Edited by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, John Kao & Fred Wiersma 1997, 192 pages, $24.00, ISBN-0-88730-771-X.
Many entrepreneurs and independent inventors will tell you they left a large corporation to escape the idea-killing environment. Yet there are some large firms that have found the keys to successful innovation. Many small entrepreneurs and inventors could do well by duplicating some of these keys.
Bringing just one product from conception to market is a challenging feat. Yet 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.) has 50,000 products on the market worldwide and Rubbermaid (often ranked as one of the USA's ten "most admired companies") has over 5,000.
What are some of the successful methods for encouraging innovation? 3M has a rule that allows technical employees to use up to 15% of their time to pursue their own ideas without any monitoring by their supervisors. 3M also has a goal called 30/4. This means "30% of all sales come from products that have been around no longer than 4 years".
But it is not all formulas and goals. Dr. Miller of Dupont points out the importance of intuition and allowing "technical people freedom to break away from the plan and follow their noses". A GE vp points out that despite all that their massive laboratories are capable of, their number-one priority must always be the customers' needs.
In some fields, such as the pharmaceutical field, it would seem the small entrepreneur is locked out. It now takes many years and up to 500 million dollars to get FDA drug approval (up from 50 million dollars just 20 years ago)! Like others, the Pfizer experience is that "the most productive scientists are the self-starters".
It is interesting to note that despite enormous research efforts, serendipity still plays a role. For example, Pfizer had developed a new heart medication that did not live up to expectations. But, by chance, it was discovered to have an amazing side effect -- it works to overcome impotency. In the United States alone, impotence afflicts 20 million men!
Even though large firms have access to large marketing consulting firms, it is often just open minds and simple observations that make the difference. Just about everyone "knows" men buy toolboxes, right? Yet Rubbermaid found that half of the purchases of their toolboxes were made by women. Also, many of us would probably select yellow, gray or black as suitable colors for toolboxes. Yet Rubbermaid found their Hardware-Blue boxes outsold these other colors -- and this included the sales to women.
Plain old-fashioned observing of customers led Rubbermaid to develop a kidney-shaped laundry basket, their Hip Hugger. People seem to naturally want to balance a laundry basket on one hip while carrying laundry supplies with the other arm. Awkward -- but nobody apparently had given thought to this simple problem. They applied the same principle to their home healthcare products. For example, users of walkers often were seen cushioning handles by wrapping towels around them. Rubbermaid came up with spongy hand grips. They also added food tray anchor hooks and front pockets for cordless phones to the walkers.
Rubbermaid looks for people "who have the confidence to take business risks. Stagnation and fear are our worst enemies."
One of the book's editors (Kantor) found that a clever way of researching a company with regard to innovation is to read several years of their newsletters. Who gets their names into the newsletters -- those who just do their time or those who come up with good ideas? Recognition is a must.
The book is an easy read. There are no graphs, no arcane terminology, no pretentious theories regarding creativity. Reading this book can benefit individuals as well a members of the largest firms in the nation.