The inventor of the phonograph, the motion-picture camera and the light bulb (to name a few famous designs) had a secret to his success: collaboration. But fostering group creativity in today’s competitive work environment can be a challenge. Here, Thomas Edison’s great grand-niece, seasoned business executive Sarah Miller Caldicott, shares secrets from her new book "Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases Of Team Collaboration Success From Thomas Edison’s Lab."

Q. Let’s start by defining terms. Some people think of collaboration as being group decision-making, but you note “collaboration is not democracy.” Do all groups need a leader with final approval?

Sarah Miller Caldicott: A. It’s valuable to have team members who can rotate decisions on different subjects. Some individuals will have expertise on financial matters, others on marketing matters, and yet others on sales or design issues. When team members reflect deep expertise in multiple areas, the entire team benefits. But sometimes one core person is designated — or even required — to make the final decision. If this is the case, they must tread carefully and not brush aside the expertise of other team members. Any final decision-makers must ensure that respect for differing points of view is maintained.

Q. Are there any phrases or specific language you hear that sound a warning bell for you?

A. I would caution groups that when they hear frequent use of ultimatums, mandates or other types of dictatorial-style language, collaboration is not present. Also, when team members are frequently hedging, apologizing or back-pedaling from their viewpoints, collaborative strength is lacking. The goal is to use language that offers objectivity while also generating a feeling of inclusion and purpose in team discussions.

Q. People focus on the business stars but do you think all “big names” have a collaborative group behind them?

A. Yes. We can look at entrepreneurs as well as CEOs whose success has brought them into the spotlight and see the importance of small teams operating in the background. While these teams often don’t receive much attention, their contributions create vital momentum to the broader goals of each team member — and to its leaders. Leveraging the strength of each individual on a collaboration team is a crucial distinction, creating a multiplier effect rather than merely an additive one.

Midnight Lunch book jacket


Q. How can a young staffer foster a team approach when he or she doesn’t have the authority to create new groups? 

A. Here are three ideas on how to approach this. One is gathering other employees to casually discuss ongoing work projects “off-campus” after work. Choose a nearby location and a particular weeknight each month to connect. This begins creating social bonds, which can extend into the workplace and add new perspective to work-related activities. Second, I would urge young employees to bring in resources from outside the company for casual lunch-hour gatherings in a team conference room or other common area. This gets discussions underway about topics of interest to a broad group. Invite people from other areas of the organization — folks you might not normally connect with. And third, consider positioning yourself as the person who brings new communication modes to your team — like infographics, for example. Be the one who links the topics of your work projects to emerging, relevant digital resources or technologies. This type of contribution elevates your visibility and dramatically heightens your value to the organization. 

Q. If all members of your team work remotely, how do you create the best structure for collaboration?

A. When teams have virtual members, everyone needs to be highly focused on their use of collegial language. The words “we, they and us” need to be an even greater part of the team’s communications. Ideally, virtual members of a team can meet each other live within 30 days after their project “officially” starts. Use this face-to-face time to share casual stories, offer unique work and life experiences and get to know each other as people. By connecting in this way, a basis for collegiality is established. Make a plan to meet together “live” at least three to four times each year — and stick to it.

Q. If you were a new manager at a company where staff is siloed into their own areas, what would your first steps be?

A. When silos exist in an organization, often there are deep reservoirs of knowledge, which lie untapped. One of the first things a new manager can do is to dig down and find these reserves. One method I’ve seen prove very effective is letting employees create two- to three-minute videos in which they share insights on how they’ve solved key problems. These can include themes like successfully handling thorny customer requests, developing successful proposals or dealing with internal communication challenges. Putting the videos on the company Intranet creates an easy-access yet collaborative resource that gains momentum and traction across the organization.

Q. What kind of mistakes have you seen when people attempt to collaborate?

A. The biggest mistake I see involves collaboration teams failing to define how they will gauge their progress. Most teams start by thinking that progress means numbers — or pure quantitative measures. But it’s crucial that progress also be measured by other means, like speed of communication, level of team engagement, commitment to team success and the ability to create constructive dialogue. When both qualitative and quantitative measures of progress are included, the collaboration has a solid chance to succeed.

Q. Some people resist group work because they’ve had bad experiences in the past. How do you get them engaged?

A. Owning team goals — rather than having them assigned — can shift the behavior of each team member. Voicing openly what the goals of the team are and consistently returning to these as the project progresses offers great momentum to ensuring that team contributions are not lopsided. Another important practice is recognizing the power of questioning. Instead of only feeling responsible for solutions, teams also need to be responsible for questions. By aligning around the core questions they wish to resolve, teams can work shoulder-to-shoulder in new ways.