never met, yet who must innovate effectively together.  

The first big fumble we see lies at the very start, with the mindset of the Powers That Be. This mindset focuses on “efficiency” as king. A holdover tenet of the Industrial Age, “efficiency” becomes a thorn when complex projects are in play. Executives then (and now) are typically trained to focus on efficiency as the primary goal of project leadership. Think of all the pressures that drive raw efficiency: Just In Time philosophies, Lean principles, Six Sigma guidelines. Senior leaders ask “Couldn’t you do all this with fewer people?” or “Why can’t you deliver this in 6 months rather than 16?“ Yes, it’s important to deliver the right outcome - but efficiency is not always the driver that gets you there, particularly when complexity reigns.  

Often missing from the mindset of leadership is an understanding that complex projects don’t operate on a task-driven basis. Instead of ticking off checklists and streams of tasks that indicate “what’s been accomplished,” a different gauge is needed when an innovation initiative is in play.  

Rather than being organized for efficiency, innovation projects must be organized for complexity. Complex projects rarely proceed as repeatable, linear efforts.  Discrete stages or legs of the project are tougher to delineate at the front end, especially when a team is endeavoring an initiative that is first-of-its-kind. Little or no history exists to offer guidelines that might advance the ball more rapidly for the project team. 

In the case of, we see a massive project with over 14 different contractors flailing away with poorly envisioned interface points and communications. was set up to be a plug-a-chug exercise with pods of code pasted together as the core of a complex website that would be visited, in many instances, by individuals who are not digitally savvy. Ensuring clarity of instructions, appropriate menus of options and explanations, and empathy for what the customer would be experiencing as they logged in and navigated the massive site were completely lacking.

Collaboration Lesson #1: When complexity is in play, don’t design the project structure as an uber efficient stream of tasks. Ensure that there are vehicles built in for dialogue, learning cycles, and a continuum of engagement options for teams serving the project.

A second lesson we can learn from the collaboration failures of involve gaps in the contextual learning available to project teams. None received a broader technical vision of the project beyond their own individual pod.  Gaps in contextual knowledge caused major delays in delivery timeline.  Even the most basic facets of the site’s design were lacking, including log-in and “search” features for the massive marketplace of healthcare providers – one of the innovation hallmarks of Obamacare itself. 

Often at the start of an engagement, contractors are given a ‘problem statement’ or a ‘scope of work’ (SOW) to run with. Unfortunately, sometimes this is as far as it goes. In the worst case, there is no additional background, no briefing (live, written or virtual) and no opportunity for contractors to interact and assess whether the problem statement or SOW is even on-target. Rarely does Contractor A have an opportunity to reframe their phase of a project within the context of what Contractor B is doing – even when those efforts may bear directly upon the quality of the outcome. 

Collaboration Lesson #2:  Allow contractors to learn from each other. The structure of large, complex projects actually requires more collaboration early in the game rather than later. Think of each contractor as a body that needs to be onboarded, and brought up to speed on the macro context of the project itself, not just their portion.

Sniping between contractors, subcontractors, and the mother team was well-documented by pundits and Congressional hearings.  While faulty work by any company is never an option, the churn-and-burn mindset that put “project completion” as the supreme outcome meant that questions got quashed. Dialogue was not encouraged. Without enabling contractors or individual project leaders to jointly learn – or ask questions – as project work progressed, the entire effort was put in jeopardy.   

A big chunk of the fault here lies with the government itself. Sebelius and her counterparts within CMS team did not scope out the project effectively. Even when faced with an innovation initiative that clearly entailed ‘moving mountains’ in a short time, no one from her staff sought input or resources from the business community to aid in creating appropriate questions – or a positive learning environment – for the contractors involved. 

Collaboration Lesson #3: When the scope of an initiative is large, it’s crucial that all parties involved recognize that discovery learning will be part of the process. It’s not all about the project checklist. Encourage teams to ask questions which yield new learning, speeding the entire project trajectory. By giving teams the opportunity to ask questions first – rather than jumping in with solutions and actions straightaway – they will be more deeply engaged in the outcome, and minimize the likelihood of costly errors.

