Learn to innovate like Thomas Edison, pioneer ‘Design Thinker’

| August 14, 2013

Now more than ever it is essential that businesses learn and embed the skills of successful innovators. Sarah Colley explains Design Thinking used by the likes of Thomas Edison.

Humans are innovative by nature – it is hardwired into our very DNA. We have innovated to survive, and to improve the quality of our lives.

When we ventured out of the caves we quickly innovated by using simple rocks as daggers and spears for protection. Some 50,000 years ago we harnessed fire for warmth, cooking and safety. Several thousand years ago we made advances in knowledge of the natural world in mathematical terms which gave rise to innovations in building techniques that saw the rise of ancient civilizations and the building of temples, churches, palaces, pyramids and monuments.

We began to move away from a nomadic lifestyle and started living in relatively stable populations. Under these more stable conditions humans made literally countless innovations building upon the knowledge, discoveries and inventions of successive generations. Innovation was a necessity to ensure our very survival.

Modern Business Innovation: The Birth of ‘Design Thinking’
Rapid advancements in scientific knowledge during the 18th Century saw a renaissance in innovation. People started to think about a system of innovation that lead to the establishment of the US Patent system and Trademark System. These systems evolved from an understanding that innovation would be a critical part of the world’s economic engine.

The 20th Century gave rise to a more mature understanding of the innovation process itself and lead to commercialisation and commoditisation of many scientific discoveries of the prior century. Previously human innovations were not commodities to be exploited for business – previously we innovated out of necessity.

One of the most successful business innovators of modern times was Thomas Edison. Edison was committed to developing new products and processes and has the most registered patients (over 1000) in the world.  Understanding the thinking and methods deployed by the likes of Edison helps us to understand the process of successful business innovation today.

Many know Edison for his invention of the light bulb. However, Edison knew that the light bulb alone was nothing more than a ‘parlor trick’ (Brown, 2008). Edison’s true innovative genius was his ability to conceive of, and invent, an entire industry of power generation and supply that would deliver electricity to the homes of everyday people.

Tim Brown, Founder of IDEO wrote “Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered toward that insight.”

Edison’s method of innovation is an early example of what is now called ‘Design Thinking’.

Design Thinking is an innovation processes that encompasses the full array of innovation activities with a human-centered focus. Human-centered innovation is powered by gaining a thorough understanding of what customers really want and need in their lives. It tells us what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported (Brown, 2008) which is achieved through direct observation and interaction.

Current Economic Climate: The Need to Innovate
Now more than ever it is essential that businesses learn and embed the skills of successful innovators, like Edison, to survive and thrive in the global competitive marketplace.

In recent times Australia weathered the worst of the GFC quit well in part due to the strong ongoing demand for resources from China. However, as China now takes steps to deliberately slow its economic growth, the resource boom for Australia has slowed from a boil to a simmer. Contrary to what we may fear however, this does not necessarily mean doom and gloom for Australian mid sized businesses.

Robert Rowthorn, Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge, wrote a report on the future for SME’s back in 2007. He wrote “If there is a significant decline in mineral and energy prices and a depreciation of the real exchange rate, non-minerals and energy SME’s will find it easier to sell their goods and services in export markets.” This is the exact circumstance we find ourselves in right now.

To survive and thrive in the current economic climate, Rowthorn suggests that SMEs must strive to continually raise productivity, and hence international competitiveness, by embedding skills to innovate their products, services and the way do business.

To capitalise on current market conditions many forward thinking businesses are looking to learn and embed new skills to innovate their businesses products and services.

The application of Design Thinking processes, applied by Edison and refined by the people at Stamford University and IDEO, can help increase your businesses capacity to create new knowledge and find new ways of doing business which some say is the key to success in this, the global century.

Design Thinking is helping businesses like Proctor and Gamble, and many others around the world, transform challenges into opportunities, risks into rewards by helping unlock insights that drive the creation of better products, services, and customer experiences.

Come join us for our workshop in Brisbane on 19 and 20 September to learn, experience and apply Design Thinking to your business to help you innovate, survive and thrive.

Dr. Sarah Colley is a change and innovation psychologist, specialising in the application of psychology to organisational settings. She has studied psychology and the human mind for over 12-years and is a member of the Australian Psychological Association. Sarah has spent the past eight-years developing and applying innovative psychological processes to organisational workplaces to enhance innovation, culture, leadership and team effectiveness. Sarah has worked across a range of industries including museums, government, mining, explosives, energy, smelting, and shipping. Her work has taken her across America, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, where she has worked with operational staff through to senior executives. At Pockets of Brilliance Sarah leads a team of talented psychologists who work as business collaborators. Pockets of Brilliance apply insights from psychology, neuroscience and human-centered design to help organisation innovate, create and transform the way they do business.