What is a Midnight Lunch? Closing the Collaboration Gap

What is a Midnight Lunch? Closing the Collaboration GapEvery day the business press is packed with information on how to innovate more effectively. Sage advice ranges from transforming an entire organizational culture to shifting accepted go-to-market practices, or adopting radically new business models.

And lots of this stuff is good…much of it is well written, and well researched.

Consider the huge body of material from innovation veterans like Gary Hamel, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, IDEO mavens David Kelley and Tom Kelley, or a man who – in the eyes of many – first made innovation a discipline worthy of study by executives of every stripe, Clayton Christensen.

We could readily add to this list a new array of champions who have published solid works on innovation in just the past few years, including Braden Kelley, Jeffrey Phillips, and Faisal Hoque.

So, with all this good guidance, why aren’t we doing a better job at innovation? Why don’t we see successful innovation initiatives being hailed everywhere we look?

The Collaboration Gap I believe there’s a crucial gap in our approach to innovation: we forget that collaboration is a vital part of the innovation process. In fact, I would go even farther and say we’re lacking a baseline sense of what collaboration really is. This gap is especially dangerous given the expanding connection between human beings and virtual technologies…globally.

I’ve had a chance to deeply research the process of collaboration for my new book Midnight Lunch. The book, released by Wiley this month, is also featured in the Dec ‘12/Jan’13 edition of Fast Company magazine.  Midnight Lunch takes a focused look at what I call ‘true collaboration,’ and offers specific remedies we can employ to strengthen collaboration in our digital era.  Chapter 1: True Collaboration can be downloaded here.

Why is collaboration such a yawning gap in our innovation efforts? For one thing, collaboration is quixotic. It’s hard to measure. Collaboration requires meshing ‘soft’ skills like communication, inspiration, and leadership with hard skills like software programming, manufacturing prowess, or scientific acumen.

Because collaboration engages shoulder-to-shoulder practices which often make leaders squeamish, we don’t hear the C-suite mentioning collaboration very frequently in their organization’s core values. (Maybe it’s also because we rarely find real collaboration in the C-suite at all.)

So, where can we go to get some solid collaboration basics?

I recommend we look to one of the world’s greatest innovators: Thomas Edison. Amazing as it may sound, Edison offers today’s executives a solid model for collaboration – especially in the digital age.

While we cannot draw a straight line from Edison’s era to our own, there is much we can learn from a man who spearheaded the development of 6 industries in less than 40 years. Working collaboratively with dozens of workers in his storied Menlo Park and West Orange, New Jersey laboratories, Edison’s teams churned out patents and industries valued at more than $6.7 billion – a figure that today would exceed $100 billion.

Although patent law at the turn of the 20th century only allowed a maximum of two people to appear on a patent, it’s clear from Edison’s notebooks that he served as a crucial catalyst for innovations derived in collaboration with a myriad of folks in his labs. Contrary to the popular lore that brings Edison to mind alongside tales of American inventors working solo in their garage, Edison collaborated with others even when he was a teenage inventor – and never stopped.

What Is a “Midnight Lunch?

We can find the foundations for Edison’s collaborative culture stemming from a unique practice called “midnight lunch.” Midnight lunch was the affectionate slang Edison’s Menlo Park crew used to refer to the meal Edison ordered in at about 9 PM on nights when workers stayed late at the lab to complete their experiments.

Edison would often finish his workday at 5 PM, head home for dinner with his family, then return to the lab if he had projects to oversee, or if he wanted to check in on how key experiments were progressing.

Starting at about 7 PM, all who were still present at the Menlo Park lab would roll up their sleeves, and share insights about the experiments they were undertaking. This meant that employees from any area of specialty could mingle with others holding completely different backgrounds, and learn from them. Often these casual, unstructured conversations yielded deeply creative outcomes.

After an hour or two, there would be a pause in this heady dialogue. Edison would order in sandwiches and beverages for everyone from a local tavern. Everyone present would kick back, eat, sing songs, tell stories, play music, and generally let their hair down. Regardless of title or tenure, there were no limits on participation.

During midnight lunch, no one was ‘monitoring’ things. No one was dreaming up something negative to put on your performance appraisal. From apprentices all the way up to Edison himself, during midnight lunch, everyone simply engaged their best thinking in a casual, hands-on environment. In short, workers became colleagues.

Midnight lunches formed the foundation for what I call ‘true collaboration’  - a process I outline in more depth as “phases” in Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success, from Thomas Edison’s Lab. The practice of midnight lunch forms a crucial part of Phase 1 – Capacity, where the core underpinnings of collaboration are established.

Today, with the global proliferation of smart devices and the rise of virtual teams, we need to remember the power of simple rituals like midnight lunch. We need to draw forward the practices that create ‘invisible glue’ and collegiality between team members. Focused experimentation and the willingness to ask deep, probing questions lie at the top of this list. Turning on a computer monitor and logging into an online meeting is not enough. A foundation for collegiality must also exist for collaboration – and innovation – to thrive.

Keep these factors in mind when seeking to build collegiality within your own collaboration team:

• Create opportunities for team members to meet and ‘talk shop’ as well as socialize in a casual environment

• Ensure that hands-on engagement and experimentation is a part of your efforts

• Listen for – and use – language that is “we” focused and not “me” focused

Shore up the gaps in your own understanding of collaboration. Learn how the practice of midnight lunch can deepen your innovation success. As you begin tackling the challenges that lie ahead in 2013, remember that without collaboration, innovation stalls!

image credit: wiley.com

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What is a Midnight Lunch? Closing the Collaboration GapA great grandniece of Thomas Edison and innovation process expert, Sarah Miller Caldicott is co-author of the first book ever written on Thomas Edison’s world-changing innovation practices, Innovate Like Edison: The Five-Step System For Breakthrough Business Success. Her new book, Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison’s Lab, was just released by Wiley. You can access her work at powerpatterns.com and Twitter @SarahCaldicott

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