Innovation policy from an unexpected mine – 3M

There is a well known company with a background that is nowhere near the image we have of it today.

That company is 3M.

I saw a video the other day discussing innovation, and the story of 3M was discussed. I found the story very, very interesting, and very, very inspiring. (I intend to write a separate post about the video I saw soon, and will go into more detail about it then.)

3M – a company known through the world for…Postit sticky notes. And scotch tape, and many other useful products. Do you know what 3M stands for? – “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company“.

Yes – 3M started out as a mining company. It was set up in 1902, with the aim of mining material for grinding wheels. This didn’t pan out though (no pun intended), and so 3M changed direction to sandpaper.

One of 3M’s sandpaper engineers was a man called Dick Drew. Drew was at an automobile company one day with the goal of selling 3M’s product, when he became aware of a problem the company was having. Drew thought that he might have a solution, and went back to the 3M lab where he started experimenting.

Drew’s boss, William L McKnight, advised Drew to stop what he was doing and to get back to his normal job. Which Drew did. But not for long, Drew was so engrossed in finding a solution to the problem that the automobile company was having that it wasn’t long before he was experimenting again, and working on a solution.

Eventually, Dick Drew was successful. The problem the automobile company was having was this: Two-tone cars were popular then, but the effect required workers to mask certain parts of the auto body using a combination of heavy adhesive tape and butcher paper. After the paint dried, workers removed the tape – and often peeled away part of the new paint. Drew invented masking tape. That was 1925.

3M saw how enthusiastic the automobile company was about this new product, and started to produce it regularly. And William L. McKnight became President of the company. Later, in 1949, he became Chairman of the company. And in 1948 he developed his Business Policy:

As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance.
Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.
Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative.
And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.

Now … I’ve been reading a lot lately about innovation. Nielsen published a report “First-Of-Its-Kind Study” where it reveals that “companies with less senior management involvement in the new product development process generate 80 percent more new product revenue than those with heavy senior management involvement.”

Looking at McKnight’s Business Policy, and you can see that, in 1948, he pointed out the same thing.