Secrets to 3M’s Innovation

June 14, 2012 | By More


Geoff Nicholson presenting at Science Park Singapore

For a company founded a century ago, 3M has grown to be recognised as a legendary innovative company. From originally selling sandpaper in 1902, 3M has expanded to over 55,000 products today covering office products, passive fire protection, dental, electronic materials, medical, car care, electronic circuits and optical films.

It has been reported that even Google’s founders had sought to learn about 3M’s innovation process. Today, with sales reaching US$30 billion, companies in more than 60 countries and over 84,000 employees, a third of all sales each year is from new products.

A survey in 2010 voted 3M as one of the top 3 most innovative companies after Apple and Google. How does a hundred years old company continue to innovate for so long when so many have stumbled?

Consistently recognised as one of the most innovative companies in the world.

We were fortunate to have Dr Geoff Nicholson share his insights and experiences with us recently. When at 3M’s Central Research Laboratories, he was considered ‘the father’ who nutured and helped secure support for the fledgling ‘Post-it’ notes. The rest, as we see today, is history. [Read more 3M  stories on innovations here at a later post.]

As Geoff (that’s how he prefers to be called) explained it, innovation is the practical application and use of creativity. Creativity is defined as thinking up new things and innovation is doing new things.

To activate innovation, the organisation has to have a vision, foresight, stretched goals, empowerment as well as encourage communication and networking based on a system of rewards and recognition. Most fundamentally, management is required to provide commitment, courage and confidence – to allow staff to be creative.

3M does it by having the 15% rule. Staff are encouraged to spend that proportion of their time to explore, experiment, network and collaborate to try new things. No questions asked. Often when a project is cancelled by management, staff who believe in it will continue to work on it using this 15% rule – and some even continue over weekends.

That was how many of their successful products were developed – even after management had cancelled the projects!

Dr Geoff Nicholson with the author on one of his visits to Singapore.

Research labs are located close to each other to facilitate technology sharing, employee transfer and to stimulate discussion. Cross-pollination of ideas is encouraged. Geoff shared a story of how the expertise in overhead projectors had helped to create a new generation of 3M micro-abrasives that lasts 2X longer and works 2X harder.

Management does not measure if 15% of their time is spent – or exceeded. That would defeat the purpose. Failure is allowed.

Geoff also provided a long list of advice to management on what not to do. Some examples include:

  • Don’t ask for a 5-year business plan.
  • Don’t criticise the researcher or the idea by saying things like: “It’ll never work” or “We explored that 10 years ago”.
  • Don’t insist on reviews at every level to approve a project.
  • Don’t be a control freak.
  • Remember, we’re trying to foster creativity and innovation, not managing a production line.

Some lessons for entrepreneurs everywhere:

  • Innovation is about creativity in people.
  • The process of innovation cannot be measured. We cannot manage creativity. We can only create the environment for it. How managers behave is critical in encouraging staff to be creative.
  • 3M has found a sustainable way. They trust their process. They recognise outcomes cannot be predicted or managed – and the  results at 3M speak for themselves.


To see more of Geoff’s presentation in Singapore, click on this facebook link.

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Category: Companies, Managing your business

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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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