Would Thomas Edison survive in your innovation group if he worked there today?


“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  This famous quote, attributed to Thomas Edison, hangs on the walls in laboratories and conference rooms of innovative companies around the world, and represents an inspirational philosophy of one of the greatest innovators of all time.  Edison’s vision, persistence, and commitment have changed the world as we know it, and he serves as a gold standard for Research & Development and Breakthrough Invention.

That being said… if a young Thomas Edison came up in your organization today, would he be successful?  In an environment of extreme impatience for results, multi-tasking, and internal competition, would Edison be allowed the time and budget to fail “10,000 ways” in inventing something truly breakthrough like the light bulb, or would he be weeded out through annual performance reviews?  After one or two years of learning and measurable “progress” but without tangible, actionable business results, would your organization have the patience to stick with him?  Would he be told to “Pick something less risky- find some ‘low hanging fruit’”?  Would he suffer in performance reviews against peers with multiple “low risk, low reward” contributions as he strives for the “high risk, high reward solution”?  Would he be told to “not put all of his eggs in one basket” and hedge his bets with some easier projects, diluting his time on the bolder, more challenging work?  Would his managers cut his R&D budget after some initial failures, and encourage him to do the “last experiment first”?  Basically, would Edison be encouraged to continue his pursuit of the light bulb, or would he be pressured to merely deliver a better candle (Longer-lasting? Scented?)?

While obviously this is an extreme example, the question is still relevant.  In a world of annual, results-based performance reviews, would a young innovator in pursuit of a high risk, breakthrough invention survive in competition with peers delivering safer but actionable business results?  I truly believe that for organizations, “you are what you measure”, and if performance reviews and promotions go to individuals who deliver safer, short-term results, then the organization as a whole will trend toward these objectives.  Now, by no means am I saying that results are not important- clearly at the end of the day delivering results is what keeps us in business.  However, if your objective is to be an innovation leader and to deliver breakthrough results, then there needs to be a mechanism for recognizing, rewarding, and encouraging risk-taking, focus on the long-term, and even failure if you are to truly do something amazing.

Considerations in Recognizing and Rewarding Breakthrough Innovation

1)      Recognize short term behaviors and long-term results.  Often organizations prioritize short-term results over everything in conducting performance reviews and in setting assignment goals.  While results clearly are important, most truly innovative goals won’t be fully delivered in a year (and will often take several years).  If an employee’s focus is solely on the short-term, he/she will often modify behaviors to compromise depth for breadth and tradeoff risk for safe.  There needs to be a balance of rewarding innovative behaviors in the short-term, while evaluating actionable results in the long-term.

2)      Redefine success and reward “smart” failures.  To steal a quote from Woody Allen, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative”.  Fear of failure is a key barrier in doing something truly breakthrough, and individuals need to be encouraged to take risks and push boundaries.  The failures should be smart (bold but not reckless), but if innovators don’t push too far then they will never know how far they can go.  Net, reward learning, milestones, and even failures… not just end results.

3)      Give credit for “degree of difficulty” in measuring performance.  If you want your top innovators working against your top challenges, then you need to reward them for taking on the extra challenge and risk.  With gymnastics as a metaphor, it is much harder to ‘nail the landing’ on a complex, risky routine than on a basic and simple one… and this acknowledgment goes into the judges’ evaluations.  In the same manner, this “degree of difficulty” factor should be also enacted in innovation performance reviews to encourage top talent to push the envelope.

It is an interesting dilemma, particularly as organizations get more lean, the need for speed increases, and competition increases exponentially.  So… can your organization be “impatient for learning, but patient for results” and would a young Thomas Edison be successful today?

*Interesting footnote… Those of you at Procter & Gamble might particularly enjoy the irony of the following story.  In 1865, as a Western Union employee, Thomas Edison spent time with P&G (which at the time was predominantly a soap and candle company), helping to install a telegraph line system between headquarters and a plant.  Upon finishing the job, Edison went on his way and of course ultimately invented the mass producible light bulb.  This invention, of course, was no small factor in driving the end of P&G’s candle business!  Another good reminder to always be on the lookout for top innovative talent and for potential disruptions to your business…


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com



  1. Excellent article… probably the reason that most truly groundbreaking ideas end up coming from entrepreneurs who eventually get bought out by the big companies.


  2. Thanks and great point. I definitely agree that the challenge is heightened for larger companies that have a lot to lose… the fear of swinging and missing leads to a lot more bunt singles than homeruns. That being said, these companies with an abundance of talent and resources have nearly unlimited potential to do truly ground-breaking innovation… it takes the righ combination of visionary leadership, discipline, recognition for risk-taking, and acceptance of failures. Easier said than done… Thanks again!


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