Tag Archives: 3M

Underground Innovation

How giving people space can make a big difference to your innovation profile

Underground Innovation

GUEST POST from John Bessant

If you’d snuck up behind me last weekend you’d have caught me in the act of painting walls. Not the most exciting of pursuits but it needed to be done so that now I can sit here and write in a freshly-painted room. And importantly one where even my clumsy brushwork doesn’t show in unsightly streaks and overruns. I am amongst millions of painters, professional and otherwise who regularly mutter small votes of thanks to Richard Drew and his invaluable contribution to the world of painting and decorating — masking tape.

This humble but essential innovation is getting on in years but still turns a profit for the company which originated it way back in 1925–3M. But it would never have seen the light of day if company strategy and official policy had prevailed. It exists because of Drew’s late night and unofficial efforts in direct defiance of his boss’s orders.

Drew was working as a technical salesman, dealing with some of the copmpany’s biggest customers for their core product — sandpaper. He spent a lot of time visiting car factories in that newly-growing industry, and in particular the paint shops where sandpaper was used to prepare metal surfaces for painting.

The paint crews were well aware of the good old days when Henry Ford had simplified their job — in 1909 he’d outlined a strategy for his company, which concentrated on a single model (the Model T) which could be built in high volume at low price. Doing this involved a number of trade-offs, not least in terms of massively editing down the choices available to customers. It was at this strategy meeting that he reputedly said ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.’

That decision helped establish the Model T as ‘a car for Everyman at a price every man can afford’, bringing the price down by 75% and putting it within the reach of many people. But it didn’t satisfy the market for long. People wanted more choice in models, styles — and colour schemes. All of which made life more difficult for the skilled craftsmen in the paint shops, trying to deliver ever more exotic paint jobs without slowing down production.

The problem is that when you want to paint with more than one colour then you need to cover up the area you don’t want painted. Which is a clumsy fussy business; early attempts involved using rags, newspapers and scraps of cardboard but then they had to be held in place, making a one-man job into a two-man job. Attempts to solve this by using sticky tape to hold the mask in place also failed; the solvents in the paint dissolved the adhesive on the tape making the whole mask slip and slide all over the surface.

An Innovation Dust-up

Which is where Richard Drew came in, trying to sell a new kind of sandpaper which 3M had launched which offered to cut down the dust created when preparing a metal surface for painting. Hearing some choice language coming from one corner of the shop he walked over to ask what the problem was — to be given an expletive filled tutorial in how not to mask up a paint job. What was needed — he was told in no uncertain terms — was a better adhesive tape which would actually stick and stay stuck!

He went back to his office and began to tinker around with various formulations to try and make something suitable. His boss wasn’t too pleased, ordering him to get back to his main job of selling sandpaper — but he kept on with the quest.

It took him two years and involved a variety of vegetable oils, chicle, linseed, various resins, glue, glycerine and treated crepe paper. What he eventually came up with was a tape strong enough to stick to the surfaces but easy enough to peel off without leaving any scars on the paintwork. Despite its promise his boss wouldn’t allow him to buy the machinery he needed to produce it in quantity — so Drew turned his innovative skills to the problem of financing capital equipment. He bought his machinery in small pieces, each of which cost less than the $99 he was permitted to spend on an item of equipment., and then assembled the machine himself.

This last act finally convinced his boss to let him go ahead — and also provided a lesson which became a company mantra. The boss in question was William McKnight and he made a key policy out of the experience. “If you have the right person on the right project, and they are absolutely dedicated to finding a solution — leave them alone. Tolerate their initiative and trust them.”

And so 3M’s ‘bootlegging’ approach was born, and it persists today embodied now in formal company policy. Give people permission to play around, don’t control them too tightly and let their natural creativity and entrepreneurship do the rest. Their 15% policy (allowing employees to spend up to 15% of their time in pursuit of their own ideas and hunches) has been responsible for thousands of product and process innovations, a few of which (like PostIt Notes) have gone on to be breakthrough radical innovations.

