No doubt you have heard of 3M, a company that has been in business for over a century and has been in the Fortune 500 most of that time. While most know the name well, few understand the company’s roots, or even what it really does.
“3M” is based off the company’s original name of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. The company was launched in 1902, and as the name implies, it was originally involved in mining (which, as it turns out, was a short-lived focus). Today, 3M operates in a variety of industries and consumer markets, and produces over 60,000 products under dozens of different brands (the N95 mask is one of those products). Based just outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, the company generates more than $30 billion in sales and has almost 100,000 employees.
The concept of culture renovation could have been written entirely about 3M. The company’s ability to continue to innovate and reinvent itself is legendary, and while much of it is on purpose, some of it has been by chance. As one publication put it, “those three M’s might better stand for Mistake = Magic = Money.” Few companies have ever created more useful products seemingly by accident than 3M, an amazing historic record that many attribute to the freedom the company gives employees to make mistakes and its appreciation for innovation.
That freedom is an historical trait of the company. The most famous 3M CEO, William McKnight, developed what became known as the McKnight Principles in 1948—words of wisdom which today are sacred in 3M’s corporate culture. The most famous passage celebrates pushing decision making lower in the organization (a key tenet of organizational agility) and celebrates initiative and the importance of making mistakes. McKnight once implored his managers: “Encourage experimental doodling. If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”
It was under McKnight that 3M’s famous “15 percent time” began. For many decades, 3M has urged its employees to devote 15 percent of their time on the job to doing something beyond their usual responsibilities—such as experimenting with new technology or collaborating with others outside their work areas on new ideas and projects. Some of 3M’s most famous products were the direct result of this policy, including Post-it™ Notes, Scotch Tape™, a wireless electronic stethoscope, and many more. Other companies have popularized this concept, most notably Google’s 20 percent time, which is credited with creating Gmail and Google Earth among other products.
Despite most attributing this concept to Google today, it was McKnight’s philosophy of “listen to anybody with an idea” which was the original basis for what became 3M’s 15 percent rule. As we contemplate a new future of work post pandemic, (a future without the benefit of precedent or deep planning), McKnight’s philosophy is an important one for companies to remember.