3M MD: If you want to stand out, create an environment for innovation

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Why allow employees the time and freedom to explore their own interests when you can’t be sure they will come up with anything useful? Well, if you want to stand out in your market, you need to create the right working environment for innovation.

At 3M we have what we call our 15% culture – that is 15% of employees’ time given over to projects that aren’t sponsored by the company. It is not formally measured – and not everyone takes advantage of it – but it is a clear permission to get under the skin of a customer’s problem or explore an idea.

For this to work well, you also need the right people. Honesty, integrity and the ability to collaborate form part of the make-up of all 3M employees, so we look for those qualities early in the recruitment process.

Once we have taken people on board, they soon start hearing the phrase, ‘don’t ask for permission; ask for forgiveness’. We have a matrix organisation and employees have UK and Ireland, European and US reporting lines, so waiting until you have all the boxes ticked before you do something is a great way to get nowhere fast.

As far back as 1948, 3M’s then CEO, William McKnight, established what are still known today as the McKnight Management Principles:

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they have to do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have people with initiative, if we are to continue to grow.”

Failure is a word we tend not to use as we think more in terms of ‘learning experiences’. This isn’t some fluffy tree-hugging philosophy where ‘nobody’s a failure’. It is recognition that if something doesn’t quite work out as you expected, you might have learnt nothing more than not to try it again. It is more likely though that you discover something that takes you down another path – and who knows where that might lead to?

With that mindset, you start looking at people who never ‘fail’ in a new light. Are they stretching themselves? And which behaviours do we want to encourage and reward?

Collaboration is also a key attribute in 3M employees. If a customer has a problem, is it really likely that individual will have all the expertise and skills to come up with a solution single-handed? It’s a long shot. Surrounding yourself with the people who have that knowledge is therefore a key step towards solving the issue.

In 3M employees you’ll find people who are incredibly generous with their time. Ask for help and you get help. That’s how it is.

Our approach creates a special culture – but does it make business sense? Well, 3M is now 113 years old, with global sales of $31 billion. And with an average length of service of 16 years in the UK, our employees seem to appreciate working here too.

Christiane Gruen is managing director at 3M United Kingdom. For Responsible Business Week 2015, 3M is hosting a conference in partnership with Business in the Community on 22 April. Further details can be found at www.innovation-sustainability.uk

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