3M is a successful product development company. Not only have they developed new products, but whole new categories of products as diverse as copiers, magnetic and optical storage, non-woven fabrics and the proverbial yellow Post It.
3M uses an R&D model where scientists and engineers in a central research facility don’t have an immediate product development goal. Their focus is to develop new science. Core science developed there finds it’s way out to product research and development in business divisions focused on products and market segments. Traditionally they hire PhDs for their Central Research… really smart people with heads three feet across, and they set them loose on fun stuff. Passionate about what they do, they share what they find with the development labs.
3M also has an unwritten cultural tradition that allows employees to spend 15% of their time working on their own ideas. This is time that managers can’t ‘second guess’ or override. The process, which has been in place over decades, breeds a type of thought leadership and product leadership that has been studied and emulated by many. It also makes the bean counters and upper management uncomfortable because they can’t always measure the immediate result.
In Becoming the World’s Greatest Lover/Marketer I wrote about what Thought Leadership is. So let me add what it is not, which also helps sharpen what it is. Thought Leadership is not:
- A marketing or PR campaign
- About your products or services
- A set of communication tactics
- An event or this year’s campaign
- Someone else’s job
If you take these approaches, you are likely to fail. Thought leadership requires a cultural transformation in most organizations, and it can’t be mandated. 3M’s new product development process has strong similarities to thought leadership, especially in the cultural aspects of allowing time to think and create, instead of simply produce. It has similarities in the sharing of core ideas and technology.
So… what if your people had 15% of their time to do what they wanted? What if you shared what you were excited about? What if you rewarded the behaviors that you want to develop? Gave away your secret sauce? What if you played. Had a little fun? Developed a glue that didn’t stick very well and attached it to little yellow pieces of paper?