Today, advanced nations must know how to build complex networks. They must be able to deliver virtual systems that are fully functional and operationally robust.  A 21st century US healthcare portal is the conceptual equivalent of a ‘power grid’ for the healthcare industry. If could not move nimbly out of the starting gate to enroll people and offer them new coverage, how is it going to handle billing problems? Or deal with provider squabbles? That shoe hasn’t even dropped yet.

Imagine Thomas Edison’s innovation dilemma over 130 years ago. In 1880, he had committed to the city fathers ofPearl Street Station New York that he would deliver a power station that could offer electricity to hundreds of residents in lower Manhattan in just two years. All his Wall Street investors would be watching. The media would be watching. He knew he would have to invent every single component of the system itself in that brief time frame - the power dynamos, the wiring, the voltage meters, the control dashboards, and more.

Yet Edison did not blink. To ensure nimbleness and speed, Edison created small teams to advance development of the individual technologies that would be required for the new system. These small teams had both experts and generalists, accelerating their ability to troubleshoot rapidly. The teams could even test their own componentry in small labs Edison established in Manhattan not far from the building site. Edison created ready access to resources so that his teams were not impeded in their goal to bring insight and skill to their portion of the project as well as the effort as a whole. Teams communicated with each other in the field through written messages delivered by courier – and sometimes by Edison himself. With Edison serving as a master catalyst and meta communicator across the teams, protocols were developed to address real-time “bugs” as well as integration of entire branches of the system. Each team knew the role of the other teams. 

The depth and breadth of collaboration across Edison’s network of teams enabled the power system to work perfectly from the moment Edison ‘flipped the switch.’  Today, any organization – public or private - that cannot collaborate effectively risks falling behind the innovation curve.  Without collaboration, complexity cannot be tackled.  The absence of collaboration has a multiplicative effect on time and cost.  Take up the collaboration lessons that the foibles of offer. Design your project teams for complexity. Allow them to learn in realtime, asking questions and developing context that propels a robust outcome. The collaboration pitfalls of which were clearly avoidable.  Innovators like Edison knew it a century ago.

19 March 2014


I recently attended the 2014 Open Innovation Conference in Baltimore along with a deep bench of senior executives from Intel, Amazon, Under Armour, Pfizer, Clorox and other leading companies.  As an official social media voice for the event, I had a unique opportunity to track themes across a content-packed 2-days.  

To my surprise, insights emerging from this intense 48-hour event offer benefits not only the Open Innovation (OI) community, but those of us who primarily navigate the ‘Closed Innovation’ realm as well. In fact, I would estimate that 85% of the content of the OI conference applied equally to folks who champion the innovation process inside their companies and never actually take on an OI role. 

From Open to Seamless InnovationInterestingly, many of the OI projects described by the presenters are akin to social innovation initiatives.  Unilever in particular is endeavoring huge open innovation programs impacting communities as well as nation-wide resource use in Asia. This struck me as a far different ‘innovation exercise’ than one we would have heard about even 5 years ago. In fact, Unilever is championing the term ‘seamless innovation’ – a combination of closed and open innovation that permeates an entire organization and its activities.  

As a joyful aside, it was thrilling to note that 10 of the 21 presenters were senior women in their organizations, many with PhDs. (A photo later in this piece includes many of them.) Here are 7 core innovation lessons I took away from the OI conference:

1. Open innovation is increasingly viewed as an area of competitive distinction. Although we often shower accolades on organizations that grow their innovation advantage internally, firms that wrangle success in OI are viewed by peer organizations as leading players in their industries.  Rather than indicating that internal strategies are failing, OI success now means that companies are wising up and becoming more agile.  OI success offers firms newfound abilities to pivot rapidly into diverse business models, distant geographies, as well as gain access to new target audience groups and technology platforms.  Increasingly, as voiced by Dr. Sophia Zhou, head of research and Clinical Decision Support Solutions for North America at Philips, “Open innovation is part of our way of working…We create a unique market position by combining external input with our own innovation skills.” 

