Incremental Innovation at 3M

3M is the innovation powerhouse that most people associate with Scotch tape and the Post-It note. They were the first company to give each engineer a specific amount of time off, every week, to invent new things: back in the 1950s, when they called it “15 percent time”–15 percent of every week, each engineer was expected to work on wild and innovative new ideas. W. L. Gore and Associates, by the 1960s, had followed this policy with a ten percent policy, and Google famously has a 20 percent policy.

3M’s CEO, George Buckley, knows that his engineers all want to be the inventor of the next breakthrough. And of course, that’s a good thing. But, he doesn’t want them to forget about the low-cost, incremental innovations–as he says, “at the bottom of the pyramid”.* One example he gives is making a respirator mask that costs less money; no one thought that was sexy. As Buckley says of his engineers,

A lot of them felt that what was interesting was what was at the top [of the pyramid]; These people are turned on by things that are intellectually challenging. [I had to] convince them that the intellectual challenge is making a real innovation that costs next to nothing. Initially it was hard for them to buy into.

When asked, how do you motivate people to work on things they don’t think are sexy, Buckley’s answer wasn’t that helpful–he basically said, I just keep telling them that yes, it is sexy, why don’t you think it’s sexy? (He gave the example of Chris Holmes, who heads 3M’s abrasives business–think sandpaper–and had commented that abrasives weren’t considered sexy.)

About creativity, he’s right on the mark:

Everybody wants to find out how to can creativity. You can’t….It isn’t a process. Six Sigma’s worked wonderfully in our factories but we tried it in our labs and it doesn’t work. It’s obvious why. The creative process is a discontinuous process.

* WSJ, Monday March 1, 2010, “At 3M, Innovation Comes in Tweaks and Snips,” pp. B1, B4

4 thoughts on “Incremental Innovation at 3M

  1. Hi Keith,
    Just found your blog. I haven’t had the advantage of formal research but I find the subject of creativity and innovation very interesting. I have been educating myself as best as I can. So I appreciate your perspective.
    I’m not sure what you have written about in the past but I am especially interested in the role that personality and personal identity influences the creative process that leads to a professional life.
    And how the concepts duel innovations pipelines might help a creative business model. And how open innovation can be accessible to individuals through social media.
    And if a focus on quality in the early stages of a project is that important if an idea is truly innovative (Market unknown).
    What do you think?
    Thanks again for your input.
    Steve Supple

  2. I find it interesting that people have a tendency to try and classify creativity. It’s continuous or discontinuous. It’s disruptive or non-disruptive. It’s revolutionary or evolutionary.

    To what extent does it matter?

    I would like to suggest that creativity comes in so many forms and fashions, that the attempt to classify it is a bit overdone. I suppose the need to classify creativity comes from the need to make sense of it and to find a causal relationship between behaviors and creativity.

    While we want to understand actions that leads to positive outcomes, I don’t think we can truly understand the cause of pure creativity. If we could explain it, it would cease to be creative.

    1. Why do you think that if would could explain creativity, it would cease to be creative? It might not be possible to explain it completely (although I think scientists have done a pretty good job…I called my book about this research “Explaining Creativity”) but I don’t think that an explaining something means it’s not creative. Being able to predict something, on the other hand, probably means it’s not creative…explanation and prediction being two of the classic tasks of science. With creativity, I’m receptive to the claim that we can only hope for explanation, not prediction. Art historians, for example, provide explanations for the development of impressionism, or how Picasso and Braque’s collaboration resulted in cubism, but those explanations don’t make those artistic developments seem any less creative, at least not to me. Perhaps it depends on your image of what “creativity” is.

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