July 24, 2007
Talking Innovation: 3M's Secret Weapon

When talking (or blogging) about practical innovation in the corporate world, there's no better place to start than 3M, a company whose name has become synonymous with the word. 3M is committed to 30% of its revenues coming from recently introduced new products.

Impressive, indeed, but how do they do it?

Dr. Larry Wendling, VP of 3M's corporate research labs, revealed 3M's "secret weapon," in what he refers to as the "Seven Habits of Highly Innovative Organizations."

The Seven Habits are (paraphrased from Amy Rowell's Innovate Forum article):
1. Totally commit to innovation from top management on down.
2. Actively maintain an innovative culture.
3. Maintain a broad base of technology.
4. Encourage formal and informal networking.
5. Reward employees.
6. Quantify efforts.
7. Tie research to customers.

It all makes perfect sense, of course, starting with Wendling's first habit, the commitment of top management. But the fourth habit, what Wendling calls 3M's "secret weapon," is often overlooked, or even ignored, much of the time in organizations. In Rowell's words: "Talk, talk, talk. Management at 3M has long encouraged networking -- formal and informal -- among its researchers."

I think Wendling calls this 3M's "secret weapon" because so few other companies do this well, or are even aware of its importance. But what could be more important to innovation than encouraging the collaboration and teamwork we know lies behind every innovation since the invention of the wheel?

This is where the "silo" mentality and the "not invented here" syndrome intrudes on an innovation culture. Strict, formal reporting structures, loyalty to business unit before the organization, and the human tendency to only interact with people who already share our own views and experiences, all come into play. Any or all of these can block, or at least slow down, many companies' internal "network of innovation."

I can't tell you how many times I've facilitated a brainstorm session at a major corporation when a proposed idea will get criticized, or even rejected, because the development of the idea would involve another department or business unit! Sometimes the excuse is that there is no protocol for working with the other unit, and one would have to be created. Sometimes there is a poor previous history of collaboration between the two departments, (often involving, unsurprisingly, the two people at the top of each division).

In any case, I can't help but wonder how many great ideas fall between the cracks because executing them falls between the purviews of two different departments. And, unfortunately, it is in space between two major realms of focused business activity where we would expect to find some of the most exciting and profitable innovations!

To its credit, 3M actively encourages employees to talk to each other; across business units and despite formal roles, responsibilities, and organizational charts. If an employee has the kernel of an idea, he (or she) has the permission, indeed, the responsibility, to reach out and find out if it's viable, or if someone else has the missing piece. They're free to ask if others are interested in developing it, no matter where they work in the organization! (You mean you're allowed to DO that? Who knew?)

So, how does YOUR company's culture deal with employee networking? Does it encourage employees reaching out across organizational boundaries to share insights and ideas? Does it ignore this important aspect of innovation? Or is it actually hostile to it, punishing employees who reach out to others in order to get something started?

Here's a relatively cost-free way to improve the culture of innovation of your organization. Take advantage of 3M's experience and success and make employee networking your innovation "secret weapon" as well.

And, yes, you ARE allowed to do that!

Posted by Val Vadeboncoeur at July 24, 2007 06:45 PM

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