Friday, November 13, 2009

Midwestern Innovation at 3M

Yesterday, November 12th, I had a unique opportunity to visit with senior executives and scientists at 3M's Customer Innovation Center in St. Paul. 3M invited six innovation "influencers" to attend a briefing and to learn more about what makes innovation so viable at 3M. Over the next several blog posts, and in my upcoming November newsletter, I plan to recap what we learned during the briefings, and what I think that means for firms that seek to replicate the success that 3M has had in innovation.

One attribute that resonated with me was the collegial and "we're all in this to succeed" cultural model demonstrated time and time again during the presentations. After all, these weren't just any scientists. Several people in the room, including Andy Ouderkirk, Olester Brown and Sumita Mitra are well known innovators and have won numerous awards inside 3M and outside 3M as well. In many organizations these individuals would be "rock stars", yet the CMO of 3M said several times that one of the defining cultural aspects of 3M is that there are no "rock stars". It's hard to validate that statement after one day of meetings, but I came away with the sense that everyone (at least on the technical side of the house) is actively encouraged to innovate, and that aspects of the 3M culture sustain that by lowering barriers and increasing the opportunity to work together.

I titled this post "Midwestern Innovation" because we joked at lunch about whether or not 3M's culture would have developed in the same way if the firm had been located in Manhattan or San Jose. 3M's model is distinctively upper midwestern - built on the concept of working together for the common good of the firm and the employees. The original founders embedded much of this philosophy, which was extended by William McKnight who encouraged his managers to allow employees to experiment, to define the best way to do a job, and to tolerate mistakes. I'm curious how much those early decisions about how to structure work and the collegial atmosphere of the environment has sustained 3M and made it easier for innovation to occur.

Some of the other factors that sustain an innovation culture are also aspects of the midwestern, rural roots. There's a focus on individual initiative, which encourages people to identify opportunities and create solutions, and a "barn raising" mentality which encourages people to help each other with on projects. There's also very little financial gain on the part of the individual for new ideas, but the opportunity for advancement and the opportunity to repeat the success. Finally, the evaluation criteria for most people encourage working together and solving problems across geographies and product lines. These collegial attitudes, low personal aggrandizement and attitudes to sharing insights and information rather than bottling up information in rigid silos creates an internal innovation community spread across geographies and over 40 different core competencies. With a powerful informal network, the conditions are ripe for innovation.

Over the next few posts I'll return to the 3M visit and highlight some of the other learnings, takeaways and challenges for 3M. But to me one of the most important aspects of the innovative culture was the demonstration of the culture that allows innovation to flourish.

You can read other blog posts by other attendees here:

Mike Lippitz: link

Nick Shulz: link

Paul Williams: link

Other attendees included:

Joe Sinfield, Innosight
Lisa Bodell, FutureThink
Mary Tripsas, Harvard Business School
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:52 AM


Anonymous Mike Lippitz said...

I think the tolerance of "failure" is a key to maintaining an innovative culture. Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian McMillan in their work on Discovery Driven Planning emphasize the need to "manage the cost of failure not the rate of failure." (For a summary of Rita's recent writing about this, see

One aspect of how 3M manages "failure" is by mapping out many development paths for their technologies, so that researchers working on one part can move smoothly to another part if a new direction looks more promising, as opposed to being cut off completely. Andy Ouderkirk gave us an overview of this technology planning/architechting process yesterday.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Jim Baxter said...

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