Thomas Edison is credited as the greatest inventor in modern American history. He was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, where the phonograph, an incandescent light, a carbon microphone, an electric generator, and the first electric power distribution system were ushered into the world for the first time. In less than a decade, Edison generated more than 400 patents from his “Invention Factory.”
However, if you take a deeper look, there is a story behind the story. Connected to the wizard, was a team of resourceful engineers and master tradesmen who acted as clockmakers, machinists, and glassblowers. These individuals worked long hours tinkering, building, testing, and refining ideas. They worked together on a daily basis as a cohesive network of developers. Edison affectionately dubbed the team, the “muckers.” He may have been recognized as the Wizard of Menlo Park, but he was actually the central connector of a cohesive group of muckers. Edison's true brilliance was his ability to enable a set of social interactions that ensured fast development.
This is similar to how Amazon operates today, the company employs what it calls the "two pizza rule". The "two pizza rule" stipulates that a team shouldn't have more people than two pizzas can feed. Amazon recognizes that the richness of social interactions begins to deteriorate as a team's size grows, and that small teams make it easier to communicate and enable people to move quickly with high degrees of autonomy to experiment and innovate. The result is an organization that can respond to external possibilities in an highly agile manner.
This environment is sometimes challenging. Edison's Invention Factory was at times described as “coarse,” with muckers challenging one another to move faster or try harder, but they could do this because they had established a level of trust that allowed them to feel safe even when they were aggressive with one another. Edison was brilliant at attracting young talent from around the world and assembling small cohesive teams. He depended on them to build and test ideas. At any point in time, multiple small teams were working on different products or concepts. Edison’s muckers worked very closely with one another for long durations, developing and perfecting solutions and building camaraderie. When they weren’t at work they were drinking, smoking, or eating together at Sarah Jordan’s boarding house. Projects often took years, resulting in strong connections and cohesive teams that relied on each other.
The hidden brilliance of Edison, was the muckers. While brokers are outstanding at finding ideas, they are not always best positioned to bring those ideas into the world. Discovery alone is insufficient, without idea development and refinement, invention can’t happen.