value insights

How does 3M Sustain Innovation- Valutrics

3M Corporation. 3M was awarded the US government’s highest award for innovation, the National Medal of Technology. Over a 20-year period, 3M’s gross margin averaged 51% and the company’s return on assets averaged 29%. 3M has consistently been highly ranked, often in the top 20, in Fortune magazine’s annual survey of “America’s Most Admired Corporations.” How do they do it?


1. Spend Time in the Smokestacks

3M love the tough problems, as it’s where they prove their reputation and makes the work interesting! A core 3M principle is to “spend time in the smokestacks”, meaning they go where their customers are, observing them working and ask lots of questions. They don’t guess what the customer needs, they invest their time to know their needs, discovering the big problems that they can try to solve.

2. Create Innovation Time

3M employees are able to spend up to 15% of their time working on a project that they are passionate about. But doesn’t this create huge inefficiency? Well perhaps, but out of “15% time”, 3M has created billions of dollars of revenue. Not everything pays off, but things that do provide the benefit that 3M needs to reinforce “15% time”. Every 3M’er knows that they can use this time and it attracts innovative people into the organisation.  They are willing to let people work on let projects even if there is no immediate benefit, on the assumption that an application for those ideas may be hiding in plain sight.

3. Accept that Innovation is a Bumpy Journey

3M know that innovation is not a smooth road and has many bumps along the journey. As a result, they have developed the McKnight Principles (named after a previous CEO): Hire good people; let them do their job; expect and tolerate mistakes. 3M know solving big problems is a voyage of discovery and not always covered in gold. However, they learn from their mistakes – or experiments – and as a result, progress to find the solutions.

Innovation is ingrained deep within their culture. 3M have made innovation business as usual.

4. Remember the Innovation Heroes

As humans, we love and need stories; 3M remembers and tell their innovation stories about the legendary heroes. Not every 3M’er is going have a book written about them, but the history inspires current employees to strive for more.

The team who developed Post-it Notes needed to show customer demand, so they set their phones to forward their managers.  Every time an internal 3M employee phoned to request more Post-it notes, the managers got the calls – they were inundated – and were convinced of the customer demand! This says much about 3M aspirational commitment and passion to complete the last steps towards real commercial success. It’s such an inspiring story for other innovators.

5. Encourage Collaboration and Give Help

3M are a large organisation, and with 25 new products being created each week, there is a lot going on. To avoid the creation of silos and duplication, 3M have tech forums aligned to specific interest areas, where the members share research, problems, ideas and solutions. 3M know that the answers they need are probably in 3M already, they just need to find it.

As an example of this behaviour in action, the Automotive team, found and converted an automated mixing solution developed The 3M culture is open to help each other, as they know that if the help someone, then it is likely that help will be reciprocated when they need it.


Innovative companies like 3M use creative “and” thinking and resourcefulness to pursue promising opportunities and strategically meet outcomes, all the while “expanding the pie.” Such organizations create the structure, systems, and culture to enable their people to think and do things differently in order to achieve extraordinary success.