My view on 3M as an Innovation Powerhouse

Having worked for 3M for most of my professional life, transitioning from Product Design to Service Design almost a couple of years ago was a pivoting time in my life.

Ever since then, I’ve been reflecting on the skills, methodology and attitude that 3M taught me and helped me so much during my transition to Iberia Airlines.

Some days ago, I decided to merge the talent of my current Service Design team at Iberia with the vast Innovation knowledge from my former colleagues at 3M by visiting the 3M Innovation Center in Madrid. It was a highly pleasant evening and it was beautiful to see that, when in 3M facilities, I still feel at home.

The following lines are a distilled and very personal view on what makes 3M such a massively powerful innovation engine. Why has 3M been an Innovation paradigm for so many years?

1.     Embrace failing as part of succeeding

Nowadays this attitude is a kind of mainstream mantra. It’s always quoted in “manager wannabes” airport business books. But when it comes to real business life, very few companies stay strong holding this principle.

3M has been one of those companies from the very beginning. One of the most influential 3M executives, William McKnight, has a number of quotes that are not surprising when formulated by modern executives like Steve Jobs but were absolutely innovative at McKnites time back in the 50s.

“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.”

Back in my 3M days, I have to say I never felt scared of committing any mistake as empowerment from senior managers was always a key cultural pillar.

2.     Avoid the “silo mentality”. You are as strong as your network is

Back in 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to find a super powerful acrylic adhesive without much success. But he managed to understand the quite unique characteristics of the adhesive he had just created: it left very few residues and it was pressure-sensitive.

Years later, another 3M researcher called Art Fry thought about Dr. Silver adhesive when trying to attach the bookmarks he used for guiding himself along with his hymnal while singing in the church choir. Post-It had been accidentally invented.

Shouldn’t Silver and Fry been in contact nor their investigations available to each other, Post-It would have never been conceptualized and this iconic product from the ’80s and ’90s wouldn’t have existed.

During my time at 3M, I always felt supported by a massive network of colleagues just at my fingertips. It was a matter of calling or emailing them and I always got some kind of help.

3.     Ensure pivoting is in your DNA

3M is the acronym for “Minnesota Mining Manufacturing”. The company started as a mining corporation, exploiting corundum. But soon the founders discovered that the mineral coming out of the mine was of much less quality and decided to pivot and produce sanding paper. Sanding was at that time dangerous as the particles created were inhaled by the workers. So 3M invented “Wetordry”, a waterproof paper that eliminated dust from the sanding process. The mineral that was not valuable from a mining perspective had become a key ingredient of the sanding paper industry.

A key lesson from this 3M beginning is the power of pivoting on your core strengths and embrace change when needed.

Ever since then the story of 3M if full of key investments and exits from businesses that were not fully aligned with core competencies.

While in 3M, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself a number of times: businesses, geographies, roles and responsibilities. Every 2-3 years a beautiful opportunity emerged and pivoting was possible.

4.     Understand that there is no Innovation without customer demand

A former Sales Manager at 3M always said that “the best product sample is the one a customer buys” meaning that there is no way to understand customer propensity to buying by giving free products to them. Or like the old Marketing quote says “don’t tell me what you would buy, just show me your ticket”.

Customers lie every time. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes without purpose but just because we are all biased when confronting a “would you buy this?” type of question during customer research.

The only way to check customer demand is in real life, and 3M always had very clear that without customer demand there is no valuable innovation.

Coming back to the Post-It story, a very clever movement that Art Fry made was probing his boss that there was a real demand for his product. He gave free Post-It samples to assistants in several business units and when they were running out of samples they came back to Fry asking for some more. He then told them to ask their managers for the product and that way he probed the company that customers were really willing to use the new product.

When working at 3M for every new product launch I would build the RWW Real-Win-Worth model while analyzing the P&L potential impact by answering these questions: Is the opportunity Real? Can 3M win with it vs. competitors? Would it be worth it in terms of profit?

5.     Co-create with customers all the time

Customer co-creation is now mainstream within the Service Design playbook but back in the 30s of the twentieth century was something absolutely new.

Most of the more powerful 3M inventions were conceived by working hand to hand with real users, shadowing them while they were performing their daily tasks and performing ethnographic research (e.g.: masking paper, Scotch tape,…).

There is no lab work powerful enough to replicate the real working conditions of a customer so observation in real life becomes crucial.

During my 13 years at 3M I estimate I have visited more than 500 customers from many industries (automotive, retail, industrial, electronics, public health,…) and countries. Every day in the field was a massive creativity boost.

