Why Edison Was Wrong

August 7, 2009  

Last night I had an enlightening conversation with Alph Bingham, the co-founder of InnoCentive from Eli Lilly.  This guy is fascinating!

Alph suggested that many people do not like open innovation (external crowd sourcing) because it runs counter to a widely held belief of the R&D community.  Researchers often throw around the Edison quote, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Researchers use this quote because it “validates” the iterative development innovation process; the cornerstone of most R&D departments.  They have convinced themselves that they learn as much from their failures as they do from their successes.  Call it what you want, the 700 attempts were failures.

When some R&D people look at open innovation, they see it as linear rather than iterative: post a challenge and get a solution.  This seems inconsistent with their belief in learning from failures.

Alph made the point that in the R&D world, the value of iterative development is overrated.

What if Edison found a solution to the light bulb challenge on the first try?  Would that be bad?  Would he have continued to find the 700 ways that did not work?  Did the 700 failures really add that much value?  Can R&D organizations afford to fail 700 times?  Not in today’s competitive environment.

Alph suggested that open innovation is a massively parallel process where failures and successes happen at the same time.  You post a challenge and you get dozens or hundreds of solutions.  Some won’t work.  But all you need is one solution that does work.  And with open innovation, you only pay only for the solutions that do work.  Failures cost you nothing in terms of time and money.  With internal iterative development, you pay for the successes and the failures.  Do you really learn enough from your failures to justify the extra cost and time involved?

Alph’s perspective is fascinating and I fully agree with him for analytical/deterministic challenges.  Creative challenges and their solutions, on the other hand, often can’t be proven correct until they are tried out in the real world.  Iterative development – via small and scaling experiments – may still be the best approach for solving less deterministic problems.  I call this approach the “build it, try it, fix it” model.  Having said that, the iterations could potentially be staged as a series of open innovation challenges that continue to refine concepts until they are market ready.  This would be a massively parallel iterative creative development.  Very cool.

This got me thinking about a conversation I had with an executive from Chrysler many years ago while I was working at Accenture.  I asked him who he felt his biggest competition would be in the future.  He pointed at me and said, “You.”  Although he was half-joking, it’s true that the role of car manufacturers these days is less about manufacturing and more about integration.  The Accentures of the world are masterful at integration.

And maybe this integration skill is the MOST important skill for your organization to have.

As platforms like InnoCentive continue to grow, problem solving of all types –creative and analytical – will be outsourced in a massive parallel way to a huge network for solvers.  If we take this to an extreme where all challenges are outsourced via crowdsourcing, the role of a company would only be to integrate these solutions together into a seamless offering.

Although this is easier said than done, this one skill may be critical for the survival of your business…and maybe even the US economy.

China and India have a growing base of highly educated engineers and experts.  Eastern European countries and parts of Asia have large creative bases.  The world is truly flat.  And all of these countries have people who are willing to work for pennies on the dollar.

If we try to beat these countries at their game, we will lose.  We could never educate enough people.  And even if we could, our workforce would probably not be willing to labor for lower wages.

Integration is the key.  Yes it is difficult.  And that is good news.  While the rest of the world is focused on the trees (the point solutions to specific challenges), we need to become masterful at defining the forest (the strategy, architecture, and integration of the point solutions).  This is where value is created.  And this is much harder to outsource.

It reminds me of something from my 24/7 Innovation book I wrote back in 2001…

“(As innovators,) we are architects of companies and industries.  An architect is not a ‘reengineer.’ To illustrate this point, I often ask clients what is the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, a reengineering consultant, and an architect. The optimist looks at a half filled glass of water and sees it as half-full. The pessimist looks at the same glass and sees it as half-empty.  The reengineering consultant sees too much glass. Cut off the top. Downsize. An architect looks at the same glass and asks questions such as ‘Who’s thirsty?’ ‘Why water?’ Or ‘Is there another way to satisfy the thirst?’ It is this questioning, challenging and rethinking that differentiates architects from those who rearrange the deck chairs on The Titanic.”

Find solutions everywhere.  Embrace open innovation.  And think like an architect. Ask the difficult questions.  Assess what matters most.  And build a core competency around integrating point solutions.

Remember, we are no longer in the tree business…we are in the forest business.

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14 Responses to “Why Edison Was Wrong”

  1. Twitted by chuckfrey on August 7th, 2009 2:49 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by chuckfrey [...]

  2. Stephen Shapiro on Edison’s 700 non-failures « Raz’s Blog on August 8th, 2009 4:34 am

    [...] Shapiro on Edison’s 700 non-failures By Roland Turner Stephen Shapiro makes the point that the tendency by R&D organisations to puppet Edison’s famous claim are essentially [...]

  3. Roland Turner on August 8th, 2009 4:34 am

    You’ve missed another important consequence of having large numbers of people [able to] look at a problem (other than just “how much it costs you”).

    The odds that the each of the people best able to fix all of the different problems that come up in a project (soonest, least effort, most correct result, most efficient result, ….) are present in a single organisation are vanishingly small. This is the basis of Torvalds’ “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” mentality and the immense lead that open-source projects have over most closed-source ones on robustness and security.

    There are, of course, other qualitative aspects of what gets delivered that matter (performance/efficiency, fit-and-finish) that are often served very poorly by this approach.

    I suspect that similar benefits and limits apply to crowd-sourcing in other domains.

