Innovation: Championing 3M's Post-it Notes

Go ahead and experiment with your idea. But what if I fail, you may ask. It is okay, said Geoff Nicholson, a former senior executive with multi-product manufacturer 3M, famous for its wide range of innovative products for both consumers and businesses.

In fact, that is the trait you should look for in your employees – people who are not afraid to make mistakes – if you want your company to go far in innovation, said Nicholson, who retired in 2001 as 3M’s vice president of international technical operations. The brightest example of 3M’s innovation is the surprising success of its Post-it Note, the ubiquitous yellow sticky pad of paper. Derided in 3M’s laboratories as an adhesive that could barely stick, the Post-it Note turned out to be one of the company's most popular products, helping to cement its position as an innovative company.
Nicholson, who graduated from Britain’s Imperial College in 1963 with a doctorate in chemistry, was instrumental in the development and success of 3M's Post-it line of products. The “Father of Post-it Note Program”, as he is sometimes described, spoke at Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Distinguished Speaker Series.
Putting in time for innovation
What does ‘innovation’ mean to 3M? According to Nicholson, it is about creating something that is new and of value to the world. If the company wants to grow, it needs to innovate and make improvements continuously. Innovation keeps products competitive and helps the company to survive. “If you don’t continue to reinvent your products, your company will die,” he said bluntly.
People may think of 3M only for its grocery store offerings, like Scotch tape and Post-its, but the company's tradition of innovation goes back 108 years to when the then-Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (that’s the origin of the three ‘M’s) came up with products like sandpaper and masking tape.
Today, 3M is a multinational corporation with operations in more than 60 countries, employing more than 76,000 people, and a portfolio of over 55,000 products, divided into six divisions. In 2007 alone, it was awarded 571 US patents.
The company's culture of innovation did not happen overnight. Being innovative cannot be manufactured, Nicholson said. However, companies can certainly set conditions that encourage and cultivate innovation amongst employees. Long before Google introduced its policy of giving employees 20 percent of their time to work on pet projects of their choice, 3M, from an earlier era, had its 15 percent guideline. This was time for employees to experiment, network and collaborate.
“We basically tell our technical people to spend 15 percent of their time working on whatever they want,” said Nicholson. And the best part is: there is no need for management approval or supervision.
Babysitting the idea
An important message that is repeated constantly to 3M employees is, ‘If you have a good idea, do it. If you fail, nobody will beat you up for it; no one will be going around, measuring the success of your ideas’ For companies that are not prepared to fail, Nicholson suggests that they forget about innovation. His reason: “Innovation is a risky business and you are going to fail sometimes.”
Aside from the 15 percent of time dedicated to innovation, what spurs employees to pioneer new products is the company’s culture. There is an expectation within 3M to churn new products. Because of the constant expectation to experiment, employees keep rolling out new ideas, and this inspires others to do the same.
However, innovation for the sake of innovation is useless. People need to be able to take their ideas forward, so persistence is also essential for success. The way Nicholson sees it; a product in gestation is very much like a baby: “It cannot walk, talk or defend itself. We feed it, and it grows up and defends itself.”
New products are vulnerable, as they have to go through a baptism of fire before they can go out to market. There will be sceptics and cynics, and at 3M, most successful products were initially put down and dismissed at least three times, on the average, by management. So to go far, great persistence is needed, he advised.
Still, employees are not discouraged. With a library of timeless success stories, the company has enough real-life examples to keep everyone’s eyes peeled for future breakthroughs. Nicholson gave an example of how the unsuccessful invention of disposable bras had later evolved into the invention of the N95 face masks that was in high demand during the recent flu crisis. “When you generate stories like this, people remember them,” he quipped.
Management versus innovation
The company knows the importance of recognising and rewarding deserving employees, so as to keep their creative juices flowing. For one, employees are handed trophies based on nominations from fellow colleagues. There is also a 'Dual Ladder' reward system that allows the company's scientists and inventors to enjoy equal advancement opportunities as employees with management responsibilities. That way, everyone can keep at what they do best and not aspire towards the administration, Nicholson explained.
Not everyone possesses the qualities to be successful at being creative, and so a company that strives to be innovative must be on a constant lookout for that very special personality-type. For example, they need to be inquisitive. “When they come for an interview, they should ask questions. If they don’t, you should be concerned.” An innovator should be experimental, tinker with things and not be afraid to make mistakes; be willing to do the unobvious and take multiple approaches to a problem, said Nicholson.
And of course, what would be the point of identifying innovative types if the environment does not allow them to fulfil their creative potential? To that end, Nicholson says an open and informal environment is best. He said 3M stands out for its management’s permissive attitude towards the unorthodox, so comments like ‘It'll never work’; ‘We’ve explored this before’; ‘It’s not your job’; and ‘We can’t work on such blue sky ideas’ are almost never heard.
Thus, according to him, companies that should avoid trying to be innovative are those run by management teams that are too cost-conscious; craves control over everything; always suspicious of new ideas generated from below; fond of criticising for the sake of doing so; insist that new ideas be cleared through the entire chain of command, and believe that only those at the top are capable of good ideas.
Talkative inventors
Innovation often happens when people within organisations simply talk to one another. The Post-it Note was a result of internal collaboration between Spencer Silver, an organic chemist who unintentionally came up with the adhesive, Arthur Fry, a chemical engineer who had a difficult time with little bits of paper dropping off the musical score he used at his church choir, and Nicholson himself, who saw viability in the product and then pushed it into full-fledged commercialisation.
“Technology exchange and synergy are essential parts of 3M success,” said Nicholson. If Silver and Fry kept to themselves, the Post-it Note would have been stillborn. Learning from this, the company actively encourages its employees to network and collaborate. As such, there is an emphasis on the physical proximity of laboratories.
By locating its work spaces close to one another, scientists, employees and other stakeholders are all near enough to interact and share knowledge. In fact, the company sees ‘proximity’ as one of the keys to its culture of ‘collaborative innovation’. The hope is that with increased exposure to the breadth of 3M's technology, employees will generate more ideas as they have access to a wider range of the company’s intellectual expertise.
Don’t forget the customer
While 3M has developed with numerous products, the company’s scientists, engineers and managers also recognise that the customer has a hand in their success. As Nicholson put it, “Customers pay your salary, so you have to make sure that you provide value to them.”
Proximity to the customer is important, as it allows the producer to understand the needs of the consumer. Customers can also be a source for fresh ideas. But at the end of the day, Nicholson believes that innovator should be free to dream big – even if those dreams are beyond the present needs of customers.
Sometimes, it pays to give customers what they did not ask for – to uncover a truly creative solution that no one has ever imagined before. That, he said, would be a great way to delight the customer – just like the yellow sticky notes that adorn office walls everywhere.
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