Operating Below the Radar

The masking tape story is a classic example of innovation happening below the radar screen (except the radar wasn’t invented in 1925!). We know today that smart companies who care about innovation invest in the capacity for innovation — R&D and market research, future scoping, etc. Organized innovation, buying themselves options on the future. All good — but maybe only focusing on the formal means potentially missing out on what might be happening underground. Because by their nature people are innovators, prone to experiment and tinker around, frustrated with aspects of their work which they think a little hacking around the edges might help them with. Why not tap into this as another source of innovation?

(Especially since it’s actually not that expensive in terms of lost productive time. The origin of the 15% figure at 3M was McKnight’s the observation that this was the time people spent on coffee breaks and on lunch breaks and so on, times when they could do some of this unofficial innovation).

It’s not just the benefits in terms of the possible product and process innovations which it might lead to. It’s also a powerful motivator, something which can help retain and inspire employees. Allowing people time and space to explore communicates a core company value — — it’s an invitation to tinker to hack things, to play around. And it has certainly paid off for 3M and other companies; consider these examples:

  • The Sony PlayStation started as a bootleg project by Ken Kutaragi, an engineer who secretly worked on a video game console with Nintendo without Sony’s approval.
  • The HP DeskJet printer was originally developed by a group of HP engineers who wanted to create a low-cost inkjet printer for personal use. They used bootleg parts and software to build their first prototype, which they hid under a tablecloth when not in use.
  • The first spreadsheet software was created by two programmers Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, who worked on their project without any formal support or funding from their employers. They went on to found their own company, Visicalc, which for a while was the market leader in the field.
  • Google’s 20% allowing employees time to spend on personal projects led to several innovations including Google Maps, Google News and Gmail.
  • Toshiba’s pioneering notebook computer was developed by a team of engineers who worked on it covertly for four years. They used their own laptops and software tools to create a prototype that featured innovative elements such as a lightweight design, a long battery life and a high-performance processor. The project was initially rejected by the management, but later accepted after some modifications. Introduced in 1985 it became a global leader in the portable computer market.
  • BMW has a long history of bootleg innovations which have gone on to become success stories. For example the Z1 roadster was developed by a small team of engineers who worked on it secretly for four years. They used their own time and resources to create a prototype that featured innovative elements such as a plastic body, retractable doors and a modular design. The project was eventually discovered by the top management and approved for production in 1986. And the iDrive was developed by a team of engineers who worked on it without any formal mandate or budget, using their own laptops and software tools. They also conducted user tests with their own cars and friends. The project was initially rejected by the management, but later became a standard feature in many BMW models. These projects helped legitimise what the company now calls ‘U-boat’ projects , recognising the value of the bootlegging approach.

Forbidden Fruit

Peter Augsdorfer made a classic study of the phenomenon, reported it in his wonderful book ‘Forbidden fruit’ in which he highlights many examples of such ‘bootlegging’ approaches. (The term originated during the 1920s when the US government banned the manufacture and sale of hard liquor; the measure didn’t have the desired effect of wiping out the industry and sobering up the country. Instead it triggered a wave of illegal but at times highly innovative ways around the problem, essentially driving innovation underground and out of sight . This included hiding illicit liquor down the inside of boots).

Augsdorfer argues that bootlegging can be seen as a form of learning under uncertainty, where employees experiment with new ideas and technologies without formal approval or support. In other words it’s an unofficial extension of the R&D/exploration work which companies need to do anyway.

Importantly it’s an approach which can have other positive benefits for organizations beyond the innovations which its employees create, such as enhancing motivation and employee retention and fostering a culture of internal entrepreneurship. But it has its ‘dark side’; there are negative outcomes including wasting time and resources, violating ethical norms and — a big challenge for those trying to ‘manage’ it — undermining organizational control and co-ordination frameworks.

Innovation Missionaries

Augsdorfer orginally wrote about this 25 years ago but a recent article in the Sloan Management Review reminds us that such underground innovation is alive and well. It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’ and their article highlights a number of different approaches. It also usefully identifies three key archetypes of characters who may be innovators of this kind. They call them ‘missionaries’, ‘users’ and ‘explorers’.

