Monday, November 16, 2009

More on the 3M visit

This is the second of a series of posts about a visit to 3M's customer innovation center in St. Paul Minnesota. There we were treated to a day of interaction with some of the leading innovators at 3M. Additionally, we learned about 3M's methodologies and culture which sustains innovation. My previous post about 3M's unique collegial, no "rock star" culture is here. In this post we'll explore the use of "Forward Mapping" that the technology researchers and scientists use to project the development of new insights.

In our meetings with 3M we were fortunate to have Andy Ouderkirk present to us the “forward mapping” process 3M uses to project technologies and their future uses. This concept is similar to “roadmapping” except the perspective is from a technology point of view rather than from a product point of view. The concept also incorporates some scenario planning aspects and these "forward maps" look at the development and refinement of technologies well into the future, and the possible products to be created or problems that can be solved. Using this forward mapping process and some other 3M methodologies, Ouderkirk believes that breakthrough ideas and innovations can become much more predictable and frequent. He believes that breakthrough innovations are different from evolutionary or incremental innovation in two specific regards. Evolutionary ideas are execution driven and mitigate risk through diversification (many different ideas). Breakthrough ideas are architecture driven and mitigate risk through leverage. In other words, breakthrough ideas create “platforms” that launch many new products and iterations of products. The platform concept is important to 3M, since each new technology may integrate with other technologies or platforms to create a wide range of solutions in many different businesses. This forward mapping capability led to the development of the first “pico” projector, an LCD projector about the same size as a mobile phone. The capability to develop that product was “forward mapped” from highly reflective thin films that Ouderkirk and his team developed several years previously.

Moreso than other R&D work I’ve seen in other innovative companies, the research scientists and corporate innovation teams at 3M are constantly aware of the need to deliver value – in fact they “sell” their research and development findings to the various business lines and meet in organized “tech forums” with product and innovation leaders in the business lines on a regular basis. The formal and informal exchange of information is truly amazing. On any given day in any 3M facility you can find at least one "tech forum" underway. This engages "horizontal" communication and attracts individuals who have a common need or challenge to solve and exposes the wealth of corporate research to everyone in the forum. The combination of "Forward Mapping" - extending a new technology far beyond the first technical iteration to consider integration with other capabilities to solve a wide range of problems over several iterations, demonstrates a desire to solve problems and address opportunities, not merely just discover new things. This forward thinking philosophy helps 3M identify new opportunities and consistently innovate.

We did discuss a few concerns with the methods we saw in use. The “influencer” panel asked questions about younger researchers and younger product managers and wondered if the informal, person to person transmission of information would work in an age when many new graduates are very comfortable networking, but use very different tools. Within the research labs there is little use of social media tools like blogs, Twitter and Facebook, but a growing realization that these tools are the modus operadi for the younger generation entering 3M’s product groups and labs. To further that point, while 3M has a very robust internal innovation program, and does interact fairly regularly with its B2B customers in the customer innovation centers, 3M retains a “bring the customers to us” mentality and has little experience with truly “open” innovation. In the few instances it gave as examples of "open innovation", all the examples were acquisitions of other firms. There needs to be a greater understanding of open innovation models, from an “IdeaStorm” application for consumer facing products to proprietary networks of engineers, scientists and companies for more technical B2B challenges. Finally, much of what 3M calls innovation seems more like technology discovery and technology push rather than customer pull. In fact one of the speakers called this "technology driven business development". That's fine, and important, but too much emphasis on internal knowledge and insights uncoupled from customer and consumer needs can result in interesting but ultimately disappointing innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:31 AM


Anonymous Sanjay Dalal said...

Hi Jeffrey & Team:

Most interesting. "Forward Mapping" and Breakthrough Innovations need to be examined further, and I would love to learn more about the "platform" approach.

Thank you for sharing your observations...

Sincere regards,
Sanjay Dalal
Chief Innovator

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