3M business strategy: free time for creativity

For more than 60 years, one of the most innovative companies in human history has followed a similar story, and thousands of employees have used their creativity and ingenuity to change the world in countless, often overlooked ways. 3M began more than 100 years ago as a mining company that flopped and nearly disappeared. Thanks to some loyal investors and a re-direction of the company culture and goals, it persevered, and with the invention of masking tape and scotch tape, it became a major player in the industrial supply and manufacturing industry.

However, one or two innovations doesn’t keep a company in business past the century mark, so 3M had to come up with a strategy that would promote that sort of out of the box thinking for years, decades, and generations. In 1948, following the end of World War II, most companies were focused on continuing the economic boom of constant productivity and high levels of activity. This was a time when the idea of professional flexibility and individual creativity was a distant second to functionality, daily output, and the unquestionable hierarchy of corporate structure.

Yet 3M decided to take another route, and instituted their policy of “15% Time”, where approximately 15% of every employees’ working hours was spent pursuing projects of their own imagination, provided it was time well spent, and a concept that would in some way fit into the company’s sphere of influence. In other words, redesigning jet engines wasn’t a legitimate way to spend 1 out of every 5 days at work, but coming up with something like Post-It Notes certainly fit in the company wheelhouse. In fact, those small yellow squares which now sit atop desks from Toronto to Timbuktu was invented during the 15% Time of scientist and 3M employee Art Fry in 1974. Many of the company’s most profoundly impactful inventions were similarly created during the free time that every single worker is granted.