2. “In order to drive change, you need to offer something.” OI today is really a form of change management. Svetlana Dimovski, manager for Open Innovation with BASF USA, has learned that in order to attract the best people to her OI practice area, she must offer something in return. Dimovski emphasized that actual training around what opening innovation is and how it works has been a key magnetizing point to draw top internal talent. BASF has assembled an entire cadre of tools embracing licensing opportunities, scouting techniques, leads management, and more.  Their proactive efforts in driving increased access to what an OI ecosystem involves has yielded “greater engagement around innovation, more explosiveness of thinking, action, and momentum.” This momentum has begun driving cultural change within the sphere of influence each project wields. Thinking about my own research on Edison’s world-changing practices, this concept offers parallels to how information traveled from Thomas Edison’s laboratories to his manufacturing partners. When “microcultures of innovation” begin to connect, a dynamic new fabric is formed. 

3. OI champions need to stay with their initiatives from funding to proof-of-concept. Many false starts were experienced by OI teams that completed one too many baton hand-offs over the course of their projects. Rather than collaborating and bringing competencies onto their internal team, several failure stories emerged from groups that delegated responsibilities too broadly rather than grooming areas of deep internal knowledge. This point was emphasized by Barbara Sosnowski, VP of Worldwide R&D at Pfizer. As pharmaceutical companies move further away from the ‘blockbuster drug’ model to drive revenues, they have now been forced to generate new innovation competencies within their internal teams. Team leaders are thus often behaving differently when they reach out to external partners, actually staying with an initiative all the way from funding to proof-of-concept. This ensures that passion and key insights are not lost as the project progresses. Sosnowski indicates this new trajectory has enabled Pfizer to have a better view of which projects are at an early stage, mid-stage or in a final stage of product development with key partners. The term given to this new approach is “strategic externalization.”

Women Innovation Execs 20144. Senior technical contributors are crucial to open innovation success. One question on the minds of every attendee was “How do I create a successful OI team?” Dr. Victoria Scarborough, Director for Open Innovation at Sherwin Williams, hit this issue head-on, and her message resonated across the entire two-day session. She noted that senior technical people must be present on the OI team – particularly in mature industries – as they have the respect of others in their field, they often hold strong business knowledge and not just technical knowledge, and they are more willing to personally accept responsibility for politically navigating the OI process. This latter point proved a crucial differentiator between success and failure for OI teams in every industry group. Because open innovation means that team exchanges are happening at multiple levels in an organization, OI today is also increasingly a driver of change management flowing from the center upward and outward. It goes deeper than ‘just doing projects successfully.’ OI now entails reweaving the fabric of the firm one project at a time, with senior technical contributors serving as major catalysts. 

5. Open innovation + Closed innovation = Seamless innovation. Dr. Shimei Fan, R&D Director of Open Innovation at Unilever, brought home the reality that “Abundance is over.” She emphasized that with global R&D budgets declining in real dollars over the past 10 years, many R&D teams have been required to shift perspective on where they can influence the business when joining with external partners. At Unilever, open innovation has meant a shift toward a cradle-to-grave mindset which impacts not only revenues and profit, but the entire means of undertaking production in its partnered ecosystem. “We are working toward a marriage of open innovation with closed innovation to create seamless innovation. Our aim is to achieve seamless innovation by 2025.”

Open innovation projects at Unilever have newly directed how the entire organization buys, uses, and distributes products. Unilever is intensely mindful of its water usage, waste stream, and emission of greenhouse gases across the globe. In undertaking OI initiatives with Dow Chemical, for example, “External R&D” teams have remapped the environmental impact of palm oil groves and palm oil production in Asia.  A complete reexamination of how the organization uses clean energy for manufacturing and reduced land usage for actual palm fields has also led to a lower carbon footprint and more favorable environmental impact. As well, this new mindset has yielded the creation of new metrics, such as examining social implications rather than just raw ‘cost’ or ‘revenue.’  For example, in its partnership with TaTa on developing clean water for rural India, Unilever’s OI effectiveness has included focus on reduced rates of diarrhea, eye infections, and respiratory ailments. Dr. Fan commented, “Using open innovation, we are working to ensure that every child in India can reach the age of 5 and be healthy enough to go to school.” Even 5 years ago, those objectives would likely never have shown up as a form of ‘innovation ROI.’ 

