During a recent team intervention which we were facilitating, one of the participants was sharing his views on teams and individual contributors , his point of view being that history remembers only instances of individuals overcoming trying circumstances to achieve the impossible – we rarely to get hear stories about teams doing the same. We discussed numerous stories ranging from sport, history and science where individuals have battled seemingly insurmountable obstacles to come out on top. That got me curious, were some of these success stories possible only due to individual effort or did they have the backing of “teams” behind them? And some of the stuff we found was mind boggling to say the least. This is the story of one such team…
Heard of Francis Jehl, Ludwig Boehm, John Kruesi, Francis Upton, Charles Batchelor, John Lawson or Martin Force? No? But you would surely have heard of Thomas Edison? Well, this was the team who made Edison’s dream of electric bulb, a practical reality. Thomas Edison, arguably the most brilliant inventor the world has ever seen, is renowned for his innumerable scientific accomplishments – his inventions still form the basis of many modern day devices and technologies. Some of his greatest contributions to the world of science can be read here. What is the image that comes to mind when you hear the words “brilliant inventor”? A lonely figure with glasses tinkering away in a dimly lit room? In Edison’s case, you would be way off the mark! His greatest successes came as a result of teams of researchers who worked collaboratively on projects, in a state of the art laboratory in Menlo Park!
These groups/teams have been referred to as “Muckers” by some scholars – the name being derived from an initiative driven by Edison to produce a new type of brick which would not absorb moisture! You can read more about the origin of Muckers here.
Their successes are well documented, with inventions ranging from the electric bulb to motion pictures. So what made this team tick?
Edison prided himself on selecting the right people in the team, in fact the selection procedures for working in Edison’s team at Menlo Park are the stuff of legend. You can read some of the questions here which people applying for work at the Menlo Park Laboratory had to go through! These included abstract problem solving to on the spot mechanical conundrums! There is perhaps a lesson here for modern day organizations as well – selecting the right team members is in itself a strong determinant of the team’s success. Getting the wrong people together in a project and then exhorting them to display team work might be a waste of precious time and resources
Scientists across the world had been trying to crack the problem of creating an electric bulb from the early 19th century, however most of them worked alone in their laboratories across the world in complete isolation from each other. Edison’s team selection brought together a collection of brilliant minds who tackled different aspects of the problem collaboratively – and in the process learned from each other by cross-pollinating ideas. Take Edison’s dream of the electric bulb – the prototype was designed by one team member, built by another and tested by a different team of researchers! Needless to say, ten brilliant minds working together are much more likely to solve a problem than ten working in isolation
Edison was known for being a tough taskmaster, but interestingly there are enough instances in team members’ recollections of their times together of his efforts to strengthen the bond between people. Some of the documented instances range from ordering dinner for everyone working late night together to playing music after a tiring day’s work – these created a lot of magical moments that boosted camaraderie. In the words of Francis Jehl, “Our lunch always ended with a cigar, and I may mention here that although Edison was never fastidious in eating, he always relished a good cigar, and seemed to find in it consolation and solace. . . . It often happened that while we were enjoying the cigars after our midnight repast, one of the boys would start up a tune on the organ and we would sing together, or one of the others would give a solo…… The irrepressible spirit of humor in the old days, although somewhat strenuous at times, caused many a moment of hilarity which, seemed to refresh the boys, and enabled them to work with renewed vigor after its manifestation”
Lost somewhere in the myriad successful inventions that came out of Menlo Park are the thousands of designs and prototypes that the world never saw – simply because they were failed attempts. The legend goes that Edison’s labs conducted more than 10,000 experiments before they got the design of the nickel battery perfect! Truly “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration!” When asked about the high number of failed designs, Edison is reported to have retorted “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.
Edison’s “invention factory” in Menlo Park was built on the solid foundations of collaboration and team work. Popular authors Gostick and Elton(Authors of “The Carrot Principle” & “The Orange Revolution”) describe this as “espirit de corps” , an indomitable bond shared by “Edison’s Muckers” – who worked and played together while sharing the same goals. Maybe this is what Edison himself was referring to when he said “I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favor of the kings of the world.”
Does your team have the espirit de corps to shrug off a failure and try again till the goals are met? Are there similar teams out there which have inspired you? Do share your thoughts…
Check out our other parts of “Stories of Great Teams”: