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One of the drawbacks of an otherwise fulfilling career with a business and financial news organisation is the paucity of stories one has with which to impress schoolchildren. On the Financial Times, we do not often get to interview Beyoncé, Justin Bieber or Zac Efron.
When I speak at schools, I know that students will not be much taken with the chief executives and finance directors I could mention. I usually tell them that I have interviewed Sir Richard Branson, which elicits mild interest, and Lord Alan Sugar, once a computer entrepreneur but now known for The Apprentice television series.
In future talks I should mention Arthur Fry, though. Students may not have heard of him, but they will know what he invented. I interviewed Fry nearly three decades ago at the St Paul, Minnesota, headquarters of 3M, one of the world’s most innovative companies. Fry had been puzzling about what 3M could do with a weak adhesive a colleague had devised. Few could see the point of a glue that, while it kept its stickiness, did not really stick. Singing in his church choir, frustrated at how the paper bookmarks in his hymn book kept fluttering to the floor, Fry suddenly saw what he could do with that weak adhesive – and the Post-it note was born.
Fry, I observed, could make a fortune talking about the Post-it. He seemed unimpressed. He had a yellow car with a personalised Post-it number plate, and that appeared to be it.
His attitude was typical of 3M. The company, which makes everything from dental implants to carpark software, is quiet and understated. Many who use its products have probably never heard of 3M. But it is inventive.
How does 3M do it? As Vijay Govindarajan of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and Srikanth Srinivas of healthcare consultancy Medecision explained in a Harvard Business Review blog post last year, 3M employees are allowed to spend 15 per cent of their time researching their own projects.
Every company, every country has its own culture. In Israel, the country with the second highest level of innovation after the US – as measured by the value of its start-ups – state institutions play a central role. Many tech entrepreneurs develop skills and pick up contacts in Israeli army intelligence’s Unit 8200. The state also plays a role in lending money to promising, but risky, new ventures.
Other countries have had less success. Many of the UK government’s attempts in the pre-Thatcher years to support technology winners were disasters, a notable exception being Rolls-Royce, the aircraft engine maker.
There is no one remedy that every company or country can apply. But there are two general principles. The HBR post on 3M said the company spent time identifying customers’ “pain points”. These are problems the customers have – things that could be done better. But customers do not always know what they need. It was only when 3M sent out packs of Post-it notes that customers realised they wanted them. The second key point is allowing staff, particularly those that deal directly with customers, to develop their products.
Many modern companies distance themselves from their customers, through outsourced call centres and websites with no contact telephone numbers other than those call centres. And many companies appear reluctant to allow employees to think and act for themselves.
Overcoming both those obstacles is today’s business and creativity challenge.
Michael Skapinker is the editor of FT Special Reports