Was Steve Jobs the Thomas Edison of his day?


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A descendant of Thomas Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott is an innovation process expert, innovation author and CEO of Power Patterns. Inspired by a family lineage of inventors dating back five generations, she has been engaged in creativity and innovation throughout her life.  Sarah spent the first 15 years of her 25-year career as a Marketing executive with Global 500 firms including Quaker Oats and the Helene Curtis subsidiary of Unilever. As a leader of global innovation teams, Sarah was responsible for major brand launches in the US, Europe, and Asia. She co-authored the first book ever written on Edison’s innovation process, titled Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success.  But the book that fascinated me was Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab.

An excerpt from next week’s podcast:

Joe:  Was Steve Jobs the Thomas Edison of his day? What are some of the similarities and differences?

Sarah: Well, it’s a great question and I get asked this question frequently as you might imagine. I think Steve Jobs had many of the qualities that Thomas Edison displayed. There are certainly similarities and differences. Among the similarities is the notion of being a catalyst – somebody who could get other people to contribute their best ideas to really work beyond the limits of what they thought they were capable of, in terms of their contribution and in terms of the ways that they could contribute to the team. Catalysts are so crucial to our work environments now, and Steve Jobs really was that.

Another way that Edison and Jobs are similar was their willingness to tackle big new areas that no one had undertaken before – looking for that white space, as we might call it today. Places where or people had not been creating new ideas or breakthroughs. Certainly Jobs did this with iTunes; he did this with the iPod and the iPhone. We could go back into the Mac and look at how he brought his ideas together for the Mac. Foundational different ways of thinking that transformed how people used products and services. In these endeavors, he created platforms – this is also a similarity to Edison. If we look at the phonograph or the record, if we look at the movies, if we look at document duplication, these are platform concepts that actually accelerated the invention or innovation of other capabilities that went beyond them. So, developing new breakthrough platforms is also a commonality that Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison shared.

If we look at differences, I think there are some important ones here. Part of Edison’s focus was to actually teach his employees, to actually transmit learning to them and to help them self-develop. Edison had a huge library at the West Menlo Lab; it was, in fact, the fifth largest library in the world at that time. He encouraged people to move from one function to another in his companies, so these were all ways that Edison sought to be an educator if you will, and improve people’s learning capabilities.

We don’t see this so much with Jobs. I think he certainly had tremendous resources within his companies, but I don’t think he viewed himself as a mentor to others internally. A second difference that I would offer is that Edison really enjoyed working with providers to help them align with his own way of thinking, to help them improve their capabilities and their processes so they could do things – like help them manufacture the light bulb or produce motion pictures. Jobs certainly challenged his partnership network. He had people changing their processes and doing things that went well beyond what they thought their capabilities were. We can look at Gorilla glass, for example, at Corning, as one example of that – it’s been written up many times. But Jobs wasn’t the one who was working with them, he didn’t actually deploy people there to actually help them do that. So I think that’s part of the differences that we can see too.


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Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


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