3M’s legendary Dick Drew invented many products, including the ubiquitous masking tape. Stories about him and his incredible creativity and drive are often told at 3M gatherings to inspire new employees. These stories are actually more than stories; they are important ingredients in 3M’s recipe for achieving innovation. Drew is 3M’s personal example of how individual creativity generates corporate accomplishment. Former 3M Chairman and CEO, Lewis Lehr, said, at a creativity awards ceremony, that if Dick Drew had not worked at 3M, 3M might not exist today or, if it did, it would be a lot smaller than it is.
Drew was a consummate risk-taker, constantly pushing to and beyond the edge the envelope. He ignored his boss when he was summarily ordered to quit working on masking tape and get back to work on improving a brand of Wet-or-Dry sandpaper. That Drew ignored management and wasn’t fired, speaks volumes not only about Drew but about 3M’s management philosophy even back then. It tells you that Drew would pursue his belief in the face of any obstacle, and it tells you that 3M’s management genius included an intuitive understanding of the need to let creative talent alone and to gamble on their ideas.
After creating the initial version of masking tape, Drew asked an executive for permission to buy a thirty-seven thousand dollar paper maker. He said it would help improve the 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, and he didn’t feel the paper maker was worth the expenditure. 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 the masking tape. Ober was flabbergasted and angry! He asked Drew where the hardware came from. Drew explained that he simply submitted a blizzard of 100 dollar purchase orders over a six-month period of time. The machine was paid for in the small amounts he was authorized to spend on his own. The paper maker helped make masking tape into a phenomenal commercial success for 3M.
Drew also encouraged his own workers to attack their goals as relentlessly as he pursued his own. One day, one of his subordinates went to Drew with an idea he was very excited about. He presented his idea enthusiastically and sat back to wait for Drew’s response. Drew paused thoughtfully and then he replied, “Your idea leaves me colder than a Billy goat in hell.” Before disappointment could set in, however, he told him, “You obviously believe in your idea so strongly that I’ll fire you if you don’t continue to work on it, regardless of what I or anyone else here think.”
Dick Drew’s basic beliefs about creativity were:
• He believed in serendipity, the gift of finding something you’re not looking for.
• He favored the concept of “constructive ignorance.” By that he meant that you only needed to know enough to start something, but not so much that you know it can’t work.
• He intuitively understood that management can’t order creativity. Management can only create the environment where creativity can flourish.
3M once undertook a study of creativity and innovation. The study revealed 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 will coast. And the only way you can coast is downhill.
• Teach innovation. Not everyone will be a Dick Drew, but most people can improve their level of innovation.
• Hire creative people. Look for people who want to do something with their careers rather than merely securing a comfortable job.
The most important conclusion of 3M’s study was simple. 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. 3M has long understood that true innovation is not found in the middle of the status quo. Innovation always starts at the edge where the landscape is uncertain and unstable and rife with risks. But, the edge is also home to the beginning of the future.
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