Want to develop Innovation Mindset: Learn from Post-It Notes

Anyone who has worked in a corporate setup, for sure has flirted and romanced the sticky Post-It Notes, using them to brainstorm, organize, sort, prioritize, and rearrange ideas, inputs, insights, and information. How many of these little, colourful stickies are flagged around your office?

As humans, we love and need stories. Do you know the interesting behind-the-scenes story of 3M Post-it (the sticky) notes? The invention of these sticky Post-It notes is an illuminating symbol of innovation as much as the lightbulb is a symbol of ideation. 

How many of you know that they were very close to meeting the same fate as 95% of other innovations: Failure. They were a mistake. A very profitable and prosperous fortunate mistake.

The Invention of 3M’s Post-It notes is a great example of:

How to turn a problem into an opportunity.

How to turn a super failure into super success.

How to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

As the story goes, in 1968 Spencer Silver worked as an adhesive engineer in the research labs at 3M. He was working on the project of developing a super-strong adhesive for use in aircraft construction. What he was trying to achieve was a very ultra-strong and very quick-drying super glue. Instead by mistake, he created a weak, pressure-sensitive adhesive that could barely stick and hold even two pieces of paper.

However, they had a unique characteristic of sticking at a tangent to the surface, which meant that they could be peeled away from the surface without leaving behind any residue and could be reapplied and reused. He knew he had discovered something of value and it had potential, but failed to figure it out. Spencer struggled for years to find a use for his invention. It took another human mind to find the potential.

Art Fry, an engineer at 3M’s paper division. He sang in his church’s choir and would put little pieces of paper in his hymnal to bookmark the songs he was supposed to sing on Sunday, but to his utter disappointment the scraps of paper would routinely fall out forcing him to search through the entire book for the correct page. He was desperate for a solution and also determined to find one. 

Then, on a fine Sunday morning, in the middle of the chorus, a flash of lightning struck him and he suddenly remembered one of Spencer’s presentations about the weak glue. In that eureka moment, Fry realized that the glue could be applied to paper which can then act as a bookmark, strong enough to stick to the page but weak enough to remove it off without damaging the pages. 

Thus, was born a bookmark called Press’s peel. Eventually, Fry began using the sticky note for writing messages and notes to communicate with his colleagues in the office expanding its use. Slowly it became quite popular within the company, but senior management didn’t see any commercial viability of the product. 

Finally, in 1977, a change in management led to the decision to test the marketability of the product, with a limited launch in 4 cities to test the waters. The feedback was very poor supporting the management’s thinking of no commercial viability. But, the management persisted, thinking that the product being new people are unable to understand its utility and value. So, 3M decides to put its fate into the customer’s hands. They launched a sampling campaign sending out free samples to companies in large numbers and played the wait and watch game. To their surprise majority of companies who were given samples re-ordered the product. Thus, the post-it notes were officially launched in America in 1980 followed by Europe. The demand outgrew the company’s production capacity and the popularity never stagnated. 

A star was just born and the rest they say is history. The post-it notes family today has more than 1000 products selling in more than 150 countries in many shapes, sizes, and colour’s.

Though it took twelve long years after the initial discovery for the weak glue to get internal support to reach the commercial market and gain acceptance, but once it did, post-it notes never turned back and went on to become one of the most popular and widely used office products in the world.

There are many important and interesting lessons in innovation and teamwork in the Post-It note story:

importance of teamwork in innovation. 

Though one mind created the product, it took another mind to uncover and unleash its potential. Once done it then took a few more minds to commercialize and turn it into the ultimate solution. The challenges of today’s VUCA world similarly require many minds with diverse skillsets, different domain knowledge, and a different background to create innovation sparks into commercial solutions. This story is a reminder that there will always remain a gap between ideation and execution. Ideation could be in isolation but not the execution. Execution requires a lot of analysis, evaluation, experimentation, and trials from different teams from different areas. Companies should create a culture of reciprocity, where employees know that helping a team member or colleague will be reciprocated when they need it. Two minds are always better than one. But what about five – or ten or hundred? Connection and collaboration is important part of innovation. Create a culture where your team can connect and collaborate without fear. 

Innovation is messy

Innovation is not a smooth road where you expect to have a pothole-free ride. It’s a road full of bumps and potholes. To navigate this road 3M has in place the “Mcknight Principle,” named after former 3M Chairman William L. Mcknight. The principle is quite simple: Hire the best people, encourage them to exercise their initiative, pursue their curiosity, leave them alone, let them do their job, on the way expect mistakes and failures and let them embrace those moments learn from it and as a result grow and progress. Mistakes are mistakes when you don’t learn from them. Indeed a powerful principle.

Allow space for innovation

3M owes much of its unique innovative culture to William Mcknight. It was he who instituted a 15% rule more than 70 years ago which is still religiously followed to the letter. His objective was to listen to anybody who has an idea. This 15% rule allows its technical employees to spend 15% of their time on experimental projects which they are passionate about and the best part is that no need for management approval. This was time for the employees to connect, collaborate, network and experiment.

But, doesn’t this lead to productivity deficiency and inefficiency? Quite the opposite, this 15% rule has made what 3M is today creating billions of dollars from the products incubated during those hours. 

The Post-It notes the hero of this article was also conceived during 15% time. In fact, many of the products from a bouquet of approximately 1,20,000 patented products of 3M resulted from this rule. Now, this culture is so ingrained in the company’s DNA that there is an expectation within 3M to keep churning new innovative products. Because of this expectation employees keep rolling out new ideas. 

Even Google has replicated the approach with its own version of 20%-time, way back in 2004, just before the company’s IPO. Result: Gmail, Google AdSense, Google Earth, Google News are all products of this policy.

If you are a leader, let me ask you how much time you offer your people to daydream and visualize. If not, think about it. No matter how small or big your company, how small or big your team, isn’t a great habit to emulate. Even if you are not into any business, this habit of sparing time can lead to personal and professional development. A great idea to proudly steal and put it into practice. Just Think!

So, next time when you are flirting with a post-it note product, just stop, pause, think about the story and reflect.

Happy Innovation!

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