Thomas Edison – Project Manager Extraordinaire

In pioneering his invention factory concept, transforming invention from a cottage industry into a commercial powerhouse for new product development, Thomas Edison crafts the important corporate position we know today as project management. This key position in most companies belongs to men and women who know how to transform raw ideas into new products, using powerful team-based activities and coordination.

The Edison Invention Factory-Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The Edison Invention Factory-Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Many project managers handle several projects at once, probably in related technologies, so as to maximize potential synergy between them. It was not unusual for Edison to have 30 or more projects proceeding simultaneously, cross-pollinating his ideas, and observations. To accomplish this, Edison used a variety of techniques as discussed below.

Thomas Edison clocking in another 90 week!

Thomas Edison clocking in another 90 week!

Tom worked as hard or harder than his teams, often putting in 90 hours a week of work. No one could accuse “the old man” of goofing off.

Laughter and practical jokes were an encouraged means by which his teams broke through roadblocks or let off steam creatively. [Tom gave as good as he got in the practical joke department!]

Creative tension was inherent in all work as Edison urged his teams to invent something minor every 10 days and something major every 6 months.

New technological and scientific advances were quickly exploited in the labs as his teams tried to create something useful from these breakthroughs. A key resource was the massive company library-where Edison kept his business office. There, 20,000 volumes contained the great scientific and technological achievements of the day, the raw materials for further innovations.

His inventors always had access to new information and plenty of raw materials to support their work. Edison often boasted he could make anything from a woman’s watch to a locomotive in his shops. His large storeroom contained just about everything his inventors would need.

Thomas understood the inevitability and possible serendipity associated with failure; and constantly encouraged his teams to learn from it. His famous line was “fail your way to success!”

To keep projects on track and new products on schedule, the great inventor used timelines, critical path analysis techniques, and exploded parts diagrams to show how assembly should be done in his factories. This was completely consistent with the rise of industrial efficiency models of the early 1900s.

Tom and his “insomniac squad” having a meal after an all-nighter.

Tom and his “insomniac squad” having a meal after an all-nighter.

This all worked quite nicely, as the 250 employees who manned his invention factory, including team leaders, technical experts in physics/chemistry/engineering, and craftsmen produced enough new products to keep over 10,000 employees busy producing and shipping his products all over the world. All this productive activity occurred on about 20 acres of real estate. It was this tremendous leverage he achieved between R&D, new product development, and economic stimulus that propelled many of the nation’s then nascent corporations to develop project management directed R&D organizations-most of which were established between 1895 and about 1920. Edison had set the pace and path for economic progress, a paradigm we and the world still follow faithfully today.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“Personally, I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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