Tag Archives: against the odds

Innovation: Courage to Create Success

Sometimes the first ingredient we need for innovation is courage; courage to go with our convictions, even in the face of opposition.

3M is a global company with a reputation for creativity and innovation, but anyone who has worked in almost any ‘creative and innovative organisation’ will tell you that reputation and actual practice are often poles apart.  Sure, they like to take the credit for their public successes but what they don’t publicise so freely is just how much perseverance, tenacity and sheer dogged single-mindedness the individual champions of the case have to be in order to make their individual success a company success.

I was reminded recently of the account of Richard Drew, an iconic figure within 3M culture and the person responsible for not one, but two truly innovative products that put 3M well and truly on the map, both as an organisation and later as an innovative company.

Drew joined 3M with a less than glowing background of being a college dropout who played banjo in dance bands at night whilst studying engineering through a correspondence course.  He had an entry level job as a lab technician.  One of Drew’s tasks was to take batches of 3M’s Wetodry sandpaper to a nearby St Paul automotive body shop.  At the time (1921) two tone colours were all the rage for cars, and on one of Drew’s visits a painter was cursing and swearing because he had just ruined a paint job.  There was at that time no way of ensuring a good line between the colours except through the use of glues and paper etc.

Drew saw the problem and decided to come up with a solution.

Now it would be great to say that he was supported by the company for his efforts, but he wasn’t.  3M was a sandpaper manufacturer not a tape manufacturer so Drew had to ‘go underground’ to do his work, experimenting with all sorts of oils and resins to produce a superior adhesive.  He was told to stop on at least one occasion and agreed until the attraction of his own little project became too great and he started again.  When he had come up with a good prototype, he needed to manufacture the finished article for which he needed a specific piece of machinery.  He was refused.  So he used his initiative and used a series of $99 sign-offs (he was allowed to authorise payments up to $100) which slipped ‘under the company radar’ to buy the machine.

In 1925, Richard Drew successfully produced the world’s first masking tape with a pressure sensitive adhesive backing … and the rest, as they say, is history.  Well it would be if Drew hadn’t come up a few years later with another invention of the first see through adhesive packaging tape, Scotch Tape, again after  persevering against the odds.

Of course today, the name of Richard Drew is synonymous with the innovative spirit of the company, but at the time he was making it big for the company through his determination and conviction to succeed, it was a battle; a battle which involved stepping around the rules, lying low, persevering against the odds.

Innovation is often a rough path which is only seen and appreciated by the end-results of products or processes, not during the actual process of arriving (except by those who are driving it).

So the next time we are looking for innovation in our business, we need to remember that it is often a long and winding road, and a road that will require a lot of sweat and toil along the way, not only with the project at hand but with all the devil’s advocates and ‘jobworths’ who tell us that it won’t work.  This is why we need to lok at adopting a creative and innovative culture which understands the processes, pitfalls and obstacles and which helps, not hinders the process which is the lifeblood of company survival and expansion.

 
My Zimbio

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Success in Failure; Humility in Leadership

Whilst hopping around the Internet recently I came across a great article on The London Business Forum website from an interview with Sir Richard Branson.  As I read it, I was struck by an individual who is totally passionate about what he does whilst also being ready to learn, change and improve. 

I remember Richard Branson being set-up for a fall on more than one occasion by our beloved British Press.  When he was trying something new or attempting a new record, the snipers of the true British spirit shot … and if he failed, the “I told you so” or “You read it first in the ***” kinds of headlines prevailed.  It was more important that he’d failed than what he’d attempted.  And yet, if we talk to any successful businessman, failure is always on their list and it’s seen as part of their road to success (and perhaps that is why so many of our current journalists will never be successful … but that’s another story!).

Anyway, please enjoy the following except from Sir Richard’s interview: 

‘Many of the audience wanted Branson to dispense some entrepreneurial advice, and he didn’t disappoint, mixing the common-sense with some fascinating and salutary anecdotes. “The importance of protecting the downside,” was a key lesson to learn, he said. This is why, when he cut a deal with Boeing to buy his first second-hand 747, it included an option to sell the plane back after one year. Boeing’s only concern, he said, was that Virgin “wouldn’t live up to its name but would actually go all the way.”

Similarly, he had a valuable tip on how to retain entrepreneurial dynamism while you’re growing: as soon as the number of staff hits 100, split the firm in two. In this way, he said, Virgin Records ended up being 20 different companies that “didn’t even share switchboards”. It’s a philosophy that Virgin still tries to observe in spite of its gigantic size. Of the group’s 200 branded companies, “none of them are massive in any particular field,” Branson said, and each has to stand on its own two feet”. The people who lead each business are managing directors, and are incentivised accordingly. “Virgin has created about 200 millionaires over the years,” he revealed.

The moment you go from one company to two companies, you’ve got to start learning the art of delegation, he added. “So what I try to do when we set up new businesses [is this]: I’ll go in, I’ll immerse myself for a month or two, I’ll learn all about that industry, so that if a managing director does come to me and wants to talk to me about mobile phones or trains, I’ll know something.”

True delegation means giving people the freedom to make mistakes, he said. “[My parents] would always look for the best in what [I] did. They were great believers in lots and lots of praise… And I think if you’re the leader of a company, this is even more important. You shouldn’t be looking for people slipping up, you should be looking for all the good things people do and praising those. People know when they’ve slipped up, they don’t need to be told.”

Another defining characteristic of Branson’s personal management style was his willingness to be humble, and to listen to criticism, where staff and customers are concerned. “I do try to make an effort,” he said. “If I’m on a Virgin plane, I’ll try to meet all the passengers. I’ll have a little notebook in my back pocket. I’ll meet all the staff.” He stressed the importance of tiny details, saying that only by getting these right will you end up with “an exceptional company rather than an average company.”

Ultimately, business is not about “balance sheets, money, profits and loss,” he argued. It is about “creating something you’re really proud of, something the people who work for you can be really proud of… the actual business aspect is simply there to be mopped up at the end.”

The fact that he never got a tight grasp of financial matters was probably a benefit, he suggested, in that it persuaded him never to bring in accountants too early in the development of a venture. “You’ll get one firm of accountants that will tell you, based on their own preconceptions, why starting an airline is a ghastly idea and every other airline fails and you’re going to lose a lot of money. You’ll get another set of accountants who’ll tell you why they think you’re going to make money. But they have no idea one way or the other.”

Far more important is to create something that you, yourself, really want and value, he concluded. “If it’s exceptionally good then people will always turn up and use it.”

Perhaps it’s time to regain and re-embrace some of the old ‘British Spirit’ without being ashamed (and without extreme nationalism).  And it’s time to put to death the insipid political correctness that will undoubtedly ruin so many ventures.  We are not all the same.  Celebrate the fact and be prepared to try to succeed, even if we must embrace failure. 

Above all, be prepared to be humble; to learn, to change, to improve … and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers on our own, but they are often in our colleagues, friends and family if we are prepared to look.

Until next time …
My Zimbio

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