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.