Innovation: 3M’s lessons to be learned

While Apple is often the most highly touted company for its innovation success, 3M is a global innovation company that has remained under the radar for its long-term innovation plans and succeses. With $30 billion in sales and products 3M- Post-It Notessold in nearly 200 countries, 3M has made significant contributions to the health care, communications and office business – including bringing the world’s most recognizable brands Post-it Notes and Scotch tape to market.

The root of 3M’s success is its business model; to foster organic growth by inventing entirely new, market-changing products. These disruptive technologies have not only led to new products but to the creation of new industries. In order to foster this growth, 3M has always emphasized the important of research and development (R&D) to which the company dedicates six percent of its yearly revenue. Although a high percentage in R&D spending does not guarantee success, 3M is doing very well.

3M takes a long-term approach to the new product development process by creating a culture of innovation that encourages risk-taking, tolerates mistakes made along the way, and rewards achievement. A culture of innovation means that senior management encourages employees to spend a significant portion of their time on products and research that go beyond their usual scope of responsibilities. This involves hosting ideation sessions in which the innovation champion creates an environment of trust and openness. Only by breaking out of their usual comfort zones can teams create truly disruptive technology.

As part of the company’s holistic innovation strategy, 3M focuses on developing disruptive innovations outside of the current existing portfolio. In 2008, 3M began strategically investing in startups with long-term benefit to the company, resulting in collaborations and increased technological development. These 3M New Ventures include 3M GTG digital media solutions for outdoor advertising, and Energy Inc., which monitors residential and commercial energy consumption to reduce costs.

Another way 3M capitalizes on its innovation success is by combining diverse technologies in new and unexpected ways. 3M draws upon innovative technologies from its portfolio of 55,000 products to create new solutions, such as using dental technology applied to car parts. By making these uncommon connections, the company pioneers new ways of innovating.

The strategies developed by 3M are meant for long-term, sustained innovation.

– Dedicated R&D, long-term development and separate from concept to launch efforts

– Apply and use Open Innovation; host ideation sessions with members of all departments

– Foster a culture of innovation by allowing team members to take risks in a protected environment

– Reward and encourage creativity

– Implement and nurture all Ten Imperatives in Robert’s Rules of Innovation to create and sustain innovation.

As innovation is the lifeblood of any organization, all companies can stand to learn from some of the tactics used by 3M. For more tips, see “Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival.”

Category: Innovation

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About the Author: Robert Brands

Robert F. Brands is President and Founder of, Author of "Robert's Rules of Innovation" (Wiley, March, 2010), Innovation subject expert and speaker. Brands' hands-on experience in bringing innovation to ma…

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  1. Ed Stillman

    May 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    As a retired 3Mer, I was part of several cross-functional teams in the early 1990’s. Being your word, saying what you will do and doing what you said you will do is core to 3M’s long term success.

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