3M is indisputably one of the world’s most innovative companies. How does it keep churning out smart products?
Fred J. Palensky, 3M’s chief technology officer, points out three ways:
1. The way it allows ideas to cross-pollinate. Employees and ideas move freely. Palensky has had 14 different jobs within 3M, in five different industries and three different countries.
No employee is restricted to one business, and each business must leverage the entire company to be successful.
Example: 3M’s abrasives division recently developed a new kind of sandpaper using seven different technologies—only two of which came from the abrasives division itself.
2. The way it collaborates with customers. In 30 customer technology centers around the world, technical and marketing employees meet with customers and share 3M’s technology platforms. Then they ask customers where their problems and opportunities are. “The constant technical interaction is critical in creating new innovations,” Palensky says.
3. The way its culture leads the way. Technical people at 3M’s corporate lab devote 15% of their time to projects outside their responsibility. Since leaders have grown up in the culture, they continue to nurture it.
Since the company’s beginning, open innovation has thrived. Palensky tells a story about salesmen who sold the company’s sandpaper in the early days.
“When they visited auto body shops, they watched workers struggle to paint fine lines and borders,” he says. “So the salesmen went back to the office and talked about the problem. That was the beginning of our masking tape business.”
— Adapted from “3M’s Open Innovation,” strategy+business.