Missionaries have a particular interest in the development of the company; their self-adopted ‘mission’ is to improve things. Characters like Richard Drew would fall into this category, seeing their own progress as being tied up with the fortunes of the company they work for and tapping into its resources to help them achieve their goals.

User innovators are essentially frustrated in what they are doing — they develop hacks and work arounds to solve problems particularly in the area of process innovation and their ideas can often be surfaced through suggestion schemes and other mechanisms.

And explorers are concerned with pushing the frontiers of what they do, sometimes going in directions which the company does not believe is possible. The risk here is that they pursue their ideas too far, detracting from their mainstream work and official company strategy.

Making Space for Innovation

So what makes underground innovation work? It’s not simply waving a magic wand, Harry Potter style, and casting the ‘Innovate!’ spell. Instead a number of things need to come together:

  • Allowing space — time, access to resources, etc. The exact amount — 15, 20 or even higher percentages of time — is irrelevant. It’s the signal that matters, communicating that it is OK to experiment around the edges and that there won’t be negative consequences for such action. What often happens is that this small amount of investment encourages employees to spend much more of their own time and initiative, often working long unpaid hours in pursuit of their ideas. At the limit (as Paula Criscuouolo and her colleagues point out) there are good examples of bootlegging arising from contexts in which there is no formal space or time allocation but an underlying perception that it is still OK to ‘dig around a little’.
  • Giving boundaries — defining the space within which innovation is possible and permission to explore there. For example we don’t necessarily want bootleg innovation in the formulation of pharmaceutical products but that leaves plenty of scope for other ideas, particularly in process innovation.
  • Establishing a development pathway to pick up on bootleg ideas. There’s no point stimulating lots of bootlegging behaviour if employees have nowhere to channel their ideas once they start to develop. In the case of 3M there’s a clear pathway which allows employees to take bright ideas and pitch for varying amounts of internal funding and other resources to grow and scale their innovations. Such functionality is increasingly built into innovation collaboration platforms and many companies — such as Liberty Global with their Spark programme — have established employee entrepreneurship pathways in parallel to their suggestion schemes.
  • Communicate trust as a core value — allowing bootleggers to feel a sense of psychological safety about what they are doing and that they will not be penalised for their activities.
  • Reward and recognise — it’s no coincidence that one of the things about 3M is that the people who have been involved in developing bootleg projects to fruition are then rewarded not just with resources and money but also with the opportunity to carry their venture forward. One of the two people involved in the development of Post it notes was Art Fry who moved on to run the division for 3M. The originator of the laptop computer within Toshiba similarly went on to run that division of their business.
  • Encourage intelligent failure — the down-side of allowing people to take initiative is that they will make mistakes. Importantly one of McKnight’s famous comments was that 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.’

Underground innovation has a lot to offer -but as the above suggests it isn’t a simple matter of mimicking Google or 3M, allocating a percentage of time and then waiting for the magic to happen. Successful organizations make employee involvement a key plank in building their innovation culture; something William Mcknight learned from his experience as Richard Drew’s manager. By 1929 he was running the entire 3M company and he pulled together some of the core principles through which their culture developed — including what he called his ‘Basic rule of management’. It’s deceptively simple and it serves well as a motto for anyone interested in tapping into underground innovation:

“delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative.”

Image Credits: Pixabay

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Creating a Culture of Everyday Innovation

Creating a Culture of Everyday Innovation

GUEST POST from Chateau G Pato

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, organizations must prioritize innovation in order to stay competitive and thrive. However, many companies struggle to foster a culture of innovation that transcends the occasional brainstorming session or special project. True innovation must become a part of the fabric of daily operations, ingrained in the mindset of every employee from top to bottom.

So, how can organizations instill a culture of everyday innovation? By encouraging and empowering their employees to contribute ideas and improve processes continuously. Here are two case studies that exemplify this approach:

Case Study 1: Google

Google is renowned for its culture of innovation, which is evident in its diverse range of products and services. One key to Google’s success is its “20% time” policy, where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their work hours pursuing their own passion projects. This policy has led to the creation of products like Gmail and Google Maps, which have revolutionized the way we communicate and navigate the world.

