Tuesday, December 4, 2012

3M's Simple Rules for Amazing Innovation

In the article “Simple Rules for a Complex World” by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, the authors talk about how a simple strategy can be extremely effective in making a business successful if employees are given all the right information and tools. 3M, a multinational company, which offers everything from adhesives to optical films, implemented a simple strategy of giving employees time off to explore their own projects – a simple way that led to amazing innovations.

Long ago 3M started giving their employees a 15 percent paid time off to explore and come up with their own ideas. This gave time to the workers to follow up on something they discovered through their usual course of work but could not explore due to project constraints. This was done because marketing new and innovative products was the strategic direction the company wanted to head in. The employees were made aware of this strategic need and given the required tools (spare time to innovate) to implement their ideas. One of the scientists of 3M, Art Fry, came up with the blockbuster product – Post-It-Note during his 15 percent exploring time back in 1974. Till date, this time off has helped produce some of the company’s most innovative and best-selling products and now has become a key to 3M’s business strategy. Some of the top companies like Google and Hewlett-Packard have taken inspiration from this and implemented this strategy into their business models.

The company had started in 1902 as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. However, the mining business did not run well and eventually the investors moved the company to St. Paul, where the company, now 3M, came up with some good inventions like masking tape and cellophane tape. 3M launched its 15 percent program in 1948 and today has more than $20 billion in annual sales and a product line about 50,000 deep. However, with great ideas come great failures, and the company has seen a lot of its products fail. But 3M has made failures a part of its culture and accepted them whole-heartedly so as to encourage innovation.

Google has also implemented a 20 percent time off strategy, which has led to the production of some of its brilliant ideas – Gmail, Google Earth, and Gmail Labs. Similarly, HP offers personal creative time.

Such strategies, however, need a lot of investment – 3M spends more than $1 billion in R&D. Also, they are only useful if the company awards strong support to actually implement the ideas. Given these constraints, how easy do you think it would be for other companies to emulate this idea? Can you think of other simple strategies that could help foster innovation?

  • Simple Rules for a Complex World, Sull and Eisenhardt, HBR September 2012
  • Co.Design – How 3M Gave Everyone Days Off and Created an Innovation Dynamo.
    • http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663137/how-3m-gave-everyone-days-off-and-created-an-innovation-dynamo

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