Complexity Arrangements for Sustained Innovation: Lessons From 3M Corporation

This is the second business paper I’ve read this week while reading along with my son’s university studies. The first is discussed here if you’re interested. This paper is better written, but more academic in its style. This ironically makes it harder to read, because its grammar style is more complicated and harder to parse.

The take aways for me from this paper is that 3M is good at encouraging serendipity and opportune moments that create innovation. This is similar to Google’s attempts to build internal peer networks and deliberate lack of structure. In 3M’s case its partially expressed as 15% time, which is similar to Google’s 20% time. Specifically, “eureka moments” cannot be planned or scheduled, but require prior engagement.

chance favors only the prepared mind — Pasteur

3M has a variety of methods for encouraging peer networks, including technology fairs, “bootlegging” (borrowing idle resources from other teams), innovation grants, and so on.

At the same time, 3M tries to keep at least a partial focus on events driving by schedules. The concept of time is important here — there is a “time to wait” (we are ahead of the market); “a time in between” (15% time); and “a time across” (several parallel efforts around related innovations to speed up the process).

The idea of “a time to wait” is quite interesting. 3M has a history of discovering things where there is no current application, but somehow corporately remembering those things so that when there are applications years later they can jump in with a solution. They embrace story telling as part of their corporate memory, as well as a way of ensuring they learn from past success and failure.

Finally, 3M is similar to Google in their deliberate flexibility with the rules. 15% time isn’t rigidly counted for example — it might be 15% a week, or 15% of a year, or more or less than that. As long as it can be justified as a good use of resources its ok.

This was a good read and I enjoyed it.


A corporate system for continuous innovation: The case of Google Inc

So, one of my kids is studying some business units at university and was assigned this paper to read. I thought it looked interesting, so I gave it a read as well.

While not being particularly well written in terms of style, this is an approachable introduction to the culture and values of Google and how they play into Google’s continued ability to innovate. The paper identifies seven important attributes of the company’s culture that promote innovation, as ranked by the interviewed employees:

  • The culture is innovation oriented.
  • They put a lot of effort into selecting individuals who will fit well with the culture at hiring time.
  • Leaders are seen as performing a facilitiation role, not a directive one.
  • The organizational structure is loosely defined.
  • OKRs and aligned performance incentives.
  • A culture of organizational learning through postmortems and building internal social networks. Learning is considered a peer to peer activity that is not heavily structured.
  • External interaction — especially in the form of aggressive acquisition of skills and technologies in areas Google feels they are struggling in.

Additionally, they identify eight habits of a good leader:

  • A good coach.
  • Empoyer your team and don’t micro-manage.
  • Express interest in employees’ success and well-being.
  • Be productive and results oriented.
  • Be a good communicator and listen to your team.
  • Help employees with career development.
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  • Have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team.

Overall, this paper is well worth the time to read. I enjoyed it and found it insightful.


I read this book on an international trip, and it was a good choice for that. Its long (around 900 pages), but very readable. This is the second time I’ve read the book, and this time its amazing how well the description of Silicon Valley startups matches my experiences there. I love this book.

Update 2022: having now read this book for a third time, I have to say it does stand the test of time. However, having read the rest of the Baroque Cycle now, I do wish somewhere in the series more attention was paid to explaining Enoch Root’s back story.

Cryptonomicon Book Cover Cryptonomicon
Neal Stephenson
Code and cipher stories
Random House

"Neal Stephenson hacks into the secret histories of nations and the private obsessions of men, decrypting with dazzling virtuosity the forces that have shaped the past century. Weaving together the cracking of the Axis codes during WWII and the quest to establish a free South East Asian 'data haven' for digital information in the present, Cryptonomicon explores themes of power, information, secrecy and war in the twentieth century in a gripping and page-turning thriller." - product description.


I’m not sure where to start this story. I could tell you how I’ve been flying around the world on a business trip, or I could tell you what I think about Swiss Air business class. Instead I’m left thinking I should mention carbon. You see, I was sitting in first class on a Swiss Air flight to New York City yesterday, and I was surrounded by tree. Big centimeter thick panels of it are all over the place. When other airlines are doing things like using lighter foam for seat cushions or asking passengers to go potty before boarding to reduce the weight of their aircraft (and therefore carbon emissions), Swiss has chosen to find a forest and cut it down to put in their brand new plane. This forest will be flying around for a couple of decades I would think.

Sure, its only in first class (business class gets veneer), and I’m a bastard for being in first class at all. There’s a story to that too though. I booked an ultra cheap around the world business ticket through Swiss Air. It was in fact cheaper than the same flights in economy with Qantas. This is despite the fact that two of the business class segments are in fact on Qantas. That’s how I ended up in first class — I was going between London Heathrow and San Francisco, but Swiss had oversold the Zurich to LA flight. So, I’m bumped to first class via NYC, which added about six hours to my total travel time yesterday.

Being bumped wasn’t all bad. I’ve never been in first class before, and it was very nice. I might have chocolate poisoning of some form. I also got to “experience” American Airlines business class from New York to LA, in a plane which is possibly older than me. In fact, its entirely possible this plane predates flight. The seat pitch was nice, except that my chair kept involuntarily reclining. I didn’t mind too much, as I hadn’t slept in about 24 hours at that point, so I nodded off. Before I nodded off, I was also forced to decide that it was in fact the chick from Gilmore Girls (the one who plays Lorelai) two rows in front of me. She dropped her bag at one point in the airport, and I am excited to report that she watched a DVD during the flight. Citizen journalism at its finest.

I wouldn’t normally mention the actress in the front of the plane, especially after TechCrunch taught me that no one gives a crap about what’s happening to me (or in fact you) in real time. However, this being a stream of consciousness blog post written at 8am in LA airport while killing time for yet another flight, I think I am justified. Oh, and I also don’t care if you give a crap.

I have more to complain about. Take for example the Swiss Air business class flight that I’ve just taken from Narita near Tokyo to Heathrow, via Zurich. Its clear why the ticket was cheap. Swiss business class simply isn’t up to the standard of Qantas’. The seats don’t lie flat (when you try to sleep you slide down to the end of the footrest in a little mound), the on demand entertainment system works, but appears to have some sort of image resizing error (everything is pixelated), and the cabin service is terribly slow. Lunch has just taken about two hours to serve. It took two hours in first class as well, but that’s because they were trying to shove five courses into me.

The cabin fit out on that business class flight was the same standard as Qantas had before they went to their new lie flat configuration. To put that in perspective, that conversion was done at least ten years ago. I think the standard of the equipment being used might also explain why only half of the seats are taken in business class, where Qantas would be running at capacity. This was clearly one of the older Swiss aircraft, but even the brand new one with the forest in it had a business class which wasn’t up to the same standard as Qantas.

I can’t complain too much though — it still beats the pants of Qantas economy, and the flight did give me a chance to discover what I believe might be the most boring television program ever made. Its called “Swiss Railway Journeys”, and I heartily don’t recommend it. Unless you deeply care about the age of each wheel on the train.

One last thing. While the Swiss Air staff were all much older than I am used to on other airlines, I think that’s because of the vagaries of the youth of today. Each of these staff could speak four languages fluently, and would begin the conversation when you first boarded with a little protocol handshake where they said hello in all four languages and waited to see which one you replied in. Once they had you figured out, they would use the correct language from then on. Modern youth are too busy twittering to learn one language, let alone every language ever used. Oh, and if you know four words of German, don’t use them at the start of a Swiss flight. You’ll be stuck for the rest of the journey conveying your desires through interpretive dance.