Google also holds regular hackathons, where employees come together to brainstorm and develop new ideas in a collaborative environment. These events not only foster creativity and innovation but also help break down silos between teams and departments, encouraging cross-pollination of ideas.

By empowering employees to take risks, experiment, and think outside the box, Google has created a culture of everyday innovation that drives the company’s success.

Case Study 2: 3M

3M is another organization that excels at fostering innovation in its day-to-day operations. One of 3M’s most famous innovations is the Post-it Note, which was the result of a serendipitous discovery by a scientist trying to develop a strong adhesive. This accidental invention led 3M to adopt a philosophy of “innovating by mistake,” encouraging employees to explore new ideas and opportunities without fear of failure.

3M also has a program called “Genesis Grants,” which provides funding for employees to pursue innovative projects that align with the company’s strategic goals. This initiative not only incentivizes employees to think creatively but also shows that the company values and supports their ideas.

By creating a supportive environment where employees are encouraged to experiment, take risks, and think outside the box, 3M has built a culture of everyday innovation that drives continuous improvement and propels the company forward.


Creating a culture of everyday innovation requires more than just lip service from leadership. Organizations must empower their employees to contribute ideas, experiment, and take risks in order to drive meaningful change and stay ahead of the competition. By following the examples set by companies like Google and 3M, organizations can cultivate a culture of innovation that fuels growth, creativity, and success.

SPECIAL BONUS: The very best change planners use a visual, collaborative approach to create their deliverables. A methodology and tools like those in Change Planning Toolkit™ can empower anyone to become great change planners themselves.

Image credit: misterinnovation.com

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Building a Culture of Innovation

Strategies for Engaging Employees

Building a Culture of Innovation

GUEST POST from Chateau G Pato

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, organizations striving for sustainable growth and success must foster a culture of innovation. Building such a culture starts with actively engaging employees, harnessing their creativity and empowering them to contribute their best ideas. This thought leadership article will explore effective strategies for cultivating a culture of innovation, supported by two inspiring case studies that demonstrate the power of employee engagement in driving innovation.

Case Study 1: Google’s “20% Time Rule”:

Google, the tech giant known for its innovative products, follows a unique approach to inspire employee creativity and engagement. In order to foster innovation, Google allows employees to spend 20% of their time on projects they personally find interesting or meaningful. This initiative has led to major breakthroughs, including the creation of Gmail and Google Maps. By empowering employees to work on passion projects, Google demonstrates a commitment to employee interests while encouraging their investment in the company’s success. This strategy strengthens engagement and has resulted in a culture of innovation ingrained within Google’s DNA.


1. Promote Open Communication Channels:
Building a culture of innovation requires establishing open communication channels across all levels of the organization. Encourage idea sharing by implementing platforms for employees to submit suggestions, hold brainstorming sessions, and facilitate cross-functional collaboration. Regular feedback sessions and town hall meetings provide opportunities for employees to be heard and feel valued, fostering a culture where creativity thrives.

2. Invest in Employee Development:
Nurture a culture of innovation by investing in employee development programs. Offer workshops, training sessions, and mentorship programs that encourage continuous learning and skill development. These initiatives not only foster individual growth but also enable employees to approach problem-solving from new perspectives, enhancing their ability to generate innovative ideas.

3. Celebrate and Reward Innovation:
Recognize and reward innovative ideas and contributions. This can be done through formal programs, such as Innovation Awards or Hackathons, which showcase the successful implementation of employee-driven initiatives. Publicly acknowledging and celebrating innovation reinforces a culture where employees are motivated to think creatively and take risks, knowing their efforts will be recognized and appreciated.

Case Study 2: 3M’s “15% Culture”:

3M, the multinational conglomerate known for its innovative products, introduced the “15% Culture” to foster employee-driven innovation. Employees are encouraged to spend up to 15% of their work time on projects outside their regular responsibilities. This initiative led to the invention of products like Post-it Notes and Scotchgard. The 15% Culture showcases 3M’s commitment to providing time and resources for employees to explore their creative ideas, fostering engagement and driving continuous innovation.


