Growth and innovation at 3M

After an academic visit to the 3M Innovation Center, Professor Carlos Arturo Hoyos talks about his experience

After his academic visit, together with a group of students, to the 3M Innovation Center in the United States, Professor Carlos Arturo Hoyos Vallejo, Ph.D., DBA, and researcher of the Externado Prospective and Strategy Center, conveys the lessons learned.

Last December, I had the opportunity to visit the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, with a group of Externado Business Administration students.

We were greeted by Beth Edgar, Director of the Latin America division, who gave us a brief history of the multinational company, established in 1902, in St. Paul, near the city of Minneapolis.

Among other interesting information, the Director stated that in 2016, the company’s global sales amounted to USD 30 billion, with a net income of $ 4.8 billion. However, the most interesting part was the opportunity to learn about the philosophy of 3M founder, William McKnight, and his basic management rule, dating back to 1948, which is as follows:

“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 in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they just do their jobs”.

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


These ideas, the strength of 3M, are not only clear but intensely alive within the company’s culture. “At 3M, as employees, we are encouraged to spend 15% of our time doing different things, to think of new ways of doing this or that; our company is always very interested when we present new proposals.  Our basis is ethics, and we develop behaviors to work with a winning mentality.  An example is the “post-it” notes, which was the result of an error; the inventor was searching for a permanent adhesive, and ended up inventing a removable adhesive which, over time, became the most famous 3M product.”

(Edgar, 2016).

Another great principle of our organization:

“Winning with our customers by helping them deliver on their promises.” (Customer first). What does the customer really need? We are united by one goal: to improve every life.”

The achievement of this principle, seeking that employees give their best to customers, is based on the last part, “as employees, we are united by one goal: to improve every life,” and starts within the organization. In that sense, “there is a permanent interest in the development of company employees, and these principles are the same all over the world. For us, it is clear that people make the difference, because the difference is not in products but in people, who make a company successful. Even though the developments made here are large, we still try, because we know the company has always believed in us and continues to prove it, so we know we must get to the end. We analyze the market, and we know problems encountered can be resolved by the power of a team.”(Edgar, 2016).

Absolutely clear and convincing: a few words to the wise.

The principles and values guiding the 3M organizational culture and employee conduct made me remember Winston Churchill who, during World War II, was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and together with allied countries, defeated Nazi Germany. Churchill, before taking office, replacing Chamberlain, requested only three things from the Queen;  the key to true empowerment – designation of duties, delegation of authority, and accountability; if any are missing, there cannot be empowerment. That is the first step; the others we can see and practice if we once again review the basic rules William McKnight engraved on the skin of 3M and its people, a global organization currently with over 50,000 active products in the market.

Mr. McKnight has given us the key to innovation. It is up to us to fully apply it; the path begins by building “Trust,” and always trust, again and again, and despite everything, keep trusting. It is necessarily a life principle we need to adopt if we want to grow continuously, as it does not grow by itself, despite each other, or against each other, but that grows “With” others – accepting differences, welcoming complementarity, accepting mistakes as learning experiences, listening to people, taking a true interest in their development, generously offering resources and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to those who “make things happen.”

As we can see, innovation and growth goes beyond what is learned on innovation in business schools, and beyond investment in technologies.  Always, the key is people.  Are you willing to help in their development?  If the answer is yes, be prepared, as they will offer their best, as long as you are consistent.

Beth, Edgar (2016). Introduction to 3M Company at the 3M Innovation Center, St. Paul, MN.