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The Blunder that Founded 3M

Not only do blunders often stimulate innovative ideas, many times they also mark the beginning of highly innovative companies. One such company, which is known for its innovativeness is 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company).

3M was founded in 1903 because of a gigantic mistake by a doctor, a lawyer, two railroad executives, and a meat-marketing manager. They invested in a piece of land which supposedly contained corundum (an abrasive used for manufacturing sandpaper). It was only after they started mining that they found what they had was a worthless mineral with no use to sandpaper manufacturers. The only way for the company to survive was to invent uses for whatever it had - which it did by innovating products such as abrasive cloth for metal finishing, waterdry sandpaper, etc.

It is not surprising that many of 3M's 62,000 innovative products have resulted from mistakes (e.g., post-it notes), and its corporate philosophy was described by its erstwhile CEO, Lew Lehr:

"We have continued to accept mistakes as a normal part of running business... It's important to add, however, that we expect to have originality in our mistakes. We can afford almost any mistake once."

From Creativity to Innovation

Both creativity and innovation involve an element of luck. Well-prepared companies like 3M tend to be the luckiest.

In the 3M culture, both creativity and innovation are highly valued. But the differences between them are clearly defined. Within 3M, as the saying goes, "Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things." The relationship between the two is clear: Innovation is the practical application of creativity. Both are necessary for 3M to succeed and grow.

3M's 70,000 employees put science and creativity to work everyday producing products that make people's lives better. As 3M approaches its 100th anniversary, it will celebrate a century of creating exciting and useful products for electronics, telecommunications, industry, individual consumers, the home and business office, health care, safety, and other markets. 3M has brought more than 50,000 innovative products to market

Richard Drew the Inventor

It is less of a stretch than you might think to link 3M's Dick Drew with Edgar Allan Poe. That is because Poe could have been thinking about someone like Drew when he wrote these words: "Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only at night."

Drew definitely was a dreamer by day. But Drew also was a doer. Combining dreams and actions, he built an admirable life and outstanding career around just two words: curiosity and creativity. And because Drew was curious, creative, and persistent, 3M flourished then and flourishes now.

Stories about Dick Drew are often told at 3M. These stories actually are more than stories; they are important ingredients in 3M's recipe for achieving innovation. Given 3M's recipe for success, it is wonderfully ironic that Drew described himself to be more of a cook than a chemist. He “stirred things up” until the recipe was perfect.

I value creativity as 3M values creativity. Dick Drew continues to stand tall as the example of how creativity generates accomplishment. I'll go so far as to say this: Without Dick Drew, 3M might not exist, or it would be a far different company, probably a lot smaller. I will try to explain why this is so.

Let's start at the beginning. When Dick Drew was an inquisitive little boy who liked to take apart clocks and other mechanical devices, the only difference between Dick and me was that Dick could put them back together! Perhaps this is why Dick became an inventor, while I became an engineer, business developer, and manager. I can just see Dick sitting there, with a grin on his face, saying, "Lew, those who can’t do it, manage." In addition to inborn mechanical genius, Dick Drew had an instinct that compelled him to push beyond reasonable limits and, in some cases, unreasonable limits. He was an irresistible force drawn toward any immovable object. As a colleague once observed, "Dick is drawn like a moth to the flame." This trait emerged early. For example, there was the day when Dick Drew's father caught him running around on the roof of their house, having a grand old time up there in harm's way. Think of what your mother or your father would do in a similar situation.

Would your parents scream, holler, shout, or faint?

Perhaps, all of the above?

And we haven't even mentioned how to punish the survivor of this experience. For somebody on the roof, grounding seems to be an appropriate penalty. But, let's leave you and your parents, and get back to Dick's father, out there in the front yard, with his son on the roof, just a tumble away from a medical record for broken bones. Mr. Drew's response wasn't "all of the above." It wasn't even "one of the above."

  • He didn't scream!

  • He didn't holler!

  • He didn't shout.

  • He certainly didn't faint,

  • Nor did he punish Dick.

But, he did warn his son emphatically, "Richard Drew, if you're going to play on the roof, you simply must wear your rubber-sole shoes."

Maybe this laissez-faire attitude of Dick's father explains why the son spent his entire life up there on 3M's roof, taking risks, pushing to the edge, and pushing beyond the edge. And, maybe, it also says something positive about a company that never grounded the man on its roof.

You will learn how Dick invented masking tape in spite of William L. McKnight, the true giant in 3M's history. Drew totally ignored McKnight's order to quit working on masking tape and get back to work on improving our Wet-or-Dry sandpaper. You might think that, even back then, ignoring McKnight would be like ignoring God. But it wasn't. And this speaks volumes not only about Dick Drew, but also about William McKnight. It tells you that Dick Drew would pursue his beliefs in the face of any obstacle. It tells you that McKnight's genius included an understanding of the need to give talent space and to gamble.

The word synergism is overused, but the relationship between Drew and McKnight certainly was a synergism. That is, their value together was greater than the sum of their individual contributions.

Over the years, many 3Mers have faced their own risky challenges and disobedient options. That so many are willing to close their eyes and jump into the risky unknown is due, in no small part, to the actions of Drew and the toleration of McKnight.

