Graham Birkenhead, June 29 2021

Context IS Everything

Whenever the name Thomas Edison is mentioned, people often think about ‘the man that invented the light-bulb’, and most are aware of the many variations of his famous quote about trying to make the lightbulb work: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”.

In fact, Edison did not invent the lightbulb; the first lightbulb had been produced almost 40 years earlier, but in 1878, Edison decided it was time to produce an economically viable light bulb – one that was relatively easy to make (reflected in the cost), could be sold at an acceptable price, and would provide significant value to the user demonstrated by its ability to last many hundreds of hours (12 hundred actually) before it needed changing (see Andrew’s article on the 5 Golden Rules of Pricing).

Edison is often considered to be one of the US’s most prolific inventors; his name is registered on 1093 patents. He was a veritable innovation machine. And while many of these individual inventions (telegraph, rechargeable batteries, phonograph, motion pictures) were impressive in themselves, Edison’s real ability was his grasp of context.

Early in my career, my boss at the time was launching my non-academic, real world education. He would tell me, repeatedly, over-and-over, and once again in case I hadn’t got it, that ‘Context IS Everything’. We took that statement and applied to every conceivable situation. Nothing exists or happens in isolation, and everything is part of something else, something bigger. The world is made up of systems, some loose and informal, some very tightly bound with high levels of interdependence. And so, whenever trying to understand a situation, or a problem and come up with an insight or a solution, then a good grasp of the context is usually very helpful – if not essential. Context literally could be anything and everything around what you are looking at.

Thomas Edison didn't just decide to build a better light-bulb, he wanted to provide illumination – to light up the world. He knew that the world was desperate to be illuminated because he took the time to understood what people wanted, what they liked or disliked, what they would accept or not accept. The electric light system had to be far more convenient that the gas lamps of the time and to gain people’s trust, they had to be reliable and safe. The lightbulb and its light did not exist in isolation and so he needed power, that power had to be generated, and had to be distributed (affordably) to a large number of people. And, in order to generate all of this innovation, he designed the concept of the industrial research lab; the famous Menlo Park. That’s a lot of context for one little light-bulb.

As business owners, it is so easy to become highly focused on delivering the service, or creating the next product; operational tasks can become all consuming. Or you can get carried away by the wave of expansion.  So, here is the question for you: when was the last time, or when will be the next time, that you stand back from what your company is doing and consider the Context of what you are doing? Is there an enduring problem for your solution? How will it change the world? What is it dependent upon and what will it enable? And so what?  

With insufficient context, we can set ourselves vague – or the wrong – strategic goals, and consume a lot of resources for very little gain. But done right, we can light up the world!!  


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Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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