Sarah Miller Caldicott, Speaker and Author of the newly released ‘Midnight Lunch’ and
and co-author of ‘Innovate Like Edison’
A great-grandniece of Thomas Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott has been engaged in creativity and innovation throughout her life. Inspired by a family lineage of inventors dating back five generations, Sarah began her 25-year career as a marketing executive with major brand-driven firms, including Quaker Oats and the Helene Curtis subsidiary of Unilever.
Concerned that America was losing its innovation leadership just as the new millennium dawned, Sarah spent three years researching Edison’s innovation methods with experts at Rutgers University. She co-authored the first book ever written on the subject of Edison’s world-changing innovation methods, entitled Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success. She is the CEO of The Power Patterns of Innovation, a consultancy which guides organizations of all sizes in applying Edison’s timeless methods today.
Takeaways from your childhood and life?
Sarah in her own words….
When I was growing up I was in the minority. It seemed like I always had different ideas from everyone else. Sometimes I voiced those ideas and other times, not.
As one observation, it seemed like the way I approached problems and situations was a bit uncommon. I had a different take on things. In college, for example, I self-designed my own major, stepping outside the box to pursue something no one else was doing. I found I consistently saw unique connections between things that others didn’t see.
I realize now it would have been helpful to know I was an innovator. I might have approached the decisions I made a bit differently. Who knows, I might have been able to stay in corporate life? (laughing)
I can’t recall if I was ever specifically encouraged to take risks, but I was definitely encouraged to follow my interests. My family considers me the “innovative and creative” one in our family circle, perhaps because I did so many things off the beaten path. And perhaps because I’ve written a book, people say “You’ve been true to things you love – you really stayed the course.”
The most important innovation I’ve been involved in was the book on Thomas Edison’s innovation process. It involved three years of research studying Edison’s approaches. I found myself seeing intriguing patterns, making connections in his work that had not been specifically linked before.
I’m not sure if I’m like other innovators or not. My impression is that many innovators are very stubborn and don’t listen well – perhaps I’m cut of that same cloth, I don’t know! Sometimes innovators just see things they are so passionate about that they have to do them – no matter what.
Innovators usually drive things harder than others because they are extremely interested and curious about new things. I find I like to pursue new subjects, and so did Edison – probably to a level that has not been equaled in modern history. For example, when experimenting with the light bulb, Edison was using bamboo filaments impregnated with carbon. Some of the carbon wound up on the interior face of the glass bulb. It was being thrown off the filament by the electrical current, but Edison wanted to understand why.
His findings about this process became known as “the Edison Effect,” and ultimately was logged as one of Edison’s basic research discoveries. It turns out the filament was casting off electrons as a result of interactions between the carbon and the electrical current. The carbon deposits showed up in certain patterns on the inside of the light bulb based on the shape of the filament itself. The findings from Edison’s breakthrough became the foundation of vacuum tube technology – impacting the understanding of how to selectively turn currents “on” and “off” in discrete parts of a larger process. So in a very real way, Edison was the father of modern electronics.
Sarah ‘s advice for being more innovative and increasing innovative capacity…
I find that most of my better ideas start with small insights that I write down, then expand on. I keep a notebook, review my ideas, and use a ton of Post-It® notes. My family can vouch for that! This system creates visual reminders for me about what my insights were weeks, months – even years – ago. Sometimes I believe I’ve thought of something new, and then I find I’ve already recorded something similar in my notebook. When I see clusters and patterns like that, it generally is a sign that the idea has some staying power.
For the 5% of the business population who are innovators, we need mini support groups to help us see — and articulate – the unique skill sets we have.
When selling an idea, it’s challenging to simply plop down your report and say, “Here is my idea, now you go make it profitable and successful.” Innovators need to understand that many ideas take time to break through. It’s important to scout for people with the behaviors and mindset that will connect with yours inside an organization, and then learn how to engage them and sell to them.
Successful innovators also need to understand that the ability to fulfill customer needs – rather than just a good idea in itself – provides a guide to senior leaders in what gets a “yes” or “no” decision. If you can’t articulate how your concept connects to customer needs, your chances of being heard are smaller.
Overall, I would say that innovators need to learn to present their ideas more effectively, and learn how to create a collaborative community where others can contribute to their overall activity.
Sometimes being an innovator means everything moves more slowly than you’d like. You feel like you’re making zero progress. I have a phrase for that – I call it “moving the peanut forward.” If I can see even a little turn in the peanut each day, by the end of a month, I’ve moved the peanut by a whole foot. That feels like progress! And sometimes, that’s all you need to keep motivated and continue ahead just one more day.