How to run a business like 3M

There is no denying that innovation is one of the most dominant forces in business, and has been for centuries, if not longer. Creativity breeds interest, which subsequently draws profits from consumers. Where many companies fall short in this department is by limiting the access points of innovation and creativity to the research and development teams, and assuming that other job descriptions don’t leave room for interesting thoughts and cutting edge proposals. Who can say that the next world-changing idea won’t come from an intern at an office supply company? That is the beautiful and fascinating component of genius; there is no telling where it might come from.

A certain office supply giant has shaped a company culture and vision around that exact fact over the past century, and 3M has empowered every employee to take a shot at changing the world, because they have seen it happen before. This quiet titan of innovation and design currently holds the patent on more than 20,000 products, many of which came from outside the box thinking from people that aren’t even directly involved in product design. 3M set the bar in terms of innovative time structures in big businesses by instituting 15% Time, which allows every employee to spend 15% of their weekly working hours on their own, independent projects and ideas. They can collaborate, use company resources, and basically veer off in unexpected directions and creative tangents without any supervision. It was this policy that resulted in the Post-It Note, one of the most widely recognized and used office supplies in the world; it wouldn’t have been possible if this company didn’t allow their workers to control their own destiny and time management within the company. Hundreds of other products have stemmed from this same liberating time structure, and not only does this give employees a sense of empowerment and value, but it also results in the overall progress and growth of the company.

There is a time and place for strict regulation of how creative time is spent, but there must also be an allotment of freedom for employees that have ideas and inklings of what the “next big thing” might be. Finding the balance between strict, hierarchical command and a free for all of pure creative license is one that every company must strike, but those that lean towards opening up their workers’ minds to new ideas and free reign over their own imagination tend to succeed in the marketplace.

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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.

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