Building a culture of innovation starts with engaging and empowering employees to contribute their best ideas. By implementing strategies like promoting open communication, investing in employee development, and celebrating innovation, organizations can create an environment where individuals feel supported to think outside the box. Case studies from Google and 3M highlight the tremendous impact that employee engagement can have on driving innovation and shaping a successful future. Embracing these strategies will not only foster a culture of innovation, but also enhance employee satisfaction, attract top talent, and position organizations at the forefront of their industries.

SPECIAL BONUS: The very best change planners use a visual, collaborative approach to create their deliverables. A methodology and tools like those in Change Planning Toolkit™ can empower anyone to become great change planners themselves.

Image credit: Pexels

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Creating an Innovation Strategy that Works for Your Organization

Creating an Innovation Strategy that Works for Your Organization

GUEST POST from Art Inteligencia

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, organizations must continually innovate to stay competitive. However, developing a successful innovation strategy requires careful planning and execution. It involves more than just having a creative vision; it requires aligning innovation efforts with organizational goals and ensuring a conducive environment for fostering innovative ideas. In this article, we will explore two successful case studies that exemplify the effective implementation of innovation strategies.

Case Study 1: Google’s 20% Time

Google, one of the world’s most innovative companies, has a renowned innovation strategy known as “20% Time.” In this strategy, Google allows its employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects they are passionate about, even if these projects are not directly related to their job responsibilities. This initiative has given birth to some of Google’s most successful products, including Gmail and Google Maps.

The 20% Time strategy showcases how empowering employees to pursue their own ideas can lead to breakthrough innovations. It encourages a culture of experimentation and risk-taking, fostering an environment where innovation thrives. By enabling individuals to work on personal projects, Google taps into the collective intelligence of its employees and unlocks their creative potential. This strategy has not only yielded successful products but also boosted morale, engagement, and retention.

Key takeaways from Google’s 20% Time strategy include:

1. Encourage autonomy: Provide employees with the freedom to explore their own ideas within a specified time-frame. This autonomy fuels their motivation and allows them to contribute their unique perspectives.

2. Communicate purpose: Ensure employees understand the purpose behind the 20% Time initiative. By aligning personal interests with organizational goals, individuals are more likely to pursue projects that have meaningful impact.

Case Study 2: 3M’s Post-it Notes

3M, a multinational manufacturing company, is widely recognized for its culture of innovation. Its most famous innovation is the humble Post-it Note, which was created by accident. In the 1970s, 3M engineer Spencer Silver was attempting to develop a strong adhesive but ended up discovering a weak one instead. The company recognized the potential opportunities in this “failed” experiment and encouraged employees to find practical applications for this adhesive.

Art Fry, another 3M employee, envisioned a reusable bookmark that could stick to paper without damaging it. This led to the birth of Post-it Notes. 3M’s innovation strategy, which emphasizes serendipity and supporting employees’ lateral thinking, played a pivotal role in the creation of this iconic product.

Key takeaways from 3M’s approach to innovation include:

1. Embrace spontaneous ideas: Give employees the flexibility to experiment and pursue unconventional ideas. Sometimes, the least expected developments can lead to game-changing innovations.

2. Nurture a supportive culture: Create an organizational culture that values and rewards innovative ideas. When employees feel supported and encouraged, they are more likely to explore alternative solutions without fear of failure.


Creating an innovation strategy that works for your organization involves providing the right environment, empowering employees, and encouraging creativity. The case studies of Google’s 20% Time and 3M’s Post-it Notes demonstrate the power of these strategies in driving successful innovation. By fostering an innovation-focused culture and enabling individuals to pursue their ideas, organizations can unleash their full potential and stay ahead in today’s dynamic business landscape.

Bottom line: Futurists are not fortune tellers. They use a formal approach to achieve their outcomes, but a methodology and tools like those in FutureHacking™ can empower anyone to be their own futurist.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 27, 2012

“If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”

– William McKnight (former CEO of 3M)

“For people without passion and talent, information has no value.”

– Jef Staes

“We must find a way to strike a balance between what employees need to do for the organization and what they want to do for the organization. Otherwise, human capital is being wasted, flushed down the drain.”

– Braden Kelley

What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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