  4. Steve Shapiro on August 10th, 2009 11:47 am

    Roland. Thanks for your comment. You are correct. There are many other benefits of open innovation and crowdsourcing. I was only looking to highlight one instance.

    A big advantage is diversity of the solver community. If you have 100 chemist working on a problem, will adding the 101st really add that much value? But if you added people from different background, it increases the likelihood of the problem being solved.


  5. Wally Bock on August 10th, 2009 2:12 pm

    Nice, provocative piece. The art of innovation in a connected world is often keeping the process open during the observation and comments phase, then narrowing it down to make some changes, then opening it again. The crowd is not always wise, even if more eyeballs spot more problems.

    Ironically, it’s entirely possible that Edison never said that famous quote. It’s quoted in too many ways, with too many different numbers, and I don’t think anyone’s actually sourced it.

  6. Stephen Shapiro on August 10th, 2009 3:17 pm

    Wally…thanks for the comment. Good point about “oscillating” in an out of divergent and convergent thinking (if that is what you were suggesting).

    And so true about the Edison quote. He failed either 700 times, 1000 times, or 10,000 times. Regardless, I think we can be certain he did not find a solution on the first try.

    The oldest quote I could find was… “Failed? — why we haven’t failed, we only know the thousands of ways that won’t work.” As paraphrased in Proceedings of the Regular Meeting (1924) by The Association of American Railroads, Car Service Division, p. 23, source http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison


  7. Tudor on August 11th, 2009 12:51 am

    Important issue: Not sure if the debate risks making Edison a straw man. Not sure if Big Pharma is really embracing Open innovation. In practice, the dreaded innovation funnel still dominates thinking and its actions.

    “The big question for Big Pharma: Is the pipeline metaphor for drug discovery and exploitation no longer fit for purpose? And if so, where do we look for a more appropriate metaphor? ”


  8. Tanveer Naseer on August 11th, 2009 1:34 pm

    Stephen, thanks for sharing your thoughts from what must have been a stimulating conversation. Your perspective on Edison’s famous quote is a refreshing one since it doesn’t point out that he learned anything from those failures other than the approach didn’t work. And as you said, if you succeed on the first attempt, what did you lose by not having failed 700 times other than time and resources.

    Of course, I think the notion of failure has become somewhat confused, where some think you should aim for failure in order to succeed where in fact the point should be to not be afraid of failure on your road to succeed. With the global economy in troubled waters these days, it’s understandable that some companies would want to shy away from any innovations that might fail. However, I don’t think companies should aim to fail simply because they think that it will somehow lead to success. If we could ask Edison about his quote, I’m sure he’d clarify that if he had the option, he’d have preferred to have solved the light bulb design on the 7th try and not the 700th.

    Again, a very-thought provoking post, Stephen. Thanks for sharing.


  9. Renee Hopkins on August 18th, 2009 12:55 pm

    Stephen, I really enjoyed reading this, especially after the conversation on this subject we had last week. I wonder now though if part of the answer of whether these 700 attempts were failures might be in how they were conceived in the first place. If Edison had set them up as experiments, testing different parts of the solution, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken as many? I do feel strongly that the success of iterative development depends on exactly the type of integration you describe late in the post, and for me that integration would include a more structured approach to the iteration, in the form of a specific test-and-learn strategy.

  10. Toby Elwin on August 21st, 2009 3:05 pm

    Since I read, “The Future of Ideas” I have found myself continually supporting collaboration as a means to achieve a future of what “could be”.

    Open source and crowd surfing continues to baffle a world and leaders who can’t give up their command and control theory of management and business. We live in the age of the knowledge worker, but can not cross that bridge from pre-WW II, management philosophy of the labor worker.

    We have a strong challenge ahead: undo the culture that the more knowledge I accumulate, the more I control others. It should be obvious no one can own all knowledge available, however, the attitude persists. A second challenge is to realize if we are in a knowledge-based society no matter the ability, skills, or knowledge of an individual or a team little will be accomplished without their motivation. We need to connect with people, not only financial projections or the expectation of unlimited quarterly profits. Too many are afraid to connect to a person to understand their role to organization success.

    It is great to discover your posts, your thoughts, and your advocacy. Your thoughts present another example of normal distribution. If more people believe like you, it would no longer reside at the edge, but revert to a new mean.


    Toby Elwin


  11. Le Plaid (leplaid) 's status on Sunday, 23-Aug-09 11:40:25 UTC - Identi.ca on August 23rd, 2009 6:40 am
  12. Roland Harwood on October 26th, 2009 11:42 am

    Great article. Agree wholeheartedly about the parallel iterative nature of innovation. If innovation had a shape, I’d say it was a comedy bow tie. Lots of diverse inputs and outputs with an iterative core. For more see this blog post:



  13. Insights and Perspectives on Open Innovation « gabriel catalano | in-perfección on April 9th, 2010 9:55 am

    [...] View open innovation as a parallel process. We are used to view innovation as an iterative process. With open innovation, it is becoming a “massively parallel process where failures and successes happen at the same time” as suggested by Alph Bingham in this blog post from Shapiro: Why Edison Was Wrong [...]

  14. pligg.com on August 2nd, 2010 3:46 pm

    Why Edison Was Wrong | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro…

    Last night I had an enlightening conversation with Alph Bingham, the co-founder of InnoCentive from Eli Lilly. This guy is fascinating! Alph suggested that many people do not like open innovation (external crowd sourcing) because it runs counter to a w…