6. Ensure you are constructing a ‘sponsor spine.’  Among the many war stories shared at the conference, one in particular stood out. Luis Solis, President of Imaginatik North America, described failures of projects that did not consciously construct what he termed a ‘sponsor spine.’ A sponsor spine refers to the massive network that links scientists, executives, thinkers, champions, and passionate team members so crucial to the success of an individual innovation effort. Luis emphasized that this sponsor spine must touch all constituencies linked to an OI project team.  In fact, counter to our often-insistent desires for efficiency, Luis urged “building redundancy into the system.”  Due to mobility of executives and things like budget shifts or team re-designs, holes are likely to develop in sections of the spine over time. The spine itself must always thus remain a focus for the OI project team.  “Some teams start in the middle, get their project underway, but never connect it to any other part of the organization. Those teams typically fail.” In urging executives to organize for innovation, Luis was actually emphasizing a precept that Thomas Edison continually reinforced. By organizing for complexity (like connected networks) rather than efficiency (like hierarchies that move in lockstep), the work of innovation can be accomplished more rapidly. 

7. “Data allows development of infrastructure in minutes rather than weeks.” Emphasizing that the prevalence of public data has transformed the ability of small internal teams to reach out and rapidly build something entirely new, Amazon Web Services guru Frank DiGiammarino pointed to the OI ecosystems created by growth companies like Netflix, OpenTable, and Kiva (as well as – of course – Amazon). Here’s the comment Frank made which still rings in my ears: “You can scale innovation in a moment’s notice.”  Today, small teams can act solo or link up with external partners to provide a ‘big infrastructure’ feel to their idea.  Citing as an example (a website whose developers are based in Singapore), Onemap developed a toolkit allowing diverse partners to build collaborative platforms using their public data, and easily bring others into new projects. Now that’s collaboration! DiGiammarino noted, “We are encouraging all of our clients to bring public data into one frame.” 

Although the OI movement has gained considerable traction over the past few years, one big gap remains. Not a single presenter offered a definition of what collaboration is, nor how they consistently exercise collaborative activity in their innovation efforts. I was disappointed to hear “teamwork” and “collaboration” equated as identical animals over and over again. Some real focus is needed on that front to help leaders discern the difference. 

But there is no gap in the heart, knowledge, and courage of the OI community today. Clearly, heading toward seamless innovation is an important goal that will yield integration of key OI tools with core resources resident within organizations themselves. As seasoned innovator HP Director of R&D Chris Kruger commented, “Don’t dilute the innovation message. Stay with it to the very end.”  Thomas Edison couldn’t have said it better.

31 January 2014


One unique shift accompanying the global proliferation of smart devices is the ability of small teams to become more self-directed. Rather than requiring hovering managers to scrutinize their every move, it’s possible for small teams to be guided through catalysts rather than seasoned ‘leaders.’ This is especially true when these small teams are embarking on an innovation-related objective. 

 Catalysts are those people in your organization who show up to meetings and  good things happen.  They are the people who draw out the best in others with  seemingly little effort.  Employees brighten in their presence, rolling up their  sleeves a few inches higher.  For team members who tend to be on the quiet  side, catalysts perk them up and offer unique ways to get them talking, writing  and contributing.  Catalysts effectively draw reluctant employees out of their  comfort zone into new ways of thinking. This is what makes them especially  valuable to the innovation process.

Don't simply label catalysts as "the cool people” in your organization.  There are four qualities you’ll want to intentionally seek out to determine if an individual can truly function as a catalyst in an innovation endeavor: 

1) Optimism
2) Collegiality
3) Expertise relevant to the team or organization
4) Communication that inspires

The key value of catalysts lies in their ability to transform the actions of others, to transform their thinking styles or work styles in ways that create alignment rather than disengagement. In an era where markets and business models are morphing at lightning speed, catalysts can help you innovate and drive organic change within your organization faster than having outside parties come in and tell you what to do. Let’s examine each of the four qualities that define a catalyst.


Catalysts propelled Thomas Edison and his teams to extraordinary innovation success during the most intense period of innovation in US history. In my research for new book Midnight Lunch, I identified four qualities these catalysts consistently exhibit – all of which Edison himself embodied. The qualities you can seek out in your workforce today.

