Myths that Destroy Innovation

Volume 6 Letter 9

You’ve all seen the movies that show the underdog fighting to get his/her moment of glory and/or riches. It is the poor boy who makes it against all odds to the top. It is the oddball or the outcast who pushes his or her way through the establishment to single handedly save the day. Many people see the success of 3M’s Post-it Notes in the same way. It makes for a great story!

The glue that was used on Post-it Notes came from a failed R&D experiment that was actually supposed to be a more aggressive adhesive for packaging tape. Art Fry then used this ‘failed adhesive’ on small note pads to create the first Post-it Note. When he took the notes to the marketing department they turned him away saying it was just scrap paper with glue. However, instead of dropping the project he manufactured a few batches of the notes and sent them to department heads around 3M. The sticky Post-it Notes quickly became addictive and supplies soon ran out. As department head assistants phoned to request more Post-it Notes all calls were then transferred to the marketing department. That got their attention!

Under marketing’s guidance, a product launch strategy was developed where the CEO’s assistant wrote a personal letter to her peer assistants in each of the Fortune 100 companies across the USA. The letter announced the launch of Post-it Notes and came with a box of samples. Using this strategy, Post-it Notes soon found their way into the offices of senior executives across America. Turns out senior executives were often more enamored with the sticky note than the report it was attached to – needless to say demand took off!

Art Fry did it all by himself. The lone wolf pushed this through the 3M bureaucracy and hit a “home run”. The truth is that Art Fry had a lot of help along the way from his colleagues in the lab, to manufacturing, to yes, even the ‘suits’ in marketing. “In reality, Art Fry had built a huge informal team and indeed the bureaucracy served him well”.1

As romantic as the myth is, that Art Fry did this all by himself, it also sounded very unappealing to many scientists who felt they weren’t willing to do the same for their project. Unfortunately, as the myth about Art Fry’s efforts spread through 3M, it had the effect of stifling creativity and ambition, and for a while innovation was stopped short.

Jim McNerney, the new CEO of Boeing, in a recent speech debunked many of the myths that often go with innovation. He spoke of the myth that says market discipline and creativity are mortal enemies. In more vernacular terms the belief is that “suits” stifle creativity. He stated “You can’t have creativity without discipline because like it or not – not all ideas are created equal. You must be ruthlessly selective in choosing between them and have a culture that supports that. In a corporate setting, you can not escape the need for centralized decision making in resource allocation. You need the rigor and discipline both to say ‘no’ to many projects and put the pedal to the metal on others.” He goes on, “there is also a continuing need for discipline as a project moves form the lab through marketing and manufacturing…and into the field… At every stage, you must ask whether the project is on target to deliver a compelling value proposition to the customer”.

A lone wolf pushing a project through a bureaucratic maze and breaking through against all odds makes for a great story (and Hollywood movie). The reality is that innovation is really a team sport. To bring any new innovation to the market requires a lot of hard work and a lot of team work. As Edison stated “Innovation is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. Get your team together and start sweating!

1. “Innovation and the Global Economy” Jim McNerney, speech delivered May 16, 2006 St. Louis University. For full text

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