Innovation arising from failures

June 19, 2012 | By More

Both are important: innovations that customers can tell you about, and those that they can't.

Sometimes known as the ‘father’ of the Post-it note, Dr Geoff Nicholson was in Singapore recently to talk about innovation.

First, he explained what is research – that research is the transformation of money into knowledge. R&D dollars need to be spent to find out how things work or whether it can be done.

Innovation, he continues, is the transformation of knowledge into money. Innovation is the practical application and use of creativity – to turn ideas into products that customers pay for.

Often, successful products emerge from failed efforts in a totally unrelated activity, or through epiphany. The environment in the company must be such that it is conducive for staff to look out for opportunities in the most unexpected places – or are allowed to follow their passion.

Almost a century ago, Geoff related that General Motors was a big customer of 3M’s sandpaper and they had used it to sand down car bodywork. While visiting the shop floor, a 3M employee had observed that how GM cars were painted. Workers would use tape to stick newspaper on the car body to cover the top of the car while they spray painted the bottom half. The glue from the tape turned out to be very difficult to remove from the body afterwards. On returning to 3M, the employee developed masking tape, a product that could only have been invented through observation.

Geoff Nicholson presenting the newest 3M business that came from a fishing trip.

Geoff told other vignettes of how unplanned innovation was:

Don't they look like bras when you put two together?

  • The disposable breathing mask painters use almost the world over was initially a failed product to create disposable bras.
  • A week after some florochemicals was spilled on a co-worker’s tennis shoe, Patsy Sherman, a chemist at 3M labs discovered that the area had remained clean even though the rest of the shoe wasn’t. The formula was later packaged and marketed as Scotch Gard.
  • The newest business that 3M entered – providing high tension transmission cables – was only discovered when the research group went fishing in Canada and observed high tension cables sagging! 3M’s Aluminum Conductor Composite Reinforced (ACCR) cables had performed significantly better using their high temperature titanium composites originally developed for aerospace applications.

    The business created from an accidental discovery from spilled florochemicals in 1953.

No 3M story would be complete without the one about Post-it notes – and how it had failed and been cancelled numerous times as a project. The glue making up the Post-it note was initally developed to glue aircraft wings – which failed miserably.

The inventor of the adhesive, Spencer Silver, had instead created ‘low-tack adhesive’. He tried to interest 3M management to market a spray that would allow notices to be posted temporarily on sprayed bulletin boards without thumb-tacks. That failed.

It wasn’t until another engineer, Arthur Fry, attended a seminar by Spencer and thought of the problem of marking pages on his Sunday hymm book that the idea of repositionable bookmarks was born. Back at the lab, the team quickly found spare paper from another lab next door to coat and produce the early prototype – and called it ‘Press ‘n Peel’. The colour of this spare paper happened to be yellow – and remained the colour of today’s Post-it notes.

Arthur Fry never gave up trying to convince 3M management that Post-it Notes was a good idea.

Even that did not guarantee success for the product. For the next 5 years, Arthur Fry tried to convince 3M management it was a great product as people throughout the company found it useful.  As Geoff related it, he finally directed all internal requests and calls for more ‘samples’ to the marketing department until they finally decided to test market it. As they say, the rest is history – the failed adhesive became a gigantic business success.

Each of these stories had the same elements that encouraged innovation:

  • the persistence of the inventors and engineers
  • customers and users who had a clear need or problem to solve
  • a technology that was unique (not necessarily useful for its original intended purpose)
  • an enviroment that allowed those passionate about the idea to continue pursuing it



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Category: Developing your product, Managing your business, Self Improvement

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

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