Let me tell you about my own, personal example of risk-taking. I'd been working in the tape laboratory when the company received a proposal to make an adhesive-backed surgical drape for use in hospital operating rooms. I was one of two assigned to the project. We got the go ahead to "make a little, sell a little."

Unfortunately, things did not go well.

  • An optimist would describe sales as slow.

  • A realist would say that sales were non-existent.

  • A pessimist would say that the realist was an optimist.

  • In other words, it was bad out there!

A 3M senior vice president told me to abandon the surgical-drape ... and work on something more productive in the tape laboratory. Now, one of my jobs had been to stick pieces of tape on the wall with weights attached. Then I'd time how long it took for the tape to peel away from the wall. This is how we used to compare our tapes against the competition. The job was important, but I think you get the idea why I was very anxious for the surgical drape to succeed. A tape peeler is just one step up from a potato peeler.

As obedient employees, my partner and I readily promised to kill the surgical-drape project, just as soon as the inventory was gone. However, in the spirit of Dick Drew, I just didn't get around to telling the factory to stop making surgical drapes, not until we had an even larger inventory. You know what? The inventory never quite got low enough to call off the project. It was inevitable we would get caught. By that time, however, key accounts, such as the University of Minnesota Hospital and the Eighth Air Force, were demanding that 3M stay in the business.

That surgical drape still is being sold, and it has led to a large line of health-care products. I keep asking myself, even today, without the example of Dick Drew, would I have risked pursuing my own venture beyond the limit? I like to think I would have gone ahead, but I cannot say that for sure. It certainly helped the rest of us that Dick Drew was a howling success. That's because his achievement reinforced the value of his gambler's approach. For this, 3M owes him a big "thank you," and so do I, personally and professionally. Who knows, without Dick Drew's inspirational example, I might have retired with a stopwatch in my hand, still watching tape peel off the wall.

After masking tape was a success, Dick Drew asked an executive for permission to buy a 37-thousand-dollar paper maker. He said it would help improve our masking tape, which has a crepe-like paper backing. The executive, Edgar Ober, told Drew to hold off for a while, because finances were tight. Six months later, Drew took Ober into the laboratory, and there was the paper maker, working away productively, turning out a vastly improved backing for our masking tape. Ober was astonished! He asked Drew where the hardware came from. Drew explained that he simply submitted a blizzard of 100-dollar purchase orders over six months. The machine was paid for in amounts he was authorized to spend on his own. Drew was equally adamant that his own employees attack their goals as relentlessly as he pursued his own.

Ted Buchholtz once went to Drew, very excited about an idea. Ted tells how he presented his idea enthusiastically and sat back to wait for Drew's response. Drew paused thoughtfully, then he replied: "Ted, your idea leaves me colder than a billy goat in hell." Before disappointment could set in, however, Drew told Buchholtz, "Ted, you believe in your idea so strongly, I'll fire you if you don't continue to work on it!"

Dick Drew's basic beliefs.

  1. He believed strongly in serendipity, the gift of finding something you're not looking for.

  2. He favored the concept of "constructive ignorance." That is, you need to know enough to start something, but not so much that you know it won't work. I think he would love those Nike shoe ads that tell you, "Just do it!"

  3. He understood that top management can't order creativity. Top management only can create the environment where creativity can flourish.

  4. He was especially interested in young people and very patient and encouraging of their ideas.

If Dick Drew were here, he'd tell you to look for a mentor, someone you respect ... somebody who can help you through the ups and downs of life. That's because McKnight was Drew's mentor. McKnight could have squelched Drew many times, but he didn't; instead, McKnight encouraged Drew.

Two years ago, 3M undertook a study of innovation and creativity. The study discovered these facts about innovation:

  • Do it now. Innovation must be timely or it won't get done.

  • Keep the process going. Innovation is like riding a bicycle; you've got to keep pedaling or you coast. And the only way you coast is downhill.

  • Teach innovation. Not everyone will be a world-class innovator, but most people can improve their level of innovation.

  • Hire creative people. Look for people who want more than to become merely a cog on your wheel.

The study also came up with these characteristics of innovators.

  • Innovators are creative.

  • They have broad interests.

  • Innovators are highly motivated.

  • They are risk-takers.

  • Innovators are resourceful.

  • They work hard.

  • And, most important, innovators solve problems.

3M looks for the source of innovation and creativity in the 1990s, and comes up with a simple answer: Find people like Dick Drew, and figure out how to cultivate them, even though they may appear, at times, to be the weed in the flower garden.

In British history, Thomas Moore is "A Man for All Seasons." In 3M history, Dick Drew is "A Man for All Times": His Time, My Time, and Your Time. The image of little Richard Drew on the roof brings to mind a federal-government report called "The Road to 2012: Looking Toward the Next Two Decades."

I'll conclude with two observations from this report.

  • Innovation is not found "in the middle of the status quo." "Innovation always starts at the edge."

  • Out there on the edge, the landscape is uncertain and unstable. The edge is rife with risks. But, the edge "is also home to the beginning of the future."

When talking about Dick Drew, I can think of no better place to end than with the idea of another new beginning: the beginning that you represent, out there, as you are, at the edge of tomorrow.
Like Dick Drew:

  • Be curious.

  • Be creative.

  • Be persistent.

  • And you, too, will be successful.


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Copyright 2010, Brad Fregger