Encourage Your Employees to Innovate

Steve Strauss shares a technique for encouraging employees to innovate in the workplace.      

InnovateQ:  We were wondering if you had any suggestions regarding how we could promote more innovation in our business. We own a small manufacturing plant and have down time that could be put to use  -- if we knew what to use it for. We, as partners, only have so many ideas. Thanks in advance.

India and Muhummad

A: I think the best way to answer your question is to share a tale I heard a few years ago that exemplifies how some companies unleash their people to innovate. What they do, you can do too.

Here’s the story: 3M is a company that is truly innovative: It invented sandpaper in 1904, masking tape in 1925, transparent tape in 1930, electrical tape in 1945, surgical drape in 1950, and synthetic running tracks in 1963. But its an invention from the 70s that I want to share with you today.

In 1968, 3M research scientist Dr. Spencer Silver was doing some work regarding glue and in one of his experiments, Silver stumbled upon a unique substance: An adhesive that was gummy, not sticky, but it remained sort-of sticky even after it was repeatedly used. Silver knew that he had invented a highly unusual new substance, but the question was - what to do with it? A glue that didn’t stick very well might have been considered a mistake at other companies, but at 3M it was something to explore.

And what is cool about 3M is that it gives its employees the room to do just that. 3M has a policy that allows everyone in the company to pursue what they call “15% time projects.” That is, everyone at 3M is allowed to use 15% of their time to follow their muse and innovate. This policy has been in effect since 1948 and has resulted in products ranging from clear bandages to painter’s tape that sticks to the edge of a wall to prevent paint bleed.

Maybe not surprisingly, this sort of policy has become a hot topic for innovative businesses. For instance, Google has a similar policy: It allows employees to use up to 20% of their time to innovate and think outside the box. Amazon has something similar too.

You may want to do something comparable as well. After all, who knows what genius is inside some of your employees?

And it was this policy that allowed Dr. Silver to pursue his dream of finding some practical use for his non-sticky glue. Silver refused to simply let it fade away. So committed was he to his innovation that for the next several years, Silver gave seminars to his colleagues at 3M, extolling the virtues of this new adhesive. But still, no one at the company could find a good use for the adhesive.

That is, until 3M employee Art Fry had, what a 3M spokesman later called “a moment of pure ‘Eureka.’” On the day in qustion, Mr. Fry was in his church singing in the choir when he became frustrated that the little pieces of paper he used to mark his place in his hymnal kept falling out. If only he had some sort of sticky bookmark. And then it his him: Dr. Silver’s strange glue could make for a great bookmark!

Later at the office, attaching Silver’s adhesive to the back of some notepaper, Fry created some sample bookmarks. Although Fry thought he was building a better mousetrap, it was only when he attached the sticky bookmark to a report, and wrote on it, that he realized that he had not created a bookmark at all. According to Fry, it was then that he “came to the very exciting realization that my sticky bookmark was actually a new way to communicate and organize information.”

The gummy bookmark begat a sticky note.

The rest, as they say, is history: With an actual use for the long-dormant adhesive, Silver and Fry were able to get the sticky notes on 3M’s new product agenda, and by 1977, they began by giving the notes to secretaries and showed them how, by writing notes on the sticky paper, documents could be kept neat and clean.

3M marketers were encouraged by the fact that within the company, the notes had become outrageously popular. Taking a play out of the Fry notebook, two 3M marketers flew to Boise, Idaho for what has become known in company folklore as the “Boise Blitz.” They saturated the office supply industry with free samples and found that an astonishing 90 percent of the consumers who tried the now renamed “Post-it Notes” said they would purchase the product.

In 1981, one year after its introduction, Post-it Notes were named the company’s “outstanding new product.” In 1990, ten years after their introduction, Post-its were named one of the top consumer products of the decade.

So my longwinded answer is – if you want to innovate in your business, then consider giving your staff the time and ability to do just that.

Today’s Tip: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” - Dr. Linus Pauling

Want to try this in your business? Connect with a SCORE mentor online or in your community today!

About the Author

Steve Strauss HeadshotSteven D. Strauss is a lawyer and writer and is one of the country's leading experts on small business as well as an international business speaker. The best-selling author of 17 books, his latest is the all-new 3rd ed. of The Small Business Bible. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success Powered by Greatland, visit his new website for the self-employed, TheSelfEmployed, follow him on Twitter, and "like" TheSelfEmployed on Facebook. You can e-mail Steve at: sstrauss@mrallbiz.com. © Steven D. Strauss