Optimism aids in developing a mindset of ‘new possibilities.’ Do not mistake optimism for blind faith, or smarmy acceptance of the company line. Optimists are individuals who hold a belief that powerful new things can be accomplished when ingenuity and resources are brought to bear. They are often adventurers tempered by the realities of what it takes to get things done.  Optimists offer a valuable balance to the often more prevailing mantras which cause people to ‘stay in the box’ and simply accept the status quo. Warning: Those individuals who hold a glass-half-empty view of their work cannot serve as catalysts. They will drag others down with them, and jeopardize team momentum, especially when the going gets tough.

Catalysts foster collegiality by creating an environment of contribution. One Holy Grail every leader seeks is the magic elixir concocted when team members are bonded, aligned, and consistently offering their best thinking. Collegiality is created when team members feel their ideas are being heard even if they are not always adopted.  Catalysts aid groups in creating respect for each member, offering feedback and objectivity when necessary. Respect flows from these exchanges, the kind of respect that transforms the willingness of employees to contribute to each other – and to the team as a whole. Catalysts enable team members to become colleagues rather than cogs. 

Expertise of the catalyst drives new learning across all members of a team. Most often, catalysts hold expertise in some area respected by a group. This expertise can lie in most any area – even when the catalyst holds a non-technical background, for example, and is working with technical individuals. To be a true catalyst, the area of expertise held must in some way be translated to learning within the team that he or she is part of. In turn, the catalyst will take on new learning from those in the broader group. This two-way learning exchange is a critical part of what defines a catalyst from a ‘mere’ subject matter expert. Catalysts expand a group’s passion for learning, even when the area of learning differs from the catalyst’s own knowledge base. In this respect, catalysts can become one of the most important drivers of a culture of innovation. 

Catalysts communicate at both an aspirational and a motivational level. According to a recent study conducted by noted leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, catalysts touch cords in others which connect to a broader vision. Often, their communications also offer a pathway toward a vision which the individual can grasp for their own purposes.  Catalysts are adept at making emotional connections even if their words are not perfect, their style is not ultra polished. Zenger and Folkman note catalysts are “better at establishing a clear vision…(and) more effective in their communication and willing to spend more time communicating.” They are ardent champions of change, and are perceived as effective role models within an organization.  We can see in the legendary Steve Jobs an extraordinary catalyst who modeled these qualities.  


Catalysts offer a unique human capital resource for leaders today – especially in the realm of innovation. Rather than feeling that you must consistently assign employees who have served long tenures within an organization to an innovation effort – as has often been past practice – search for the catalysts in  your company to help populate your innovation teams.  They can be found in virtually any echelon within a company, save for the very entry level.  

Importantly, as we see from Edison’s laboratory, catalysts can also work side-by-side on different types of initiatives. Edison deployed catalysts Charles Batchelor and Reginald Fessenden to galvanize new thinking around incandescence and other challenges. It’s even possible to have multiple catalysts on the same team, operating at different times, serving to bring their unique expertise at points in a project with those perspectives may be most important. 

For your next wave of innovation activity, rather than having a single designated ‘team leader’, consider having multiple catalysts working together in propelling a team forward. By being exposed to the transformational work of catalysts, other employees will offer up their best thinking, expanding the change capacity of an organization, and increasing its nimbleness. Value your catalysts like gold, and give them hands-on opportunities to work with projects that can transform your company. 


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Build Competitive Advantage Through Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation

Sarah works with organizations that want to bring innovative thinking to their everyday work practices so they can accelerate growth and create relevance. Drawing upon the innovation methods that drove Edison's proven success, Sarah guides you to build competitive advantage by:

  • Inspiring you to think like an innovator
  • Creating a common language for innovation across your team or organization
  • Identifying growth platforms which deliver profitable new products and services
  • Creating true collaboration
  • Developing creative problem-solving skills.

What processes for innovation do you have in place?  Sarah will show you how you can begin to Innovate Like Edison starting now. 


Build Competitive Advantage Using Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation™

We work with organizations that want to ​develop new innovation capability, driving growth and creating relevance. Drawing upon the timeless innovation methods that propelled Edison's success, contact us for a consultation about how our live and virtual innovation training programs, workshops, and collaboration experiences can help your teams:

  • Think and work like innovators
  • Create a common language for innovation
  • Identify growth platforms for profitable new products and services
  • Create true collaboration
  • Develop creative problem-solving skills

What processes for innovation do you have in place? Contact us to learn how you can begin to Innovate Like Edison starting now.