Research is the transformation of money into knowledge and “Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money

Geoff Nicholson, from the 3M Company, launches his presentation on ‘Innovation: A Survival Issue‘ with those connected quotes. Geoff then informs the packed room, building immediate credibility, that he was one of three men who was responsible for inventing and championing the Post-It Note, among other products, within 3M. OH DAMN, my first thought was that this man is partly responsible for billions in revenue to 3M from a little sticky note pad idea? Once again for good measure, OH DAMN!

Geoff then follows with the next quote… “One of life’s greatest pleasures is doing what people say cannot be done” - Walter Bagehot

I was happily sensing this would NOT be one of “the usual” conference presentations, you know the one where you eject halfway through desperately searching for caffeine sources. So I pull out my trusty laptop and start taking notes on INNOVATION, provided by Geoff, and looking for t-shirts with Bagehot’s quote.

How has 3M stayed so INNOVATIVE? One big aspect of INNOVATION is providing your employees with a certain level of autonomy. This, no doubt, is sure to send control-freak managers over the edge although in the same breath open the gates of collaboration, knowledge, innovation, new products and yes… New lines of revenue, aka Money.

3M has offered 15% time, sound familiar, to employees for decades. This, on the clock, time provides employees with an opportunity to pursue their very own projects which has produced failures, successes and/or accidents that have turned out to create BILLIONS of revenue for the company, again all created on company time. Moreover this program, process, life style, has made 3M a worldwide INNOVATION leader for decades, with 40,000+ products.

Enter Google who, umm, errrr “adopted”, their 20% time and innovation process from 3M? Seriously? ehh kinda… This very method has aided in transforming Google into a world INNOVATION leader, creating new products and new user, soon to be revenue, streams to their products.

After the presentation I introduced myself to Geoff, and after thanking him for imparting his wisdom, I asked why he thought more companies hadn’t embraced a 15-20% rule to spark INNOVATION in their own organizations? Especially since 3M and Google are such great case studies. Geoff quickly replied “The problem Chad is LEDAERSHIP, they’re afraid of breaking out of traditional business practices and even though 3M has led global innovation for years we’ve had our hiccups too. INNOVATION is not for the faint of heart and takes risk which are outside of the traditional comforts.” Only after further research did I understand what hiccups Geoff was eluding too..

In closing, I believe it was Einstein who said “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” On the flip side, Innovation is created by and also produces DISRUPTION. So I guess the real question is are you a disruptor or just run of the mill insane?

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Comment by Bryan Starbuck on August 19, 2009 at 10:27am
Great post. One company I love had the philosophy that the person who comes up with the idea should shepard it through to completion. This has several great effects.

- It lets the company say "yes" by default. The employee pays the costs of implementation
- The employee implements these ideas only when they have a high ROI to make it worth while. Having the person with the idea make ROI trade-off against their other work is wonderful
- People who create ideas and make them happen are highly visible and are greatly rewarded.
- People who don't come up with ideas (or can't make them happen) can be identified -- since they aren't doing anything innovative.
Comment by John Sumser on August 19, 2009 at 11:42am
Fantastic. Most leaders fail to understand that innovation is a choice. Unfortunately, innovation is usually the opposite of tenure and expertise. 3M has made some progress in the innovators dilema (the idea that incumbents can't, by nature, create their own replacements).

3M's gift is that they can innovate by extending their basic reach.

The problem is not as easy when you're dealing with more complex technology. For instance, it's really hard to imagine flash drives if you're a disc maker. The post it notes replacement is probably not going to be invented by 3M even though the first generation of digital product keeps the metaphor of a sticky note.

Innovation is definitely not for the faint of heart. It comes at the expense of the status quo, the pecking order and the things that people traditionally think of as organizational stregths.

It's also worth noting that there are many places where innovation is a really bad idea.

Take banking and finance for example. Or, innovation in the military.

Thanks for starting what should be a great conversation.


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