6.     Embrace a full international vision

Most companies claim to have an international vision, but very few manage to create a full international culture embracing at the same time the key central values of the corporation and the local uniqueness.

As markets and product categories evolve at a worldwide scale, leveraging the power of an international network (labs in more than 36 countries, business in more than 60 countries) is mandatory and facilitates anticipating megatrends and attending global customers demanding a unique value proposition independently from the business site.

Regionalization at 3M has occurred a number of times, adapting the organizational design to the geographies that make more sense from a business perspective.

When traveling around different subsidiaries, I always felt the regional flavor while acknowledging a unique culture of innovation and management.

7.     Invest in Technology Platforms

3M devotes around 6% of the Sales to R&D (1.7 $B), which is not much comparing to other well-known innovation companies. Why this limited investment result in more than 3.000 new patents every year and new products accounting for more than 40% of the total revenue?

The secret is the “Technology Platform” approach to new product invention. Scientists in 3M bring in technical knowledge in more than 46 fields (e.g.: adhesives, additive manufacturing, micro-replication,…) which is later mapped to specific customer pains in what is called “Applications development”.

The beauty of this strategy is that investment in technology platforms development pays off in a number of applications in many industries creating massive synergies.

I still remember my first day at 3M, when I called my wife saying: “Honey, this looks like the James Bond lab, full of inventions with hundreds of applications”.

8.     Fall in love with the problem, not with the solution

With such a bright technology available at your fingertips, it would be easy at 3M to come with a sophisticated technical solution to address a customer pain that was proven later that was not a pain at all.

Design Thinking was always in 3M DNA, with Marketers and Technical communities obsessed with “solving the right problem” before moving into “solving the problem right”.

I remember like if it was yesterday when a senior executive killed my initial product positioning strategy for an automotive aftermarket product family. I was then in love with in my view the smartest solution to an eroding business, but revisiting the issue while calling on additional customers absolutely changed my mind about what the issue really was. The outstanding performance of the product was useless as customers threw it away far ahead reaching its full potential. It was not a product technical challenge but a customer perception challenge.

9.     Creative problem solving is key

“What if…” approach to key customer challenges is a fundamental technique at 3M. The most obvious solution is not always the better one. Exploring other paradigms, embracing technologies from other business practices, calling a colleague from a different sector always pays off.

Moon-shot thinking creates a mindset that defers judgment and creates the right atmosphere for addressing the underlying customer issues and opportunities.

I had the opportunity to participate in several product launches where creative problem solving was applied. For example, car painting is difficult because matching the original paint color is a challenge under interior car body shop light conditions, so why not bringing indoor the natural light tone created by the sun with the support of a “sun light” device?

10.  Hire the best technical community in the World

3M has been led a number of decades by a strong technical community. Managers are necessary to manage, but technicians are the core of 3M innovation powerhouse.

There is not an easy balance between Marketing (responsible for targeting customers) and R&D (responsible for creating outstanding applications), but when squads of both communities worked together, magic happened.

Until now, I have sound respect for the technical community at 3M, always willing to help and create outstanding products to bring value to the company.

*****************

I’m absolutely in love with 3M, as much as I am with my current employer. My new role in Service Design in an airline makes me approach the question “what does 3M need to do in the future to stay at the front line in terms of being an innovation power house?” with new insights from the Service Design industry.

If I would need to choose three elements, it would be:

1.     Embrace ecosystems and Open Innovation

As intelligent as your own employees may be, by definition there will always be more talent out of your company than inside of it. Why would you lose the opportunity to embrace such talent in an “Open Innovation” scheme where internal 3M talented individuals would work shoulder on shoulder with bright corporates and start-ups around?

I guess the fear of losing IP on the technology has prevented 3M from this exposure to the external ecosystem, but I believe it has come the time to open themselves to the bright future that external talent can represent.

2.     Boost talent as the key competitive factor

Products and services are not any longer the key competitive factor of a company. They can be bought, copied, replicated, … while individuals cannot.

In the start-up world teams are very often the reason why investors support venture initiatives, as they know the product will very possibly change but the talent of the team will make pivoting fast and cheap possible.

3.     Have an eye on the long run

Strong pressure to meet quarterly earnings targets can result in compromising the long-run strategy. Innovation needs some space to flourish, and fostering such conditions requires senior management to counterbalance short term goals with building the right capabilities for the future.

What was once one of the 3M management principles: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” needs to get traction again.

If you want to read more:

https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/company-us/about-3m/research-development/

https://hbr.org/2013/08/the-innovation-mindset-in-acti-3