Sarah Miller Caldicott’s new book is about collaboration as invented by Thomas Edison.  In her other books about Edison, the author has demonstrated her knack for making associations between innovation and team work.  This has helped many business people rethink their corporate work styles.

Just before sitting down to review Midnight Lunch, I came across my notes from another book I’ve been reading by Martin Seligman, a psychologist and expert on positivity. Seligman advises individuals to “[s]hape your life to fit who you have discovered you are.” Midnight Lunch invites the same transformation for business.  It calls on us to shape our enterprises to fit what we discover is possible when “brilliant and creative people” learn to work in new ways.  It’s a tall order.  But thankfully, Caldicott offers a helpful road map for building a more collaborative culture.  She points to these four steps, which form the interlocking vertebrae of Edison’s approach:

Step 1:  Capacity

Build diverse teams of two to eight people.  Set them loose to discover new ways to think and problem-solve for the obstacle or opportunity.

Step 2: Context

Keep learning.  Learn from mistakes; learn from experiments.  Follow innovations occurring elsewhere in other disciplines. Question assumptions.  Hold yourself responsible for probing beneath the surface for insights that will enrich your team.

Step 3: Coherence

Many organizations can get it together to collaborate once or twice.  Few can keep it together long term.  Fits and starts not only break momentum, worse, they make cultures cynical about teamwork.  The solution, Caldicott says, is to create coherent frameworks for decision making.  Develop a process to guide progress.  And find acceptable language for voicing divergent points of view.

Step 4: Complexity

Complexity is kryptonite to collaborators.  Think about every collaborative project you’ve ever worked on.  Ask yourself: what made it difficult?  I’m guessing it’s complexity.  Managing the myriad personalities, agendas, and massive data inputs can grind progress to a halt.  Midnight Lunch offers practical ideas for managing complexity, from reskilling your people to leaving a footprint for others to follow once a successful project launches.  This year, my team is in search of the best way to use the cloud to better manage collaborative work (see blog) and archive our process simultaneously.

Finally, Caldicott argues that collaboration is the new “super skill.”  I believe building such a skill means discovering who we’ve become as human beings living in a digital culture.  On any given day, I look around and see people exploring the Internet on mobile devices, synthesizing their ideas by blogging, and sharing data on Twitter.  Decades into the knowledge economy, we’ve morphed into knowledge seekers.  Digital hunters and gathers, we are defined by the quality and volume of the information we consume and synthesize. And pressure from global competition requires us to capitalize on America’s point of difference:  our ability to innovate.  Each of us will be challenged to turn our insights into something new.

But let’s be honest, now.

How many of you work in a corporate culture that strives to harness the wisdom and curiosity of its people into a profitable business purpose?  Very few, I’m guessing, or there wouldn’t be a crying need for Caldicott’s helpful new book.

Rather, we spend the bulk of our time plugging holes in existing systems and solving problems related to the status quo.  Edison’s four phases of true collaboration offer a way to “begin the recalibration process that will be crucial to the success of every organization and employee today.”

Sarah Caldicott’s book might be aimed at helping corporate cultures collaborate more fluidly.  But it’s deeper value lies in helping individuals, “maximize the brilliance and innate creativity that lies in all of us to tackle the major problems we face on the planet.”

After reading Midnight Lunch, I have a new mantra for 2013 when it comes to collaboration:  super skill me!  Any fellow MENGers with me on that?